Celebrating modern miracles at Hanukkah

As Jewish people around the world mark the miraculous story of the Festival of Lights, three people relate their own wondrous experiences for the 21st century.

 Hanukkah candles (illustrative) (photo credit: PEXELS)
Hanukkah candles (illustrative)
(photo credit: PEXELS)

For 12-year-old Yonatan Cohen and his family, this year’s Jewish festival of Hanukkah is truly miraculous. A little over two months ago, he was battling for survival after a serious car accident that left him with multiple life-threatening injuries and facing a long, arduous road to recovery. 

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Yonatan’s father, Ronen, says that on October 13, his wife, son and daughter had been hiking in the caves in Beit Guvrin National Park in central Israel, while he was visiting his parents in the north of the country. As his family was traveling home to Kiryat Malachi their car was hit by another vehicle. Yonatan, who was sitting in the back seat, was thrown through the side window and out of the car. 

The pre-teen sustained multisystem injuries, including damage to his stomach, lungs and kidneys. "Everything stopped working," his father told the Media Line. "His pelvis collapsed, his spleen ruptured." 

Ronen pauses to bicker with his son, who is still undergoing intensive rehabilitation in Jerusalem and remembers nothing of the accident. The father laughs as he admits that he is enjoying their minor squabble, which was over whether Yonatan could venture out alone. 

"This is my second chance to raise him," Ronen told The Media Line. "I missed the first one because I was always working. Now I have a second chance."

Yonatan Cohen sits in a wheelchair during his rehabilitation in Jerusalem. (credit: COHEN FAMILY)Yonatan Cohen sits in a wheelchair during his rehabilitation in Jerusalem. (credit: COHEN FAMILY)

"I missed the first one because I was always working. Now I have a second chance."

Ronen Cohen

Yonatan lost consciousness due to his injuries, which also included an often-fatal tear in his aorta. "Someone with a torn aorta – in a hospital – has a 50-50 chance," Ronen said in a tear-filled voice. "Never mind someone who is not in hospital."

It took 10 minutes for the ambulance to arrive due to the heavy holiday traffic, and the paramedics immediately began emergency treatment. It was another two hours before Yonatan was stable enough to be airlifted from a nearby Israel Air Force base to Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, accompanied by a doctor. Once at Hadassah, Ronen says, Yonatan was rushed into surgery where "they saved my child."

Yonatan was hospitalized for a month, including 16 days in which he was in an induced coma. Before he began his rehabilitation, he struggled to relate to the environment around him, often failing to even respond to his own name. Now with five weeks of therapy, his father says, Yonatan “walks and talks, he listens [and] he learned it all from scratch.”

After two months of grueling operations and challenging rehabilitation, the family is preparing for a lavish bar mitzvah in March, that not so long ago they despaired of ever seeing.

“I am telling you this is a clear miracle,” Ronen said.

And the Cohen family are not the only ones celebrating a marvel this Hanukkah.

Montenegro

On the other side of the world, Jews in the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro are celebrating Hanukkah in a country that asserts it has no antisemitism – another miracle in a world where hatred of Jewish people is once again increasing at an alarming rate.

 Montenegro's Chief Rabbi Ari Edelkopf listens as President Milo Đukanović addresses the Hanukkah celebrations in Podgorica, Dec. 21, 2022. (credit: CHABAD) Montenegro's Chief Rabbi Ari Edelkopf listens as President Milo Đukanović addresses the Hanukkah celebrations in Podgorica, Dec. 21, 2022. (credit: CHABAD)

In vivid contrast to comments by US President Joe Biden, who used his own Hanukkah greeting to condemn the frequency of such “vile and venom,” his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Đukanović marked the festival of lights in the capital, Podgorica, on Wednesday with a celebration of the acceptance Jewish people have found in his country.

Montenegro Chief Rabbi Ari Edelkopf credits the nation’s president as the source of the respect enjoyed by the Jewish population. This is because, in 2012, the Montenegro Jewish community and government signed the Act on Mutual Relations, which recognized Judaism as the country’s fourth official religion.

“I was [talking to] the president while we were celebrating Hanukkah with hundreds of people, Jews and non-Jews, people from government [and] ambassadors,” Edelkopf told The Media Line. “Usually those things in Europe have hundreds of police, security – securing the squares and roads are blocked. Today at our Hanukkah lighting there wasn't one police officer outside. There is no need. No need. That’s a miracle; that is so special. There is no antisemitism here. The president has a lot of credit for that," he said.

“We are proud of our multiethnic, multi-religious and multicultural harmony, and the fact that there is no occurrence of antisemitism in Montenegro. Just as we are proud of the fact that Montenegro is one of the two countries in Europe where there were more Jews at the end of World War II than at the beginning,” Đukanović said in his address at the Hanukkah celebration, as he watched Edelkopf light the giant public hanukkiah, surrounded by hundreds of local residents, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Back in Jerusalem

Back in Jerusalem, the surgeon who took care of 21-year-old Islan Shaluf says her recovery from a great fall also is miraculous.

Islan had gone out to her third-floor balcony to photograph people below this week as they celebrated the outcome of the World Cup final, when she fell three stories to the ground, causing what could have been life-changing breaks to her spine.

But thanks to cutting-edge medical technology and the dedication of her doctors, Islan will be able to walk again.

"She had broken five to six bones and was very lucky because we were able to reduce the fracture using robotic technology,” Dr. Josh Schroeder, senior surgeon and spine specialist at Hadassah University Hospital, told The Media Line.

Islan also is appreciative of the care she received, from a team that included Jewish and Arab medics working together.

"I am so grateful to the doctors at Hadassah for saving my life," she told Israeli media. "All my dreams were nearly shattered when I realized how serious my injuries were and, thanks to them, I know that I can go back to walking, running and being independent like before."

Islan’s operation involved the use of Israel’s Mazor X Stealth Edition, an advanced robotic guidance system devised for spinal surgery.

Schroeder says that speed is of the essence in such medical emergencies, "so we don't lose nerve tissue.” He even compares the handling of Islan’s injuries to the way in which they react when someone has suffered a stroke.

The doctor was initially reluctant to term Islan’s recovery as a miracle. "We are born to be skeptical,” he said. “I'd say she is a very lucky young woman.”

Yet Schroeder admits that when relating her case to a colleague who asked if Islan was now a paraplegic, he changed his perspective. "No,” he recalls, telling his colleague, “she is walking, and I'd say that is a miracle.”

A technician who also was involved in Islan’s treatment told Schroeder that he has visited dozens of European institutions using robotic technology, and the Mazor X Stealth Edition is the most advanced system he has seen.

And that, too, is surely miraculous.