Tehila Elbogen died in March, shortly after her sixteenth birthday and after a two-and-a-half year struggle against a rare and as yet incurable cancer. She lost the physical battle, winning the one that was spiritual and leaving a legacy that all of us who knew and admired her shall cherish until the end of our days.
She taught that life is not measured only by the number of years. At least as important, it is measured by how the allotted years are used. By this standard, she lived a full life and triumphed over death, a truth that as yet is of limited consolation to her family. I write now but did not write when she died because I feared my words would be inadequate, that they would not convey Tehila’s vitality and goodness and what made her special.
For forty-one years my wife and I – and the children as they came along – have shared a two-family house in Boro Park with Brocha and Shmuel Hoch, they as landlords and we as tenants, terms that while accurate in a strict legal sense distort the essence of an extraordinary relationship. They are our closest friends, people of instinctive kindness. There is a powerful bond of affection that encompasses their children and ours and now also their children’s children. We are an extended family.
Shmuel and Brocha have five children, each gifted and blessed with spouses of great merit, achievements and character and each actively involved in our community’s religious life. Recki is the youngest. Her modest and soft demeanor conceals substantial intellectual strength and other gifts. Her spiritual strength is greater still. We have known her since the age of two, and I can say with certainty that I have never heard anyone utter a deprecatory word about her.
Recki and her husband, Volvi, a man whose merit mirrors hers, were fortunate to have five beautiful children, with Tehila in the middle as the third. Tehila was sweet and smart, at once serious and full of fun. She had a smile that enveloped her and was transmitted to persons in her presence. She wanted so much to live. She had so much to give.
When she was diagnosed, the shock was enormous, as it always is when children are stricken with a life-threatening illness, an experience more common than we may want to acknowledge. Chai Lifeline, which was established to serve and assist Jewish children with cancer and also the families of these children, attests to the prevalence of serious illness, as do the pediatric oncology departments of major hospitals.
As parents do in these sad and frightening situations, Recki and Volvi worked feverishly to do all they might to help their daughter, seeking whatever information they could learn, ensuring she got the best medical care, acquiescing to different treatments and staying with Tehila for days when she was in the hospital. Their love, support, and devotion knew no bounds.
In good health Tehila was petite. Illness made her frail. Yet there was that life-affirming smile, that ever-present “thank you soooo much” on her lips. Her love and concern for others drew everyone who came into contact with her into a unique, everlasting circle of love. Knowing the pain she experienced was bringing much pain to her parents, she tried to shield them from the knowledge of her enormous suffering.
Though she never wavered in her emunah, she undoubtedly experienced moments of difficulty over the fate that was hers. One of her oncologists at the Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, a woman who obviously knows much about tragedy and suffering, came to love Tehila and to know of her wounds. This is from her memorial tribute to Tehila’s indomitable spirit, an expression of gratitude “for her courageous miracle life I was blessed to share”:
When I hear people describing the “uncomplaining” girl who was always so “nice,” I think quietly “are we talking about the same kid?” My Tehila relentlessly reproached her disease – sometimes catching the ones she most loved in the crossfire. At first I thought she barely tolerated me, then I was let in on the secret. I was one of the lucky few permitted to see the real stuff of which she was made.