March 2, 2016
Rabbi Ben David wanted to “own the message.” The 39- year-old husband, father of three young children, and spiritual leader of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel let his congregation and the outside world know soon after he was diagnosed with Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma, a specific type of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“I didn’t want speculation. I wanted people to hear exactly what was going on—as well as my own positive take,” said David as he sat in his office discussing his diagnosis. He said that he is fully aware that there will be difficult days ahead as he undergoes treatment at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, but he added that life goes on, and the rabbi in him knows that this is an opportunity to guide and steer people away from sadness to a place of hope.
“That is what our tradition urges me to do and all of us to do, even in a time of uncertainty,” said David. He added that he has always been a highly upbeat, optimistic person, and this diagnosis will not change that.
“It has become an opportunity to better relate to people. It has given me a greater sensitivity,” said David.
Rabbi David said that he first had suspicions that something was wrong the day after he turned 39 in January. “I had this mass on my neck. At least in the beginning, I thought nothing of it,” he said. His trip to the doctor began a “scavenger hunt” to determine the problem. Tests revealed the cancer. “I had my first chemo treatment, and I will be treated every three weeks going forward at Penn.”
“I was totally shocked,” said David of his diagnosis. He has no family history of cancer. He lives a healthy lifestyle, is an avid runner who has done 17 marathons, and takes care of himself. “One of the nurses at Penn said I had the best resting heart rate that she had ever seen.” But, he noted, no one is immune from cancer.
During his interview with the Voice, Rabbi David talked about the tough conversations he’s had in the past month—with his parents, Rabbi Jerome and Peggy David of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, his synagogue board, whom he told in person, his rabbinical colleagues, and his children.
Rabbi David and his wife Lisa have three children, ages 8, 5, and 3. “We told our children in ways appropriate to them, that I am sick now, but in order to get better, I have to take some strong medicine.” He and his wife tried to answer their questions.
“The Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur, Nitzavim, acknowledges that we live with choice—life and death, blessing and curse. I’ve always looked for the blessing,” said David. He said that to be a Jew is to recognize that we have a miraculous history with iconic leaders. “That is the message for me right now—that we are mortal and susceptible to bad luck and sickness… our Patriarchs and Matriarchs dealt with challenges, but we are not alone. We have community and family.”
The outpouring of love and support has been absolute, according to David. One need only look at the hallways of his synagogue to see the get-well posters made by the children in Adath’s school as well as the many photos and messages on Facebook.
He said people are bringing over meals, making donations to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and sending him messages around the clock. “To me it affirms what we mean when we talk about community,” he said, adding that he has heard from so many people, including some he had not heard from in years. He also received a letter from Mario Lemieux, the hockey great who had lymphoma during his career.
“When people ask me what they can do, I tell them to live their Jewish lives, give tzedakah, do mitzvot, be kind to one another. That is what gives me great joy,” said David.
Another thing that would give him great joy would be running in November’s New York City Marathon. “Of all the things I daydream about lying in the hospital, it is running with my running partners and friends, possibly putting a group together to raise money for cancer-fighting organizations.” .