Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe - Inspirational & Motivational Speaker


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Hanging on to Hope Through a Serious Illness

In 1978, I entered the New York City Marathon wearing a T-shirt proclaiming me “The Running Rabbi.” I was just as tireless in my calling as a rabbi in Newburgh, New York. I led a march against the Klan, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and visited our fifty-two Americans held hostage in Iran.

I’d never been sick in my life. I felt indestructible. That was then.
Two years after returning from Teheran I knew something was terribly wrong. Running on the beach near our home in Martha’s Vineyard, I felt strangely tired, and out of nowhere there was a strange telltale black and blue mark on my leg. I tried to ignore it, but soon I couldn’t keep up on the hills with my running buddies. As the days went on I was running out of energy and falling further and further behind. I waved to my friends to go ahead. I was breathing heavily and gasping for breath. Driving my daughters to summer camp, I fought to be alert and it was scary and alarming.

It was time to ask my doctor what this could this be. While waiting for the results of my blood counts, which were delayed, I took refuge in the movies right there. All alone in the back of the theater in the middle of the day I watched as the friendly alien ET reached out with his finger and magically healed a little child. I imagined it was me and I would be instantly healed. But, knowing my body so well, I instinctively felt there was something very wrong. The doctor breezed me off and said my blood counts were a little low but it probably didn’t mean much. A few days later I went to my friend in Poughkeepsie who was a pathologist. My daughter came with me and I asked the doctor to check my blood.

The results came back, and the doctor and the lab technicians had a strange somber look. My doctor even dropped the slides and then nervously apologized. Watching all this, my daughter with her childlike perception looked up and asked: “Is my daddy going to die?” In the privacy of his office Dr. Joseph was telling me that he saw hair like cells under his microscope and he believed I had a rare form of leukemia.

Even though the title of my first book was: “Why Me?” Why Anyone?” I really thought:

Why not me? As a Rabbi visiting patients for so many years I realized that anyone can get sick – the rich and the poor, the young and the old.
My childhood nickname was “Sunshine” and with my bright outlook and positive spirit I asked the doctor: “What can we do?”

But there was almost nothing that would help me. They took my spleen out hoping my blood counts would bounce back and I took oral chemotherapy but to no avail.

I refused to give up, and two years later, shaking with fevers of 105, and wearing a protective mask, I was flown on an “Angel of Mercy Flight” to Chicago where doctors were experimenting with a new drug for my rare leukemia. They even had to get emergency permission, “Compassionate Usage”, to put me on the protocol because I was too sick to be saved and I might ruin their experiment.

I was coughing terribly, and a lung operation showed that I had rare form of tuberculosis that turned out to be fatal for some of my fellow patients. But, miraculously, the injections of the drug they gave me over two months, combined with every TB drug they could think of, saved me. When my doctor and I testified before Congress my doctor said that being one of the sickest patients with this leukemia meant I had a stronger response to my treatment. I held up a pair of my running sneakers in the hearing room and told the congressman: I’m running again!

Yes, it’s a miracle that I was saved in the nick of time. I wouldn’t be the hyper Running Rabbi any more. I wouldn’t run past my congregants any more. I would slow down and really listen.

My illusion was shattered when I was diagnosed with leukemia. For more than twenty years as a rabbi, I had helped others through crises. I was supposed to have all the answers. Yet when I got sick, I discovered I didn’t have them.
I won’t claim to have it all figured out now, but my experience has given me some valuable insights on how to cope with a serious illness, or any adversity for that matter. I want to share some of them with you.

CHEER YOURSELF ON: Ultimately you must learn to comfort yourself. No matter how many people are around during the day, reality can be very hard to face in the loneliness of the night.

BE KIND TO YOURSELF: Don’t think of yourself as worthless, or worth less than you you were before your diagnosis.

DON’T BE PASSIVE ABOUT YOUR MEDICAL TREATMENT: Let your doctors and nurses know what you need.

LEARN TO CHERISH YOUR VERY EXISTENCE: Don’t feel guilty if you’re too sick to do something. You have value simply because you exist, even if you can’t be productive in the ways you were before.

HANG ON TO YOUR FIGHTING SPIRIT: I really believe my fighting spirit meant the difference between life and death for me. My nurses told me that once, when I was delirious, I pounded on my bed rails yelling, “Come on Hirshel!” I was cheering myself on like my wife and daughters cheered for me when I ran in the marathon.

CONVERSELY, REMEMBER THAT ATTITUDE ISN’T EVERYTHING: Having a good attitude can help you make the best of every situation, but it may not help you change your situation. You can’t control everything, only some things.

SET GOALS FOR YOURSELF. No matter how small, reaching any goal helps you feel a sense of achievement.

WRITE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE: Writing a book about my illness gave me something to live for. Some days it took a lot out of me to write even a few words, but completing my book helped me to keep my fighting spirit alive.

KEEP SOME NORMALCY IN YOUR LIFE: If you’re able to use your energy in some capacity, do it, even if you have just five good minutes a day. If physical limitations prevent you from doing usual tasks, try to devise new ways to do them.

DO WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF: When my physicians noticed how depressed I was in the hospital, they said, “Be a rabbi. Go counsel other patients.”Doing that made me feel important again My friends who are fighting cancer tell me the same thing: helping others is one good thing they can do and find real fulfillment in doing.

DON’T LOSE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR: Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy life. One morning in the hospital as the doctors made their rounds, I said to them, “I think these antibiotics are doing something to me! Something strange is happening to my body!” They burst into laughter. I was wearing a Frankenstein mask!

BE THANKFUL FOR EACH DAY AND GREET IT JOYOUSLY: Live your life to the fullest. Since my diagnosis, every moment has been special to me.

DECIDE WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN YOUR LIFE: I’m learning to say no to people. I don’t want to fritter away my life letting others tell me how to live. For me, being with my loved ones is most important. And I make a point of telling these people how I feel about them often.

ACCEPT THE SUPPORT OF YOUR FRIENDS: The strong support of everyone who loved me and prayed for me kept me going through my darkest hours. Don’t be afraid to let others know how vulnerable you are; it’s not a sign of weakness to accept help.

SEARCH FOR MEANING FROM YOUR ADVERSITY: We can find meaning and hope even in our darkest days. I didn’t ask for this painful experience, but I can choose to grow from it and shape it into a positive force in my life.

By facing death, I learned how to live. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
My illness taught me the deepest meaning of being a rabbi. It’s who can touch people, who can comfort them. I hope that as you walk your own path through illness and adversity, you let the power within you carry you over the rough spots, and I hope it stays with you too.

My Special Eleven Day Mission to See the Iran Hostages

The BBC interviewed me for a Documentary Special about my visit to the 52 hostages held captive in Iran and released after 444 days in January 1981, when President Reagan invited me to greet the liberated Americans in a White House Ceremony. Below is my blog about my 11 days in Teheran.

This is a A Call From The Hostage Takers airs Saturday June 15 and Sunday June 16th. Click here for more information.

From the BBC: “40 years ago, the Iranian hostage crisis gripped the world, with details unfolding nightly on television. But one story remains untold. Desperate to get their message out, the hostage takers invited 50 ordinary Americans to visit Iran. For the Americans, this high-risk trip held the tantalising possibility of securing the release of hostages. What transpired was a journey quite unlike any of them had planned. Using archive of the visit and fresh interviews with former Iranian hostage takers in Iran and their American visitors, we hear about their hopes and misgivings at the time and their reflections 40 years on.”

Department of Defense
Freed American hostages disembark from a plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Jan. 27, 1981, one week after being released.

The year was 1979, and like every other American I was gripped by the hostage crisis. 52 of our guys were captured and blindfolded before the TV cameras when armed Iranian militants, followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, scaled the walls of our U.S. Embassy in Teheran. Members of the Revolutionary Guard managed to seize the attention of the entire world on that infamous November 4th.

I heard the media mention a professor from Kansas who was arranging a humanitarian visit. I decided to call him and I said: “Professor, you don’t know me, and you realize there are four Jewish hostages.” I must have embarrassed him, because he answered defensively, “Thinking about it Rabbi, you’re right!” Then, unexpectedly, he added, “OK, Rabbi, stick around.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but two weeks later I got a phone call: “Was I interested in a special eleven day mission to see the hostages?”
It was February 5th, and we were on a plane to Teheran, praying to see the hostages and the day they would be set free. We landed on a bleak cold day at Mehabad Airport and entered a huge terminal whose walls had been stripped bare and plastered with pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeni.

We were immediately surrounded by the Revolutionary Guard brandishing machine guns. I got a lot of stares wearing a yarmulke on my head. After some tense moments we were driven to a dilapidated hotel in downtown Teheran with sand bags around the pool and machine gun posts. The militants had renamed it “Hotel of the Glorious Revolution.”

The next afternoon we were taken to a mosque to meet with an Imam. He harangued us in a shrill voice that Israel was a tool of America and the Zionists who exploited his Muslim brothers and sisters.

I could hardly contain myself. I stared at the bearded Imam and blurted out, “If you call yourselves Compassionate Sons of Allah, then why don’t you treat my people with compassion?” One of the American ministers touched my shoulder and whispered, ” Hirshel, you must feel very lonely here as a Jew.” I don’t know what stirred within me, but I answered him, “No, I’m not alone. I am accompanied by the souls of my people who have been oppressed throughout history.”

It was February 11th and we were being driven on a bus to a huge anti-American demonstration outside of Teheran University. The revolutionaries had renamed it “Freedom Square .” As we snaked our way through the demonstrators they shook their fists at us and pounded violently on our bus, yelling, “Down with America. Death to President Carter.” We were almost trampled as we struggled to climb the rungs of a rickety platform hastily erected for us the foreign visitors.

The rain was pelting us and the agitated crowd pressed against our platform. Suddenly there was a shudder and the stands started to buckle and collapsed. There were screams and moans of people being crushed underneath us. As the scaffolding came crashing down I jumped instinctively about ten feet to the ground. Luckily I wasn’t hurt but two of my companions were injured in the melee. Someone shouted over the commotion, “Rabbi, get out of here!”

After wandering through the streets of Teheran for hours I finally found our hotel and was overjoyed to be reunited with the other Americans who feared something ominous might have happened to me.

Three days later, on February 14th at 5 AM, there was a sudden knock on our door. It was one of the militants announcing, “You clergy people wait here, because soon we’re going to take you to visit the poor souls who were injured when the stands collapsed at the parade.” I had a gut feeling. Turning to Father Jack, my roommate, I said, “You know Jack, that’s just a ruse, They’re taking us to see the hostages.”

There was a priest with us who was acting strangely. He over-identified with the militants and bought their line that the hostages were somehow guilty of something. There, in the back of the van, I confronted him and asked: “Does it not say in your New Testament -Judge not lest you be judged?”

We came to a screeching halt in front of the towering walls of the American Embassy. There were the armed militants with machine guns perched on the walls high above. They looked like they were 11 years old . We were led to a room with blankets covering the windows and the ever present pictures of Khomeini.

After an anxious wait the militants led in some of the American hostages. We decided to make small talk with them about life back home to ease their fears. So we chatted informally about basketball scores and McDonalds. I was close to tears thinking, my God, when will they ever go free?”

The guards were going to allow us to take letters the hostages had written to their loved ones back in the States. I was sitting right up front and one of the hostages handed me a sheaf of letters, I clutched the letters and gave a final embrace to the hostages, whispering, “The American people are praying for you and you are not forgotten.”
I managed to hand one of the captives a Hebrew prayerbook to give to the Jewish hostages who were kept back in their cells. Ten months later, in the White House, the Jewish hostages revealed to me that the militants had deceived them about my being there. They told me the prayerbook lifted their morale and gave them hope and the will to survive.

As we were preparing to leave the militants suddenly and unexpectedly barred our way and detained us. They said accusingly: “You clergy people can’t leave. We have seen one of you receive a secret message from one of the hostages.” They were pointing directly at me. I thought, my God, did they plant something on me? Am I going to be made a hostage too? I decided to tough it out and call their bluff. So I rose to my feet and said indignantly, “I am here on a humanitarian visit and will not be treated this way!”

Despite my protest they separated me from my fellow clergy and led me into a courtyard out of view. I was made to strip down to my shorts and they searched me and all my belongings thoroughly. It was lucky I had crossed out the names of the Israeli Secret Service who briefed me in New York before I left, because they went through every name in my address book. I was sure they were itching to hold me hostage as a Zionist spy. As they were leading me back to rejoin the other Americans I couldn’t resist tipping up my yarmulke, as if to say: ”You forgot to look under here boys!”

Sadly, our Americans stayed there for four hundred and forty four days. When they were liberated, President Reagan sent his plane for them. Amazingly, they landed first at Stewart Airport in Newburgh. A few days later the President invited me to go to the White House reception to greet the hostages before the nation.

There, in the White House, the Marine band was playing. I was wearing a silver bracelet for one of the hostages. He was a brave American and he was isolated and beaten by the militants, but he never complained. He said, “Rabbi, others had it worse than me.” His mother had given me the bracelet to wear for her son while he was imprisoned. It said very starkly “William J. Dougherty, (taken prisoner) November 4th 1979”. Bill was staring at the bracelet on my wrist. I said, “Bill, would you like to come to Newburgh? We’ll have a ceremony and I’ll present the bracelet to you.” He answered “ Rabbi, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have the bracelet now!”

I’m looking at the letter Bill wrote me after that time at the White House. It’s on the wall of my study in the Temple and it reads. “Rabbi, thank you for all your efforts and for the love shown to us by 250 million Americans while we were held hostage. As far as the bracelet, when you took it from your wrist and put it on mine, the pain began to go away.”
A few years after the ordeal I officiated at the wedding of the son of one of the Jewish hostages. As his father rejoiced I thought of the biblical verse: “Those who sow in tears, shall reap in joy.”

* Originally published on