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Rabbi Cahana reflects on his remarkable journey following life-altering stroke

Zach Reisman and Lorri Benedik of Zach Designs share their selection of cards. (Photo, Manny Reisman)
Montreal - Thursday, February 11, 2021

Rabbi Ronnie Cahana is soothed by his late mother, well-known artist Alice Lok Cahana. (Photo, Kitra Cahana)

By Cindy Davis

In 2011, Rabbi Ronnie Cahana was the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-El Synagogue in the Town of Mount Royal, when he suffered a massive brain stem stroke. For over a month, Cahana was trapped in a locked-in state - fully aware, but unable to use any part of his body except for blinking his eyelids. Though many would consider such a life event as devastating, remarkably, Cahana reflects upon his life since 2011 as a gift.

“It’s been a wonderful adventure,” he says during a Zoom interview from his bed at the Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Côte Saint Luc, where he has resided for several years since the stroke. “For the first year, it felt as though my skeletal legs were attached by a leather cord in my mind, so I had to get my life force back into the appropriate limbs. And I worked, and I worked. It was so fascinating. My arms – I can remember everyday how glorious it was to bring my mental image into my larger body.”

Through years of rehabilitation and dedication, Cahana has regained some mobility in his arms and legs and is able to speak and eat on his own. “I’m an impatient patient,” he muses. “I was told that I would never speak on my own, that my vocal cords were fully paralyzed. They told me I would never eat normal food. Now, I can even feed myself at times. But if I don’t keep working, my body regresses.”

During the first wave of the pandemic, Cahana was displaced from his room and sent to another wing of the hospital. He suffered some setbacks but says he has never lost hope and truly appreciates the small things in life that most people take for granted. “I see the wholeness of the soul with the body, and the everyday miracle to live completely.”

Despite his challenges, he has continued to teach bi-weekly classes on Jewish learning from his residence – in person before the pandemic and now via Zoom. He also has an active blog, writes poetry and is working on several projects with his children.

Cahana draws strength from his family, his voice strengthening and his eyes lighting up when he speaks of them, particularly, his wife. He says that though they must live apart because of the circumstances, they share an unbreakable bond. “My wife and I usually have the same dreams, so we live together in the nighttime,” he says poetically. His daughter, Kitra, is an award-winning photojournalist who has created photo essays of her father’s experiences and gave a powerful TedTalk in 2014 on the subject, which has been viewed over a million times.

Though he has faced tremendous adversity, Cahana continues to inspire others. When asked his advice to others facing challenges in their own lives, he replies, “you can’t function without self-love, otherwise you’re only reacting rather than creating.”

To visit Rabbi Ronnie Cahana’s blog, visit https://rabbicahana.wordpress.com.

To watch Kitra Cahana’s TED talk visit https://www.ted.com and search for Kitra Cahana.