May 21, 2019

A family’s joy after heartbreak

When someone loses a parent or a job, or the house burns down, or a spouse splits, the usual advice is to “move on” and “put the pieces together again.”

But what if the pieces are shattered forever, and there is no way to make them whole again?

For Rabbi Charles S. Sherman, the question is not an abstract philosophical exercise or fodder for an intriguing sermon topic, but rather a central reality for his own family.

Sherman became the rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun, a large Conservative congregation in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1976, and the following decade was full of promise. He was laying the foundation for an influential professional career, and by 1986, he and his wife, Leah, were the parents of five bright and healthy children — daughters Nogah, Orah and Nitza, and sons Eyal and Erez.

But as the rabbi marked a decade’s service on the pulpit, his life changed drastically. One day, Eyal, just 4, ran a high fever and had difficulty breathing. Doctors at a Syracuse hospital discovered a lesion the size of a golf ball intertwined in the boy’s brain stem and told the parents that Eyal did not have long to live.

The parents refused to accept this edict and opted for high-risk surgery. The operation appeared successful, but soon afterward, the boy suffered a stroke that left him in a coma for four months.

When Eyal woke up, his parents learned that their son would never be able to talk, walk, feed himself or breathe on his own again, and he would require round-the-clock nursing care. Yet, within his stricken body, Eyal nevertheless retained the mind of a bright, inquisitive youngster.

The story of how Eyal, his parents and siblings have dealt with this shattering blow and built a closer family unit is told by Sherman in his book, “The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy After Heartbreak” (Simon & Schuster).

Taking the book’s title as their topic, Rabbi Charles Sherman and his son, Rabbi Erez Sherman, will discuss their family’s story on May 14 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

Like most of his siblings, Erez Sherman, 31, two years younger than Eyal, has joined the family’s faith business. He is currently the assistant rabbi and musical director of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills.

His oldest sister, Rabbi Nogah Marshall, is the education director at Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, and his youngest sister, Nitza Sherman, is a nurse at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, specializing in special-needs care.

To round out the picture, Erez Sherman’s wife is Rabbi Nicole Guzik of Sinai Temple, and the couple has two children — 2-year-old Annie and 7-month old Zachary. And Erez Sherman will be joining Sinai Temple as a rabbi, as well, beginning July 1.

Erez Sherman said the title of his father’s book was chosen by his father to encapsulate his attitude toward the sorrows and joys of the family’s life.

According to the Book of Exodus, after an angry Moses destroyed the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, God commanded him to create a second set of tablets.

Both sets of tablets, one broken and the other whole, are placed in the Ark of the Covenant, signifying that every person carries within them pieces of brokenness along with wholeness.

The book’s subtitle draws a mild dissent from the younger Rabbi Sherman.
“Instead of ‘Discovering Joy After Heartbreak,’ ” he said, he would have chosen “Discovering Joy Within Heartbreak.” 

Whatever the title, both father and son are often confronted with the age-old question of reconciling personal tragedy with faith in a benevolent God. Without going into a deep theological discussion, Erez Sherman observed that there are things we don’t know, can’t control and must ultimately let go, whatever the difficulty.

He cited the attitude of the Evangelist, Pastor Rick Warren, who, after the recent suicide of his son, said that he could ask all the questions in the world, but that wouldn’t bring back his son.

As the Jewish Book Council noted in its review of the book, “Instead of a tome of religious platitudes, this book is an example of sometimes hard-won humility and faith that speaks to the human experience of struggling to accept life circumstances that are not necessarily of our choosing.”

Since the book’s publication in March, the author, usually accompanied by one of his children, has been meeting with audiences and reporters in Philadelphia, Boston, Canada and now in California.

Naturally, the media focus has been on the senior Rabbi Sherman as author and family head, but the Journal wondered how Eyal’s condition affected his siblings, in particular. Erez Sherman was 2 when Eyal had his devastating stroke, so his brother’s condition was a given for him since before he can remember.

“The real family hero is my mother, Leah,” he said. “For instance, during the time it took Eyal to earn a bachelor’s degree in the arts at Syracuse University, she went to every class with him — for 10 years.”

From his own perspective, Erez Sherman said, “Given that Eyal is my only brother, and as a toddler had the build of an athlete, I probably would have spent a lot of time with him talking about football and baseball.

“I think the key to the family’s wholeness is that my parents have created a normal family life. They have taken an extraordinary situation and transformed it into an ordinary one.”

Erez remembers, growing up, that Eyal was included in all family activities, from baseball games to Hebrew lessons to musical jam sessions.

Through slight movements of his chin and lips, Eyal is able to steer his wheelchair, mouth words in English and Hebrew, accompany Erez’s piano playing by playing on the drums, and even officiate as a third-base coach. Perhaps most impressive, he has become a talented painter, holding his brush between his lips.

An indicator of the siblings’ closeness was Nitza Sherman, Eyal’s younger sister, refusing to have a bat mitzvah unless Eyal was there.

For Eyal’s own bar mitzvah at his father’s synagogue, a team from Syracuse University rigged up a video circuit that allowed the congregation to read his lips, as in a silent movie, accompanied by the corresponding text or prayer on the screen.

“We have a kind of family motto, drawn from Psalm 118, which I also inscribed in the engagement ring I gave my future wife,” Erez Sherman said. “It reads, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.’ ”

To register, visit or call Rebeka Small at (310) 481-3243. Advance registration is mandatory for attendees wishing to park in the temple’s garage.