In her heroic effort to help her husband lead as normal a life as possible with ALS, Mrs. Rachel Miller of Ramot has seen the Hand of Hashem at every turn.
To live life as normally as possible. That was the goal Manny Miller set for himself when he learned that he had ALS, a devastating neurological disease that has left him unable to speak, eat, move, or breathe on his own.
I met him recently at the Beit Hadar rehabilitation center in Ashdod, together with the two people who have been most instrumental in helping him achieve his goal.
“My husband has an indomitable spirit; he never looks back,” says Mrs. Rachel Miller, explaining how they’ve weathered the past five years. “And he has an engineer’s mind that is always planning one step ahead, to what is needed for the next stage in the disease’s progression. We had a lift installed for the wheelchair in our home before it was needed, and he started training on the computer that lets him communicate when he could still speak.”
Manny and Rachel Miller moved to Israel in 1993, from Jamaica Estates, Queens, a community they’re still in close touch with. “The Rav of the shul, Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, visits whenever he’s in Israel,” says Mrs. Miller. They made a home for themselves and their four children in Yerushalayim, in the Ramot quarter, where Manny worked in real estate and, in later years, learned part-time in a kollel.
In 2014, at the age of 65, he began getting ticks in his left arm and losing some of its mobility. A fairly simple test confirmed that he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. For the first year or so, he could hide the disease from others. “My husband is a baal tefillah,” his wife recalls with a quiet pride that underscores everything she says about him. “Four years ago, he davened Mussaf on both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for what we knew would be the last time. Everyone in shul knew they were experiencing something special, even though they didn’t understand [why].”
For a while, Manny continued putting together real estate deals, while his wife did the legwork and showed customers properties. As his condition worsened, their teamwork intensified. “I became the physical arm, but his will was strong.”
It was Manny who chose Beit Hadar, after conducting a search for the best facility for his condition. “It’s the safest place for him to be, and he has every intention and desire to live a long life,” says Mrs. Miller, who is fulsome in her praise of the doctors, nurses and therapists at the facility.
But Manny isn’t content to merely prolong life. He wants to imbue it with meaning, with the help of his son Noam, who is with him every day for eight hours.
Noam was a rebbi in Johannesburg, South Africa, for nine years, teaching 14- and 15-year-olds. Before that he learned in the Mir, where he was known for his hasmadah. (He had a sign on his table that read “please do not disturb.”)
When his father first became ill, Noam would return to Israel twice a year to visit. But when the symptoms became more pronounced, he went to his Rav to ask what he should do. He was told that he belonged back in Israel, at his father’s side, in keeping with the obligation of kibbud av va’eim.
“It was very difficult for me and especially for my wife,” he recalls. “It wasn’t just the gashmiyus in South Africa, but the very warm, very special community. We had amazing friends.
“Even after we returned, my wife went to her Rav who again endorsed our move. He said we needed to do it faithfully, with total emunah in Hashem that this is the right thing.”
Noam and his wife and family moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh in 2017 and he travels daily to Ashdod, replacing one of the caregivers his mother hired for his father.
“We begin with tefillin and davening,” he says. “The concept of shome’a k’oneh [one who hears, it’s as if he has spoken the words] was invented for my Dad.”
Father and son have a busy learning schedule, starting with shnayim mikra v’echad targum, learning the aliyah of the day. “We hope to start Rashi, as well,” Noam says.
Next, they learn a page of Mishnah Brurah, which can take them an hour or more. They’ve finished the third volume, on Hilchos Shabbos, and after Purim began learning the laws of Pesach, including chol hamoed, chametz and Yom Tov. “I think we’re going to have to do an enlarged halachah seder,” Noam says. “We’re going to probably spend closer to an hour and a half to two hours because there are so many halachos that a Yid needs to know coming up to Pesach.”
Halachah is followed by Gemara, for about an hour and a half. “We just did a monumental siyum on Maseches Avodah Zarah,” Noam smiles. At the siyum, a beautiful seudah was held in a small hall in the ventilated patient unit, with dozens of people in attendance, dancing and singing. Now Noam and his father are learning Megillah.
Before Noam came into the picture, his father would listen to shiurim, on everything ranging from Daf Yomi to Tanach, but his learning was passive. “He was just listening without having the text in front of him,” Noam says.
Now, they learn Gemara together from words that appear on Manny’s small computer screen, using a program called Toras Emes, with Noam enlarging the letters to make it easier for his father to follow along.
“We go slowly, word by word,” Noam says.
His father can ask questions — usually after their learning session — by staring at letters on a keyboard that show up at the top of the screen and form words.
When he tires, and needs to rest, Noam remains at his side, continuing to learn by himself.
“He gives my husband massages and attends to his needs,” a justly proud Mrs. Miller says of her son.
To witness Noam, a smiling, upbeat young man in his 30s, taking such devoted care of his father, is awe-inspiring. He has given up a satisfying career and life for himself and his family to be there for his father and mother.
Even more inspiring is Mrs. Miller, the glue who holds everything together. She’s there every other Shabbos — other relatives are there on alternate Shabbosos — and organizes family events on Yom Tov that bring children and grandchildren to Ashdod to be with her husband. Last Sukkos, nearly 100 relatives — children, grandchildren, cousins — came and enjoyed being with Manny on the beach nearby, along with a nurse and portable respirator.
The Pesach Seder will be in his room with Mrs. Miller and one of their married children, and the meal will be served in the facility’s shul.
From where does she draw her strength?
“All the years, I must have been preparing for this,” she says. “I teach about emunah and marriage, how marriage is a partnership with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. When you have a partnership with Hashem, it doesn’t matter whether I am in Ramot and Manny is here, we’re both under the same roof. The Shechinah is still there. This is something I’ve had the zechus to teach; I feel I’ve helped strengthen Jewish communities by strengthening Jewish homes.”
She has taught — “with my husband’s encouragement” — in Har Nof, Neve Yaakov, and Rechavia, as well as the United States, South Africa and England. She continues to teach small groups around the world, via teleconferencing. “I’m under the radar,” she says. “But people know me.”
Mrs. Miller, who speaks with the calm confidence of a person who has it clear that Hashem is running things, also carries the load of financing caregivers and other needs for her husband, with the help of people who know and respect her husband and family.
Does she daven that he should get better? “I daven that nothing should get worse. I have hakaras hatov that he is not in pain and that when he is awake he’s quite alert. He has simchas hachaim and never feels sorry for himself, never.
“I have a vision of the Geulah. I can close my eyes and actually see him getting up from the wheel chair and walking.”
Mrs. Miller, who also never utters a word of complaint, says she sees the Hand of Hashem everywhere. First, in having a son who turned out to be the best rebbi for her husband.
Another angel who was sent to her is a Gerrer Chassid who lives in Ashdod. He once accompanied a friend of his to the facility to visit the friend’s wife and took a liking to Manny. “He comes every Friday, before Shabbos, and stays to daven with him Minchah, Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv. He makes Kiddush, leins the whole parshah for my husband, sings Eishes Chayil, zemiros, and then walks an hour back to his home in Rova Zayin to his wife and 10 children who are waiting for him.
“He has done this every week for the past year. This is from Hakadosh Baruch Hu. And he calls every week to check on us. And he won’t take a penny. He says, ‘Don’t take away my mitzvah.’
“It’s like this everywhere I go, wherever I turn. Just look at the treatment my husband gets here.”
Most inspiring of all is Manny Miller himself. After interviewing his wife and son, I turn my questions to him.
What does he enjoy most about learning with his son?
Manny stares at the keyboard on the screen and the words pop up, accompanied by a voice that articulates them. “That we learn on a high level.”
How is it that he doesn’t complain about his condition? What’s his secret?
“My son inspired me to trust Hashem.”
Finally, what’s the most important thing he’s learned from his experience?
The answer begins to appear on the screen, letter by letter, bringing tears to my eyes. One sentence that says it all.
“To believe that we are in the Hands of Hashem.”
May he and his beautiful family have a chag kasher v’same’ach.
Anyone who would like to help Manny Miller can contribute online through the chessedfund.com, campaign 6561.