In the last six months of his life, Netanel Shalom Ouanounou became a symbol of religious freedom and human rights for many people. In death, he was remembered as a young man who inspired many good deeds, fostered community unity and was a devoted and loving friend.
Ouanounou, 25, died on March 8, with his family by his side. His mother, Rebecca Ouanounou, had been with him every day since he was hooked up to life-support machines, after suffering a severe asthmatic attack in September.
His fate had been the subject of a protracted legal case that had not yet run its course. Lawyers for Humber River Hospital had claimed that Ouanounou was brain dead and they wanted to remove him from life support.
Ouanounou’s family, meanwhile, argued that his condition did not meet the Jewish definition of death, which occurs when the heart and lungs stop working. They had asked for a religious exemption, similar to one that exists in New Jersey, where hospitals have agreed to accommodate the religious beliefs of Orthodox Jews by keeping patients on life support as long as the heart and lungs are functioning.
A Superior Court judge granted a temporary injunction in November 2017 and, only a few weeks ago, the court reconvened to hear legal arguments that were expected to determine Ouanounou’s ultimate fate. His father, Max Ouanounou, said that his son had moved his fingers on command, suggesting that there was still activity in the brain.
Over two days of hearings, the court was packed with onlookers, many from the Orthodox Jewish community, who were concerned that the court might side with the hospital, contrary to the Ouanounou family’s wishes and Jewish law.
At his funeral on March 9, several rabbis delivered eulogies, with one lamenting that “a young sapling had been taken from our community.
“It’s hard for the parents, hard for the family, it’s hard for the whole kehillah,” the rabbi said.
“Ha-Shem (God) gave him these extra months,” he continued. “Yesterday, ha-Shem took this neshamah (soul). We don’t understand ha-Shem’s ways.”
Stating a theme that would be repeated by the other rabbis who eulogized Ouanounou, the rabbi said that his fate prompted others to perform good deeds and live a more Jewish life, and that he brought the Jewish community closer together.
A second rabbi noted that Ouanounou’s case demonstrated that “every moment of life is precious.”
A doctor is mandated to heal life, not end it, he added.
No matter who you were, how you looked, he was there to listen, no matter what.
– Moshe Weinstein
Hugh Scher, a lawyer who argued the case in court, said Ouanounou would be remembered as “a champion of human rights, fighting for religious liberty, equality, not only for himself, but for the entire community.”
Ouanounou’s legacy would be characterized by “three Cs: commitment, courage and community,” he added.
Meanwhile, Yonathan Abihsira, one of Ouanounou’s close friends, recalled him as “the coolest guy,” who had the newest gadgets, was always well dressed and carried himself with something approaching swagger.
His smile could lift your spirits and he was a caring guy who always held out a helping hand, Abihsira said.
“He was calm, cool and collected and gave the best advice.”
Moshe Weinstein recalled his friend as someone who was like an older brother to him and was “open to everyone, was kind to everyone.”
“No matter who you were, how you looked, he was there to listen, no matter what,” Weinstein said.
“He’s gone but not forgotten.”