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Ambassador of Joy

Yonoson Rosenblum, Los Angeles

One Rosh Hashanah, Efryim Shore woke up a quadriplegic. Of course, there was the question of “why,” but he decided it was a new wakeup call to do good

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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Efryim can literally not cross anyone’s path without interacting. The conversation always begins the same way: “Are you having a good day or a great one?” Whatever the response, people receive a Keep Smiling card, and almost invariably they smile. At that point, Efryim asks them to commit to giving one to someone else and hands them another card, telling them, “Now that you have given you can receive” (Photos: Yossi Percia)

Shortly before a recent shabbaton in Los Angeles, Rabbi Eli Stern of the Link Kollel in Los Angeles sent me a note: “There’s a very special person who is connected to us named Efryim (Barry) Shore who would like to pick you and your wife up at the airport and take you back. He is a baal yesurim (he has a driver to take him around) who is full of simchah.”

Though I was delighted not to have to worry about how we would get from LAX to our initial hosts in the La Brea area, I had no idea that the offer would turn out to be life-changing for my wife and me.

A few days later, Mr. Shore sent me a video of his speech at last year’s Torah Umesorah Convention for Principals. My wife and I watched transfixed, and I sent it to all our children.

The video begins with Efryim walking slowly to the stage with the help of an assistant and holding an enormous bamboo walking stick, fashioned by a Zen master and which he nicknamed Matteh Efryim. Once he is finally settled, he spreads his arms wide and, in a booming voice, greets the audience: “Good evening, beautiful, bountiful beings, and good-looking Jews.” He explains the good-looking part: “As Jews, we are always looking for the good.”

The story he has to tell, however, hardly seems like a cause for such enthusiasm. In August 2004, Efryim was at the top of the world — happily married for 27 years and a multimillionaire from the sale of two internet businesses. That month, he spent more than a week in Israel rappelling, sliding down zip lines, and otherwise bonding with his 17-year-old son Ezra.

Now imagine this: On the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5765, just over a month later, he lay down for a brief nap. When he awoke, he could not move a single limb. The only thing he could move was his head slightly from side to side. He was a quadriplegic.

“Self-talk is the most powerful, therapeutic talk there is. If you cannot be alone, who are you?”

As the doctors would discover through two spinal taps, Efryim had been struck by Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. In most cases, Guillain-Barre leaves the victim paralyzed in some part of his body for a brief time, and then passes.

Not so in Efryim’s case. He would remain in the Intensive Care Unit for 11 days, and for another four-and-a-half months as the sole patient in the hospital’s telemetry unit, where he was under constant observation. Subsequently, he was largely confined to a hospital bed for two years, and did not leave his wheelchair for three. He was forced to wear full-leg metal braces up to his hips for a year and a half before he could stand without them.

One incident fully captures his initial helplessness. A few days into his ordeal, a nurse asked him if he’d like to watch a movie, and he opted for one on Abraham Lincoln. The movie’s end — the assassination of Lincoln — brought him to tears, which he was unable to blink away. Unable to move his arms, he had no way of relieving the burning in his eyes. Worse, the nurse call button by his head had moved from its place. The only thing he could do was call out weakly, “Help,” in a soft, raspy voice, little above a whisper, waiting between each call to regain enough strength for the next one. 

Eventually, a passing nurse heard his cries, and came in to clean his eyes. “Is that all?” she asked. That brief exchange taught him that “no one knows the pain of another.” 

On Yom Kippur of that year, Efryim was still in the ICU. But he had neither lost his sense of humor nor, more importantly, his emunah in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. On Erev Yom Kippur, three white-coated physicians stood at the foot of his hospital bed in consultation: Dr. Karz, the supervising physician; Dr. Goldfein, his neurologist; and Dr. McCarthy, his pulmonary specialist.
Dr. Karz was the first to excuse himself to prepare for Yom Kippur, followed by Dr. Goldfein. Dr. McCarthy delivered the good news that he would not need to be intubated. And then he too excused himself to prepare for Yom Kippur. In response to Efryim’s quizzical look, he said, “Just because my name is McCarthy doesn’t mean I’m not Jewish.”

 

Never a Bad Day

As he was being rolled through the hallways of the hospital on a gurney during that initial hospital stay, the orderly pushing him leaned over and asked, “Mr. Shore, can I ask you a question?” Told that he could, the orderly asked, “I see a lot of people in your situation. How come you’re not bitter or angry?”

Until then, it had never occurred to Efryim to be either. Though like the others, he did ask “Why me?” his question was not a protest against the unfairness of what was happening to him, but rather a deeper one: “Why me? I’m just a guy. What am I supposed to learn from this? What do You want me to do?”

His plea became: “Please heal me and show me my purpose.” Formulating his neediness that way, he says, “caused a calm and serenity to come over me that I had never felt before.”

A host of factors contributed to Efryim’s lack of bitterness. The one he usually mentions first is the love and determination of his wife, Naomi, who, in his words, launched “a joy, peace, love, and happiness offensive” to return him to health. (Those four terms have become the watchwords of Efryim’s Keep Smiling movement.) A patient confined to a hospital bed must be moved regularly to prevent dangerous bed sores from developing. In the hospital, that task was performed by two burly orderlies every three hours. Though the Shores could have afforded around-the-clock help when Efryim got home, Naomi did not want strangers in her home past 10 p.m. That meant that she — a tad over five feet and weighing all of 108 pounds — had to turn over her much taller and heavier husband alone twice a night, for two years.

“I’ve never had a bad day in my life,” Efryim tells me in one of our many lengthy phone conversations since I returned from Los Angeles. That upbeat, optimistic spirit he inherited from his maternal line. He describes a conversation with his mother’s sister, Aunt Edie, when he was seven, as one of the seminal events in his life. Staring out the window on a cold, rainy Boston winter morning, a young Barry grumbled, “What a horrible day!” His aunt overheard him and immediately ran over. “Beirshie, what are you talking about? Rain and snow are good for the world. They help plants to grow and fill the river basins so we have water to drink. We can’t live without rain.”

From Aunt Edie, he learned a lesson that would be much-needed: One has a choice whether to frame a situation positively or negatively. Whenever he is tempted to grumble, he tells himself, “I’m alive, I can walk, I can smile.”

Efryim considers his mother the single biggest influence on him. Though she was born with a large red birthmark that covered three-quarters of her face, it was invisible to him: “All I saw was my mother. She was one of the most positive and powerful people anyone could meet.” She ran the courtesy booth at Stan’s Market, located just across the street from the Bostoner Rebbe’s shtibel in Brookline, Massachusetts for which job her effervescent nature made her a natural. Stan once called in the local newspaper to photo an award ceremony for Mrs. Shore for having made his supermarket such a success.

But perhaps the biggest key to Efryim’s ability to deal with the Guillain-Barre is that it was not his first “near-life” experience, not the first time “the Eibeshter called out.”

He lived in Europe for three years in the late ’60s and early ’70s. While there, he discovered that one could buy second-hand Belgian rugs for a pittance in the flea markets in Amsterdam. Back in Boston, he hired a couple of highly talented seamstresses to make funky clothes and accessories out of the rugs. The business turned into a successful boutique.

Late one Saturday night in June 1972, as he was driving down to New York City for a fashion show, the driver of a large Buick headed in the opposite direction fell asleep at the wheel. The Buick flipped over the median strip and landed on top of Efryim’s Volkswagen Beetle. When his parents were called that night, they were told to hurry, as it was no sure thing that he would survive.

Fortunately, Efryim escaped with only a broken femur that required the insertion of ten inches of titanium and ten screws, and two subsequent surgeries. It took three days to pick all the broken glass from his face. 

 

A Veil Lifted

Confined to home, he sold his boutique. And as he began to mend, he discovered that he lived in a dynamic Jewish neighborhood. Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik lived one block over from his parents’ home, and the Bostoner Rebbe’s headquarters were at the end of the street.

As a child, Efryim was one of the very few who “loved Hebrew school.” He confides that he even wanted to be a rabbi because rabbis get to speak a lot and have book-lined studies. Now, as he recuperated, it was like “a veil lifted” on the Judaism all around. The Krinsky brothers, local shochtim, had a basement minyan in their rambling home in nearby Brighton. (Another Krinsky brother, Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, has been the senior Chabad executive worldwide for decades.)

At the Krinsky’s minyan one Erev Shabbos, Efryim came across five men learning hilchos Shabbos in the Mishnah Berurah with a rapt attention he had never encountered at university. They revealed to him the power of learning in a chaburah. On Tishah B’Av, he heard Rav Soloveitchik speak to a large crowd at the Maimonides School, and the pain of the churban became palpable. When the pre-Rosh Hashanah Selichos began, Efryim observed Rav Soloveitchik eagerly going down the stairs at the shtibel of his son-in-law the Tolner Rebbe, known to the wider world as Professor Isadore Twersky of Harvard, and thought to himself, “If he is going so eagerly, I can too.”

The entire Jewish world seemed to be awakening. The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was gaining attention. The chaburah movement, centered in Boston, which gave rise to The First Jewish Catalog, led many young Jews to reexamine their Jewish heritage. ArtScroll had not yet created a wealth of Torah literature in English, but Mrs. Esther Feuerstein from one of the premier philanthropic families of American Orthodoxy provided him with a two-volume Tales of the Chassidim, which he devoured as he recovered.

In the summer of 1973, Efryim also began his first serious Torah learning. He and Yechezkel (Chuck) Raffel z”l, a very bright baal teshuvah graduate of Wesleyan University — who would go on to become a greatly beloved professor of Jewish Studies at Stern College — learned together several hours a day six days a week, and reviewed on Shabbos. Together they completed Seder Zeraim and the entire Biblical narrative of Yosef, with all the mefarshim. The watchword of their chavrusa was a line from Alexander Pope: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing/drink deep or taste not the Pieran spring….”

From Raffel, who was the best man at his wedding, Efryim learned the importance of constant chazarah. That has stayed with him. Years ago, he began making two siyumim annually on tractate Megillah for his parents yahrtzeits. Subsequently, he set himself the goal of reviewing Megillah 101 times, and did so.

By the time Efryim arrived in Los Angeles in 1975 to study and subsequently teach at the Gemological Institute of America, he was fully observant. And the trigger was the accident that almost cost him his life. 

 

Stroke by Stroke

After he was struck by Guillain-Barre disease, Efryim davened for two things — to be healed and to discover the purpose behind his second wake-up call from Hashem. Both prayers have been answered.

Though he remains partly disabled, he swims two miles a day, six days a week, in an Olympic-sized pool. Since he first began swimming two years after being stricken, he has accumulated enough miles to cross the Pacific from nearby Venice Beach to South Korea or to reach Jerusalem from the East Coast of the United States.

The idea for aquatic therapy was first planted by Menachem Mendel (Milton) Simon, a close friend from the Pacific Jewish Center. Naomi wanted to protect Efryim from hospital visitors in his initial paralyzed state, but Menachem Mendel managed to evade her guard. Once by Efryim’s bedside, he whispered in his ear, “Water, water. I’m going to get you into the water.”

The initial foray into the water came while he was still confined to a wheelchair and required flotation devices around both arms and legs and around his stomach. Even then, he could swim only on his back and generated little propulsion.

But applying what he calls Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg’s four Ps (which he heard from the Rav’s talmid Rabbi Yaacov Haber) — prayer, persistence, perseverance, and patience — he was able to swim a mile on his back within two years of being struck by Guillain-Barre, though it took him over an hour and a half to do so. “There is nothing you cannot accomplish little by little every day,” he tells me.

And indeed, as the miles have mounted, he has become a poster boy for something called Total Immersion Swimming, which he terms the “yoga of swimming,” with every stroke a distinct pleasure. While swimming, he has twice completed a set of shiurim on the entire Likkutei Maharan, and he listens regularly to the parshah shiurim of Rabbi Shmuel Rosner and the late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein.

But he doesn’t hesitate to shut off his underwater earphones either. In his hospital bed, he learned not only to occupy himself with his own thoughts, but to enjoy the experience. “Self-talk is the most powerful, therapeutic talk there is,” according to Efryim. “If you cannot be alone, who are you?” All the time spent thinking during the two years that he could not move from a hospital bed ultimately paid off in the most important way possible: It provided Efryim with the mission he was seeking.

During that period, his son Ezra was going through some papers of Efryim’s father one day, when he came across a letter from Efryim’s grandfather to his son. In that letter, his grandfather divided up a man’s adult life into thirds: from 20 to 40 he is primarily interested in making money; from 40 to 60 with exercising power, making things happen; and from 60 on with making a difference.

Efryim, then nearing 60, was preoccupied with making a difference by reaching some “big, audacious, hairy goal.” At first, he thought of private philanthropy — perhaps providing better wheelchairs to move around. But he quickly dismissed that as not enough of a “difference maker” to explain why HaKadosh Baruch Hu had blessed him with so much time to think.

He had always tried to do chesed. He and his friend from the Shul on the Beach, Joe Cahn (one of the oldest members), went to visit three to four nursing homes several times a month to speak to each resident. But doing good — making a difference — had never been the focus of his life. Now it was.

One day both the goal and the means of achieving it came to Efryim in a vision as he lay in bed. The goal: to facilitate the giving of $1 billion over five years to various causes by making every-day giving effortless.

The means of doing so appeared to Efryim as the intersection of three circles: the first, marked “Mobile,” represented a complete change in human communications; the second, marked “Gift Cards,” described a $100 billion annual business in the United States; and the third, marked “Causes,” represented the infinite human desire to give. In recent years, Efryim has become a national expert, cited regularly by Forbes, on the social commitments of millennials and IGen (basically anyone between 16 and 35) and what he calls Conscious Consumerism and Capitalism.

To further his dream, Efryim founded a company called Dlyted (pronounced de-lighted), which has to date developed three apps that turn purchases into charitable contributions with the press of a button. The first Dlyted app allows one to purchase digital gift cards from most of the largest companies in America. Anywhere between 2.5% and 10% of the gift card face value — depending the deal Dlyte negotiates with each company — goes into the purchaser’s Dlyte account from which the purchaser can then distribute it to the cause of his choice.

So far, Efryim has signed up 500 of the largest companies in America as participants in the digital gift cards. The businesses involved benefit from the halo effect of being viewed as socially conscious. And among the investors in his project to transform philanthropy, he has enlisted as investors one of the founders of Google, a founder of Blue Nile, the largest online seller of high-end jewelry, and one of the founders of a billion-dollar gift card company.

After the launch of Dlyted, Mrs. Shore was shopping one day when the checkout clerk asked her whether she wished to “round up” to the next dollar, and donate the difference to a particular charity. She came home and told her husband, “Mr. Shore, you are very smart. Why can’t you develop an app that does the same?”

Efryim wasn’t smart enough to do that himself, but in the course of trying, he came into contact with one of the country’s biggest experts in mobile security. The latter was also driven by certain tragedies in his life to make a difference. And thus came into being Changebowl, an app that accumulates all the pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters “rounded up” from credit/debit card purchases — sort of “like an electronic pushke in your home,” Efrayim says.

Most recently, Efryim created Dlyteddoubleback whereby every purchase on a registered credit or debit card in a participating store earns a 4% rebate — half to the purchaser’s chosen cause and half back to the purchaser. That rebate makes participating stores and businesses attractive to buyers, particularly young, socially conscious ones, and also provides businesses with valuable data allowing them to better communicate with their customers.

The Jewish community can also benefit from such an arrangement. Efryim has created a platform for what he calls collaborative communities that allows institutions like local schools to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars without costing the “donors” anything or requiring them to change their buying habits in any way. Efryim covers all the costs involved in setting up collaborative Jewish communities. 

 

Have a Good Day

What remains to be captured is the sheer infectious energy that Efryim generates. Every person has four ages, according to Efryim — chronological, physical, mental, and a sense of wonderment. He puts his own sense of wonderment at around eight years old.

When he and his driver, “the Captain,” drove up to the curb where we were waiting in Los Angeles, he reached out the window and handed something to the policewoman directing traffic. Being from Chicago, I assumed it was a $20 bill. But it turned out to be a Keep Smiling card, directly from the founder of the Keep Smiling movement. It was a scene I would see replayed numerous times over the coming days.

Efryim distributes a variety of such cards free of charge in 27 languages to whoever will pass them on. He has already reached the one million mark, and aims to give out ten million such cards by 2020. Efryim can literally not cross anyone’s path without interacting. The conversation always begins the same way: “Are you having a good day or a great one?” Whatever the response, people receive a Keep Smiling card, and almost invariably they smile. At that point, Efryim asks them to commit to giving one to someone else and hands them another card, telling them, “Now that you have given you can receive.”

Our flight arrived 40 minutes ahead of schedule, and that turned out to be our undoing. The Captain had not had time to clear the trunk of Efyim’s swimming paraphernalia, and there wasn’t enough room for our luggage. It ended up taking us four hours from the time we landed to reach our hosts. But except for the choking LA smog, we did not mind. Efryim’s ebullience kept us fully occupied. Every time I commented to Efryim that some aspect of his story was simply “unbelievable,” he responded, as if on cue: “Totally believable.” It was, I understood, a gentle reproof for my lack of faith in the power of Hashem to heal both the Jewish soul and the Jewish body.

I came of age during the generation of “peace and love,” and have a near allergic reaction to hippies, young or old. But somehow when Efryim sends me a recording of one of his minutes of love, each one beginning, “Beautiful, bountiful being,” with additional references to the necessity of spreading “joy, happiness, peace, and love,” he provokes no such negative response.

For one thing, his iron will distinguishes him from my stereotypical hippy. That will is evident in his efforts to regain the use of his body, his commitment to Torah learning, and his pursuit of $1 billion in charitable giving.

And for another, I know that the interactions with others are not just superficial words but come from a deep place within him. Rabbi Yaacov Haber, with whom Efryim has spent two Pesach holidays in Israel, and whose son Tzvi learns with Efryim in Los Angeles, related to me recently how he once experienced what turned out to be diabetic shock while on a visit to Monsey. Efryim happened to be in Monsey at the same time and spent nearly two hours with Rabbi Haber. He began by telling him, “It starts as a curse, but it will be a blessing.” He then proceeded to discuss with Rabbi Haber what to eat, how to eat it, and to assure him that he would be able to control the newly diagnosed diabetes. At the end of the conversation, Rabbi Haber felt that his entire mindset had changed for the better.

We witnessed the same thing when Efryim joined us for lunch with our close friends in Los Angeles. The wife suffers from chronic, and frequently debilitating, back pains, and hearing about them, Efryim was eager to discuss the possibilities of aquatic therapy and his own experiences with it. For our last day in Los Angeles, Efryim arrived early, as promised, to take us to Venice Beach, and the Pacific Jewish Center of which he was one of the founding members. I was eager to see the shul about which I have heard and read so much. Last year, I interviewed talk radio host Michael Medved, who was the founding president and provided much of the initial energy to the shul.

And my wife and I once enjoyed a Shabbos meal in Seattle with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the dynamic South African-born rabbi, who together with Medved sought to build a religious community of all ages and backgrounds, not just a shul. Rabbi Lapin took no salary, but had strict requirements for membership, chief among them attendance at his Torah shiurim.

On this trip, we spent our one Shabbos in Los Angeles at the home of Mrs. Judy Gruen, who just published a moving and funny account of her religious journey, called The Rabbi and the Skeptic. (Rabbi Lapin is the rabbi of the title.)

Efryim’s own intense involvement in the shul began nearly four decades ago and ended more than 20 years ago. But it clearly holds an outsized place in his heart. “Everyone who journeyed through the Shul on the Beach gained and gave,” he wrote to me. “Some stayed for weeks, some for months, some for decades. But no one was unchanged. They learned and they grew. Dozens, probably hundreds, who came through the Venice Beach community, have gone on to live full lives as frum Jews.”

Once inside the shul, which has been opened up for us, his eyes fill with tears as he paints verbal portraits of some of those closest to him, each of whom played a role in his recovery: Yosef (Joe) Cahn, who with his wife Betty became religious in their early sixties. Even on Erev Shabbos, they would walk two-and-a-half miles from nearby Santa Monica, a journey they would make five times on Shabbos itself, before they moved to Venice Beach. Next to Yosef sat Efryim’s closest friend, Binyamin Zev Marome, raised in a religious Yemenite family in Israel. His beautiful voice was the highlight of the regular Melaveh Malkahs at the Shores’ home. And next to Binyamin Zev sat Menachem Mendel (Milton) Simon, the son of Holocaust survivors, whose parents never even told him he was Jewish until he was nine years old.

Efryim described with emotion how for Lecha Dodi, the congregants would go out onto the boardwalk, facing the Pacific. On weekends, the Venice Beach boardwalk attracts up to 100,000 strollers, drawn both for the natural beauty of Santa Monica Bay, and to shop at the artisans’ booths and survey the variety of local hipsters. Those crowds would stare in amazement when wedding celebrants would pour out of the shul on a Sunday onto the boardwalk dancing around the chassan and kallah.

As he dropped us off at the airport, Efryim passed a large cache of cards to my wife — who was by then a thorough chassidisteh of his — including a large number in Turkish for the crew on our flight back to Israel.

But when my wife offered them to the stewardesses, they did not respond. The cards turned out not to be in Turkish, and no one to whom we showed them could identify the alphabet.

When I reported the mix-up to Efryim upon our return home, he laughed heartily, and all the more so a few days later, when after investigation, it turned out the cards were in Armenian, the language of Turkey’s historic victims.

That hearty laugh pretty much sums up Efryim. He is a true ambassador of joy. Hearing his story, but even more importantly, becoming close to him, has uplifted my and my wife’s spirits, and, im yirtzeh Hashem, will continue to do so for years to come.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 704)

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