MONTREAL — Rabbi Ronnie Cahana tells a visitor to “watch this.” He says a quick prayer, tenses his lanky frame and shoots his feet out.
A triumphant smile crosses his face.
With good reason: two years ago, he was “locked in,” felled by a devastating stroke at age 57 that left him unable to move any part of his body, except his eyelids.
He remained in that state for a month and a half. Doctors did not hold out much hope.
That was July 2011. Rabbi Cahana had been spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-El for 10 years. He and wife, Karen, had five children, aged 13 to 23.
“My doctor said to me, ‘You have lived a good life, you have a lovely reputation, you can say thank you for the beautiful life you have lived,’” Rabbi Cahana recalled in an interview at Maimonides Geriatric Centre, where he has lived since November.
“She said, ‘You might get movement in some parts of your body, but we don’t think so. We think your body is completely severed from your mind.’
“Or, you might have a miracle and be restored.”
Rabbi Cahana believes that miracle has occurred – or at least, is underway, and he attributes the painfully slow but remarkable progress he has made to God.
“What has happened to me has only strengthened my faith,” he said. “Every fraction of an inch of growth is a gift from God.”
Rabbi Cahana was initially treated at St. Mary’s Hospital, then at the Montreal Neurological Institute, before spending months in a rehabilitation centre.
He made his first visit back to Beth-El on Chanukah in December 2011, when he was still a quadriplegic and had almost no audible voice. He was able to visit his home for the first time during Sukkot last fall.
Today, Rabbi Cahana speaks well, if low and with effort. Daughter Briah helps interpret when a visitor has difficulty catching a word. He has full movement of his face and neck, and operates an electric chair by himself by pressing a pedal with his head. He can control the speed and direction, as well as the angle of the seat.
He can shrug his shoulders as he proudly demonstrates, flex his fingers and move his right arm slowly – to the extent that, he said, he can feed himself. Recently, he started trying to move his chair with his a hand on a joystick.
The computer has been a godsend. Rabbi Cahana has one in his room that he uses with a mouth-held device he touches to an on-screen keyboard.
His physiotherapy continues and he is confident that what he can recover is “limitless.”
He remains a rabbi at Beth-El, a Conservative synagogue in Town of Mount Royal. The Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal conducted a community-wide campaign to help make that possible.
Rabbi Cahana attends every Shabbat service travelling by adapted transportation. When given an aliyah, he is now able to stand.
He spoke at last year’s Kol Nidre service and has taught at an Oneg Shabbat.
In June, he recited the Birkat Hamazon at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research’s gala dinner. Last month, he officiated at the wedding of non-members at Parc Jean Drapeau.
Rabbi Allan Nadler, a native Montrealer, has been the congregation’s full-time spiritual leader since January, after filling in as interim rabbi from early 2012.
The cerebral tsunami that Rabbi Cahana survived has not changed his sweet, lyrical disposition. His spiritual, almost metaphysical, approach to life remains intact, if not enhanced.
He speaks of thankfulness to the Almighty for “the gifts I have received because of the stroke.
“He has given me the extraordinary gift of learning how to live in a new dimension. He has taught me to live in slow time. There’s no more frenetic pace, no more [urgency] to be somewhere else,” said Rabbi Cahana, who was known for his boundless energy.
He has found serenity, even joy, that astonishes him.
Rabbi Cahana was never in a coma, nor did he lose consciousness when he was stricken.
“There was, of course, extreme confusion. Everything was haywire, it was chaos. The body was terribly traumatized… it just wanted to cower inward.”
The first calming presence he remembers, the one that cleared his mind, is of his eldest daughter, Kitra, reciting “the beautiful” Psalm 150, which concludes, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
His immediate worry was for his family, including his mother, the artist Alice Lok Cahana, living in the United States.
Rather than terror, Rabbi Cahana said his reaction was incredulity at being paralyzed. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.
In his mind, his physical self felt normal. Even today, he has the sensation that his limbs contain their former energy, perhaps in the way an amputee experience pain in a leg that is gone.
“I’m dancing, twirling, tumbling inside,” he explained. “I could be in the Cirque du Soleil.
When doctors first gave him the grim prognosis, Rabbi Cahana said that he “felt like I was in a fog with my feet dangling… bubbles were rising around me.”
Then he felt a tugging at his trouser leg, and he is certain it was his father, Rabbi Moshe Cahana, who had died seven years earlier.
“I’m convinced it was real. He said to me, ‘I promise you 100 per cent [recovery]…
“I screamed out, ‘Choose life,’ again and again,” he recalled. “I was afraid [the doctor] would think I was saying, ‘Lose life.’” Of course, no one heard him.
With Kitra, he learned to communicate by blinking. She would go through the alphabet and when she came to the desired letter in the word he wanted, he blinked.
In this laborious way, he wrote a letter to his mother, to allay her fears. It took 14 hours. Nevertheless, he soon began composing sermons for Beth-El in the same manner.
The first movement he regained was in his lips, and gradually he could mouth words.
Rabbi Cahana is determined to continue to regain his abilities.
“I have so much more to do in life,” he said.
He wants to keep getting better out of gratitude for the love that has been shown to him by so many and for the excellent care he has received.