L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches: Our fourth-annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos

Bracha Yael: Rewards of Life in the Slow Lane

Bracha Yael was the vice president of a construction company, a triathlete and getting her master’s in religion. She was on the board of the Los Angeles Hillel Foundation and Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC).

Then one afternoon in 1997, she started to feel dizzy and tired. She lay down. And she couldn’t get up — for about two years.

Yael, 40 at the time, was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a condition that left her dizzy, nauseous and without enough energy to sit up for more than five minutes at a time.

After about two years, she and her doctors began to get a handle on her symptoms, and she got to a point where she could function for a few hours a day. She hoped to resume some semblance of her former life — maybe work part time, exercise a little. But every time she pushed too hard, she would set herself back weeks.

The realization that her life would be radically and permanently different was a traumatic blow to Yael, even more shocking than her initial diagnosis.

“Rabbi Lisa Edwards [of BCC] started to talk to me, saying that life is not about doing, it’s about being,” Yael recalls. “I had internalized that identity and self-worth are about what we do, especially about what we do for a living, and that wasn’t there anymore. I had to develop some sort of identity and find meaning in my life that wasn’t connected to what I do.”

It took another few years of struggle for Yael to come to terms with her new identity. About four years ago she changed her name from Jeannette to Bracha, which means blessing, as a tribute to the blessings in her life: the strong community at BCC, her friends and her partner of 29 years, Davi Cheng, who stuck by her through her struggles.

And she began to think about how she could be a blessing to others.

After she became ill, Yael continued to work on a master’s thesis she had already started exploring how the Jewish community responds to AIDS patients. Now, her discussions about spirituality and illness became more personal, with Yael often conducting her interviews lying down.

She also got a certificate in spiritual direction, a form of peer counseling, and Edwards began to call on her to talk to struggling congregants. Yael even helped a suicidal congregant through the night.

Tuned in to the extreme isolation and depression that can come with chronic illness, she started a weekly phone-in Torah study group at BCC — but the topics, based on the weekly portion, are not about illness.

“When you deal with chronic illness, you can become the illness,” Yael said. “I thought if we had Torah study, we could come together and talk about something we all cared about but not about our illnesses.”

The idea spawned a second offering, a monthly phone prayer service that Yael leads. About 10 people call in each month, from those who are ill to some who live far away.

For the past two years, she’s also run a High Holy Day phone service, and now she has arranged for a speakerphone to be on the bima at BCC every week, so that shut-ins can listen and feel connected to the larger community.

With the help of doctors, medications and staying closely attuned to the limits of her body, today Yael has many days where she can be upright for hours, with breaks. And she is taking advantage of that energy to help others. She and Cheng have adopted Harriet Perl, an 88-year-old BCC member. Yael and Perl do their weekly grocery shopping together, and Yael just accompanied her to the vet, where Harriet’s cat of 17 years was put down.

When Yael was most encumbered by her illness, the little things that people did — the phone calls, the soda crackers and juice left at the back door — were often the most helpful and most meaningful, she said.

So now she tries to return such.

“I have time to write a letter now, and I know how precious getting a note can be. I know what it means,” she said. “I live a quiet and modest life now, but I try to bring as much joy as possible.”


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