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Against All Odds

Shlomi Gil

Moshe Arazi, 27, has Behcet’s syndrome — for him that means vasculitis, pericarditis, colitis, spinal fractures, a torn stomach, and impaired vision. He’s also adopted his wife’s six abandoned siblings. While doctors have given up, Rav Chaim sends him people for brachos… because a smiling Moshe knows Hashem will pull everyone through.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Why were entertainers Arele Samet, Meir Adler, and the Mesamchim singers assembled for a special farewell zitz in a hospital room at Bnei Brak’s Mayanei Hayeshuah Medical Center? To answer that is to know the harrowing yet heroic ordeal of Moshe Arazi, who was flying to the US the next day for what he still hopes will be a lifesaving treatment. He’s not a VIP in the classic sense, but as a humble, brave young man plagued with multiple life-threatening illnesses who’s continually managed to defy a death prognosis, he’s become somewhat of a national inspiration.
That night the singers were energized like never before. Understanding the medical complications, yet looking at the patient with the clear eyes of emunah and bright smile of hope, they knew this was an encounter they’d never forget: Before them was a man who embodied an uncompromising war against poverty, family dysfunction, abuse, and a vast array of illnesses — along with rock-solid faith and an unparalleled degree of willpower.
The following morning, I too came to bid him farewell. That night, he would be departing on a flight for New York, where specialists at Cornell Medical Center would save his life. (He is now at Mount Sinai, where experts in his rare set of complex health issues are trying to improve his complicated situation.)
“A Jew must do his hishtadlus, he must move heaven and earth to gain even a single moment of life,” Moshe said before the flight. “My tefillah, which I repeat hundreds of times each day, is that I will be able to return to Eretz Yisrael on my own two feet.”
Moshe’s lips were dry and his face exceedingly pale. Every few minutes, he shifted uncomfortably in his bed. He was suffering from searing pain, but I would soon learn that pain had long ceased being a consideration. Moshe Arazi has learned how to suffer, and more than that, he has learned how to suffer in silence. Only once during our interview did he ask to stop for a moment. “I just need to breathe a little,” he said quietly.
“I don’t know if many people would be capable of dealing with the pain I experience every day. But whenever anyone asks me, I explain that as long as a person’s soul is healthy, the body will aim for the same thing. That’s my trick for staying alive. I lift my neshamah upward, and my body has to rise as well, in order to get closer to the level of the neshamah. That’s my secret weapon to go on living.”

Raised in a Nightmare In Moshe Arazi’s short 27 years, he’s had to deal with life on terms many of us can’t even fathom. He was born in Kiryat Bialik outside of Haifa into a childhood he describes as unbearable. “I grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive home,” he says, “but when I was eight years old, I gathered the courage to get the authorities involved. I remember sitting with a policeman and an investigator, and as I recounted to them what was going on at home, they were in total shock. In retrospect, I would say that in those moments, I saved myself and my siblings, but I also lost my childhood.”
After getting the authorities involved, the young Arazi was sent to live in a dormitory. “I studied in over 20 different boarding schools around the country,” he relates. “Meanwhile, my parents moved to Migdal HaEmek, and at a certain point, my father was no longer in the picture, although I remained connected to my mother.”
Following his nightmarish childhood, Arazi’s life could have taken either direction, but he tapped his inner strength. “I decided that I would do everything possible to succeed at whatever I committed to undertake,” he relates.
The desire for survival prevented Arazi from befriending the violent, dangerous fringe
elements around him, and instead, within the various boarding schools he attended, he applied himself to his studies and gained a name as a gifted young man with a promising future.
Upon completing his studies at the Mosenson Youth Village in Hod Hasharon, Arazi was accepted into an elite army unit. “Most of my military service was and still is classified,” he says. “I was part of the most distinguished unit in the IDF, and most of the missions that I carried out were secret operations.”
Toward the end of his army service, Arazi was severely wounded. But no sooner had he recovered from his injuries than he contracted a disease that he would be forced to contend with for the rest of his life. Behcet’s syndrome is a rare chronic condition that damages the blood vessels of the body, is manifested by skin sores, ulcers, pain and stiffness in the muscles, and in extreme cases has the potential to shut down the vascular system altogether. “In the army, they told me it was a disease that a person can handle easily,” he remembers, smiling cynically at the recollection. “They told me that there would be a few mouth ulcers, and in rare cases, the disease might affect the nervous system. In even rarer cases, it could harm the stomach or heart, but that essentially there was nothing major to worry about.”
Arazi completed his military service and dealt with his condition on his own. It didn’t disturb him very much, and he was able to maintain his routine. He went to Eilat, where he worked as a scuba diving instructor and a waiter in a caf?. After spending a short time there, he was sent north to manage a number of the branches of the caf? chain. At the same time, he became interested in Judaism and began to wear a kippah.
“Jewish tradition was always an inseparable part of me,” he relates. “My parents used to celebrate the holidays, but that was it. But after the army, I became more connected to the Jew within me. Hashem always knew how to steer me onto the proper path. If I ever did something wrong, Hashem would show me the correct path. A person can’t choose when he will be born or when he will die, but at every moment in between the two, he can determine the course his life will take. Choosing between good and evil is entirely up to you. I opted to choose good, and Hashem helped me.”

Instant Family Four years ago, when Moshe Arazi first met his soon-to-be wife, she revealed that she suffered from kidney failure and had regular dialysis treatments. “That revelation didn’t bother me,” he recalls. “My life also hadn’t been a picnic, and the fact that she was dealing heroically with the difficulties of her own life impressed me.”
Leanne Hila Arazi herself can tell plenty of hair-raising stories about her own life and about the hardships she’s faced over her 23 years. Like her husband, she grew up in a broken home — in Dimona — where she and her siblings suffered from mistreatment and neglect. “When I was eight years old, my kidneys failed for the first time,” she relates. “But my father just ignored it. It was only when I was 14, after some social workers got involved, that I began going for dialysis.”
A short time after the treatments began, Leanne Hila received a kidney from a deceased child donor. “My life looked a little better at that time,” she relates. But two years later, when she was 16, the neglect at home and the lack of medication she needed caused her to lose the kidney that had been gifted to her. “A month before that my mother died,” she says. “And my father basically abandoned my six siblings and me. When I met Moshe three years ago, I was back on dialysis, and somehow trying to hold my family together.”
Moshe Arazi turned out to be a savior for Leanne Hila and her siblings. “The first time I came to their home in Dimona, I was horrified,” he relates. “I knew what it was to live in poverty, but I had never seen anything like that.” Arazi soon learned that two of his future wife’s sisters also suffered from kidney problems, and yet another sister had cancer.
Most people would opt to run away from such a situation, but Arazi, with his iron will smelted through his own tragic upbringing, refused to leave the unfortunate family to its fate. Instead, the horrific circumstances spurred him to action. “I rented an apartment in Migdal HaEmek, and I brought all of Leanne Hila’s family to live with us,” he relates. “At the same time, we began the process of assuming legal guardianship of the children.”
On the Arazis’ wedding day, they took in Leanne Hila’s six siblings, who became the de facto children of the newly married couple. “I never thought twice about it,” Arazi, who was 24 at the time, relates. “I knew it would be very hard to support everyone, but I trusted in Hashem. I knew that I couldn’t leave those children where they were.”
The first thing on the agenda of this newly created family of eight was to contend with all the difficult medical issues. For the first time in their lives, the other girls received standard medical treatment and Arazi got to work providing beds, hot meals, and schoolbooks for the children, the youngest of whom was ten. “My own family members weren’t happy with the decision I’d made,” Moshe says, “but at that point all I cared about was helping my wife’s siblings. And when I make a decision, nothing stands in my way.”
Meanwhile, another kidney became available for Leanne Hila, but there was one hitch. The donor was a Dutch woman whose father had been a Nazi officer. When Leanne Hila learned about the background, she initially refused the lifesaving organ — until Rav Chaim Kanievsky intervened and ordered her to undergo the second transplant.

Suddenly Paralyzed Moshe Arazi’s own illness had yet to resurface, but he already understood that the life he had chosen wouldn’t be easy. “We lived from hand to mouth,” he relates. “We used my wife’s disability payments to support a family of eight, figuring out how to cut corners and make the most of the little we had. True, not every day was easy, but I never considered turning back the clock.”
Preoccupied with caring for his new family and his healing wife, Arazi didn’t notice that his own body was steadily weakening. “Two and a half years ago, on Lag B’omer, we received the final approval to assume the guardianship of the children,” he relates. “We were overjoyed. Our biggest fear was the moment their father would realize he’d be losing the welfare stipends he was still collecting for the children he abandoned. We knew he’d put up a frantic legal battle. But in Hashem’s great kindness, we were able to prove to the authorities the terrible injustice that had been done to those children.” Finally vindicated, Arazi took his family to a field and lit a Lag B’omer bonfire. “We danced and sang, grateful for Hashem’s chesed and new beginnings.”
But those weren’t the beginnings he’d counted on. Just four hours later, Moshe Arazi suddenly woke up. He tried to move his arms, but they wouldn’t budge. Then he tried to get up and discovered that his legs wouldn’t cooperate. “I was in shock. I hadn’t even known that my illness was on its way back. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, I discovered that I was completely paralyzed.”
Arazi was rushed to the hospital, but the doctors had difficulty diagnosing his condition. “At first, they thought it was cancer,” he relates, “but there were so many different issues that they realized it was something much more complicated — and rare.” After half a year of medical tests, Arazi was sent to a specialist in Behcet’s syndrome at Hadassah Ein Kerem. And that’s when he learned of the extent of his issues.
“I won’t go into all the complex details,” Arazi says, “but the basic picture is that I am suffering from an extreme case of Behcet’s that has affected my central nervous system, as well as from vasculitis, an infection of the blood vessels; arthritis, chronic joint infections that affect every part of the body; and pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. I also have a condition that causes lesions in the stomach and large intestine, as well as colitis, a disease of the large intestine. In addition to all of those conditions, I also have severe osteoporosis, a condition that causes my bones to become easily damaged and break. As a result, I currently have 16 spinal fractures, and every time I move, there is a danger that I might break another bone. I also have impaired vision — a classic symptom of Behcet’s — and to top it all off, I was just diagnosed with diabetes.”
Is it possible that one human being can suffer from so many grueling chronic conditions simultaneously? The doctors who treated Arazi at Haifa’s Bnai Zion Medical Center and at Tel Hashomer reported that Moshe’s state of Behcet’s is the worst case ever documented in medical literature.

Weeks to Live Characteristically, Moshe Arazi refused to give up. “The doctors on my case said there was nothing they could do for me, but I knew I still had a fighting chance and authorized some experimental treatments.” In order to deal with the terrible pain, Moshe was put on 100 milligrams of steroids and 100 milligrams of morphine and painkillers every day. As a result, he blew up an extra 130 pounds in just two weeks. “Every operation was like another death sentence for me. As soon as an incision was made, they couldn’t close it because of the rapid swelling.”
During one of the dozens of treatments, Arazi was told by a gastroenterologist that he had maximum two weeks to live. Any organ transplant was out of the question because his body was too sick and too weak. “I wasn’t ready to die yet, so I asked my wife what we could do. She said to me, ‘Moshe, in one month you have an appointment for a treatment, and in a month and a half you have another appointment. You have to show up to those treatments. They’re your only chance, and you’ll be there.’ ”
Indeed, Arazi was there, although the doctors still couldn’t figure out why he was still alive. A few months ago, Moshe underwent a gastroscopy — an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy — which was supposed to make at least a slight improvement to his failing health. “The test analyzes the digestive tract and can also remove growths in the digestive system. The doctors wanted to examine the ulcers that had developed in my stomach.”
But it later became clear that the test itself had caused massive damage. “I have to emphasize that this test can be a lifesaving measure; G-d forbid that readers think it’s not recommended. In my case, though, my body was too fragile, and during the course of the test, the instrument itself created a gaping hole in my stomach. Of course, I didn’t know about that, and when the doctors finished the test, they didn’t tell me anything about it. All they said was that there were ulcers, but they didn’t mention anything else unusual.”
Three weeks later, Arazi — wheelchair-bound, but home for a reprieve — found himself racked by severe stomach pains. He was rushed back to Tel Hashomer, where the doctors asked Mrs. Arazi if they could give Moshe a massive amount of morphine, so that he would no longer suffer. “At first, I didn’t understand what they were saying,” says Leanne Hila. “Finally I understood that they wanted to know if I wanted them to give enough morphine to end his life.”
Moshe says he’s reached the ceiling of morphine use, but that “at a certain stage, it no longer had much of an effect on me. As we’re speaking now, morphine is being pumped into my veins, but although it no longer does very much, it at least takes the edge off the pain.”
When the doctors at Tel Hashomer looked at the images of Moshe’s gastroscopy, they were shocked. “One doctor came over and asked me when the gastroscopy had been performed,” Moshe says. “I told him three weeks ago. He said to me, ‘My friend, you have a hole in your stomach. A person with a hole in his stomach can’t live for more than four hours.’
“I said, ‘I’ve been alive for the past three weeks.’ I understood that Hashem was protecting me. There was no other explanation for the fact that I was still alive.”
Arazi was put on a long-term fasting regimen, receiving nutrients via an IV, to try to give the hole in his stomach a chance to heal. The staff made several surgical attempts to fix the tear, but because of the massive steroid dosages and the bloating, they couldn’t close up the hole. The pain from the complex surgeries was excruciating.
“After the operation, they tied me down to the bed, afraid that if I moved even a little from the pain, I would damage other organs,” Moshe says. But even being strapped to the bed didn’t help. Hours after the operation, a routine exam revealed that the main artery of Arazi’s spleen had burst. “I was rushed into the operating room again, yet the doctors weren’t able to repair the artery. An elderly doctor who was there saved my life. He told the other surgeons to move, and he took a piece of cotton and placed it in the artery, stopping the bleeding.”
When I met Moshe, he was still fasting — day 60. He hadn’t left his bed, chewed, or drunk a thing in those two months.

A Different Prison Throughout the two years that Moshe Arazi has been shuffled from hospital to hospital and from one specialist to another, he has also found time to tell his story in order to offer encouragement and inspiration to others. “I met Israeli kiruv personality Rav Aryeh Schachter, and together we began delivering lectures in both hospitals and prisons.”
Before this last round of severe illness, Moshe Arazi had visited 16 different prisons in Israel — sitting in his wheelchair and, together with Rav Schachter, offering strength and hope to people who can’t see beyond the confining prison walls. In recent months, his room in Mayanei Hayeshuah has turned into a sort of pilgrimage site. There is at least one prominent chareidi businessman who won’t make a move without getting Arazi’s blessing. “People come to ask for brachos or to seek my advice on a variety of subjects,” Moshe admits. “They tell me Rav Chaim Kanievsky sent them to me. But I want you to know, none of this has anything to do with wisdom I either have or don’t have. I’m just the conduit. I always tell everyone that if they deserve a brachah, Hashem will fulfill it. I can be the shaliach to give someone a brachah, but the true blessing comes from Him.”
Moshe can’t move most of his body, but his eyes sparkle when he speaks about the strength that sustains him. “They asked me how I can see the light within all that darkness,” he says. “I told them I don’t understand the question. It’s hard for me to see any darkness within the great light that fills my life. I’m surrounded by good people who are taking care of me, and endless quantities of love are being poured out here. People come here to give chizuk and to receive it. What else could a Jew ask for?”
Still, doctors say his illness is terminal. Isn’t that a reason for sadness? “I don’t give myself too much time to think about it. I think ten steps ahead, and that’s it. I see a goal, and when I get to it, I immediately identify my next objective. This World is a very narrow bridge. It is a bridge made of emunah and tefillah, and as long as you pray and believe, you have a bridge to walk on. Sometimes, you begin to fall off the bridge, but Hashem wants you to pray to Him and to believe in Him, so He makes you feel as if you are about to fall. But then you daven, and it’s amazing — you see that you’re still on the bridge. I’ve been walking along this bridge all my life, and I know that whatever happens, Hashem is waiting for me at the other end.”

No Fear With the team of doctors in Israel unable to move forward with treatment, Moshe’s last chance was to fly to the US, where experts at Cornell would manage to patch up his stomach and save his life. Hours before the fateful trip, I asked Moshe the niggling question: The trip is a risk, the procedure is a risk, and doctors have basically given him zero chance for survival. Isn’t he afraid he might never come back?
“I’ll give you two answers: I’m not afraid of death, and I want very much to live. There is a difference between those two statements,” Moshe explains. “I want to live because I love the home I’ve built, the children I’ve adopted, and my people. But death doesn’t frighten me. I have contended with the worst scenarios the world has to offer. If the first treatment succeeds, I hope to be admitted to a healing program for victims of Behcet’s syndrome. But I’m sure I’ll be back — either on my sickbed, prone but alive, or walking on my two feet. Either way, I will still give thanks to Hashem for His kindness.” —

Following the lifesaving treatment at Cornell, Moshe Refael ben Orah has now been transferred to Mount Sinai’s special department for Behcet’s, where, accompanied by his wife, he hopes to undergo the complex treatment that will bring the issues of paralysis, bone fractures, vascular inflammation, and other chronic symptoms under control.

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