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Bar mitzvah boy doesn’t let leukemia derail big day

Owen and Lesly Weinstein

Like any bar mitzvah boy, Owen Weinstein is relieved it’s over.

“At first I was a bit nervous,” he told The CJN, wearing a high-wattage smile, “but in the middle of it, I was just like, ‘it’s no big deal.’”

Now, like any young teen, Owen can go back to his hobbies: skateboarding, basketball, hockey and drones.

The Grade 7 student at Cedarvale Community School also returns to fighting leukemia, which almost derailed his big milestone.

Owen was diagnosed with Philadelphia-like acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a high-risk form of the disease, in January 2014, when he was nine. He began high intensity chemotherapy the very evening of his diagnosis, and for the next year, he underwent treatment at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

In January 2015, he transitioned to the maintenance phase of treatment, which allowed him to do oral chemotherapy at home daily and to come to SickKids for outpatient treatment and monitoring.

He completed treatments in February 2016, after 682 days of chemotherapy and 89 nights spent in hospital.

But over this past Family Day weekend, Owen relapsed and was readmitted to hospital. His parents, Lesly and Peter Weinstein, cancelled his bar mitzvah, which was planned for March 18 at Beth Tzedec Congregation.

However, Owen bounced back and was released from hospital on March 15.

At that point, “we had three options,” said Lesly, who’s on leave from her job at the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC). “One was that we could have something at Beth Tzedec as planned, the other was to have something at SickKids, and the third was to have something next year.”

Owen was well enough to chant his parsha, Ki Tisa, before 150 guests at Beth Tzedec on March 18, as scheduled.

In case of tears, his mother did not wear makeup, “but I did not cry through the ceremony,” she said. “I kept it together.

“My fear was [that] his bar mitzvah would be a pity party. It did not turn out that way. Owen carried the whole service.” His mother credits her son’s positive attitude and good spirits.

In fact, during the dvar Torah that Owen wrote at the last minute, he broke out laughing.

“He laughed so hard. For a minute he couldn’t stop laughing. He was crying and laughing at the same time,” said Yacov Fruchter, Beth Tzedec’s director of community building and spiritual engagement, who presided over the ceremony.

“We did everything we could to make the experience normal and meaningful to honour his current reality.”

Fruchter said Cantor Sidney Ezer, Beth Tzedec’s chazzan sheni, travelled regularly to SickKids to teach Owen his Torah portion.

The next step for Owen is a stem cell transplant, slated for sometime this summer.

Meanwhile, he said he’s tired, “but other than that, I’m fine.”