May 8, 2009

19 min read


What was the secret of her greatness?

Many women considered Sherry Dimarsky their best friend. Upon learning of her death, I cried more copiously than for anyone except my parents, although I had spent in total less than five hours in Sherry's presence. A man who was neither her relative nor close friend wrote into The Chicago Tribune two days after Sherry's death, "My tears are still flowing."

What was the magic that made Sherry Dimarsky so beloved and her death so searing to the 2,000 mourners at her funeral?

Sherry was born in 1961 in Cleveland to Polish Holocaust survivors Naftoli and Betty Berliner. Her parents were distinguished by their hands-on acts of kindness, dragging little Sherry with them to hospitals, nursing homes, and various Jewish groups. She learned young what life was all about -- or should be.

Sherry was disillusioned by the legal profession and left it to save the world a different way.

Sherry had an incisive intellect. Several people eulogized her as the smartest woman they ever met. She was determined to use her aptitude to help the downtrodden. After graduating Northwestern Law School, she got a job as a lawyer for an organization that did pro bono work for the poor. Sherry, however, was disillusioned by the legal profession, which she called "amoral." After only two years, she left it to save the world a different way. She became one of the founders and the full-time executive director of Chicago's Shalva, an organization to help Jewish women suffering from domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, she married Eliezer Dimarsky, a Russian immigrant who had studied at the illustrious Telze Yeshiva. Although Eliezer had rabbinic ordination, he worked as a computer programmer. The couple had four sons: Yehoshua Berel, Avraham Yaakov, Shmuel Leib, and Meir Yehuda, who is now ten years old.

In May, 1998, Rabbi Dimarsky started giving a class on Judaism to a small group of Russian immigrants who knew little about their Judaism. His quiet purity, aided by Sherry's dynamism, attracted an ever growing circle of students. Greg Burd, a young man who had emigrated from Russia with his family as a child, described the special warmth of the Dimarsky home:

I was sitting at a local shul for the Third Meal of Shabbos and met a nice guy next to me named Eliezer Dimarsky. We chatted for a while and then parted ways. A couple days later I got a call out of the blue, "Hi, my name is Sherry Dimarsky. You don't know me, but you met my husband at shul a couple days ago. Do you want to come over for Shabbos?" I came over and that started my relationship with the Dimarsky family. They became the closest thing I had to family besides my parents.

People had no idea what it really meant when they knocked on the Dimarskys' door Friday night and
Sherry would say "COME ON IN." That's REALLY what she meant, meaning: come into our home, share with our family, come as close as you can, be prepared to open up, contribute, get set up on a shidduch, brainstorm on how to help the Jewish people and yourself, on how to give, how to cry. "COME ON IN" meant there were almost no boundaries. And all of this while having to jump around an oxygen cord!!!

My relationship with Sherry extended to an even greater web, to my parents, sisters, grandmother, and their friends and on and on. The number of people who felt like they were really close to her, affected by her, knew that she would always have time for them, felt like she was looking out for them, does not compute given the number of hours in a week for a normal person, let alone someone who had severe health problems.

By November, the Dimarskys had founded the Heritage Russian Jewish Congregation of Chicago, which some 2,000 Russian Jews now consider their spiritual home. An outgrowth of Heritage is a growing Hebrew School of 140 children that actually attracts rather than repels its pupils.


Sherry was 36 years old when she ran out of breath. She was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, an incurable condition that produces lumps and scar tissue in the lungs. While Sarcoidosis often goes away on its own, in Sherry's case it got progressively worse. Soon she was hooked up full time to an oxygen tank, and was on the list to receive a lung transplant.

"Someone is stepping on my tube. I can't breathe."

She refused to let her illness dictate the parameters of her life. She installed a big oxygen tank in a central location in her house, so that she could move freely while hooked up to a long tube. She typically hosted 15 Shabbos guests at each meal. Amidst the hubbub, the guests stopped noticing that Sherry, busy serving the meal, was incapacitated, until she would call out: "Someone is stepping on my tube. I can't breathe."

Rabbi Levitansky of the Telze Yeshiva recalls Eliezer Dimarsky consulting him: "Sherry is on oxygen, and we have a Purim party coming up... How should we do it?" Rabbi Levitansky thought it was something small at the house. "No," Eliezer explained. "We rented a hall and have 500 people coming." Rabbi Levitansky concluded: "The question was never ‘should we do it?' but rather ‘how do we do it?'"

One of Sherry's mottos was: "What's the shaila [question]?" It meant that there's no question. To go to a Bar Mitzvah when she could barely breathe? To give a donation when they had no money? "What's the shaila?"

She visited friends, usually less ill than she was, in the hospital, "walking slowly with her oxygen in tow."

One friend recalls:

Just before Purim 1999, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; I underwent surgery and began the first round of chemo treatments.

I was reluctant to go anywhere but Sherry convinced me -- weary, fearful me who lacked get-up and go -- to drive with her. She drove me to the Cancer Wellness Center. Though attached to an oxygen tank plus needing to return home to four young sons, Sherry picked me up. Without her encouragement I would never have benefited from all the support and information and new friends that the Wellness Center offered.

Woody Allen said that 90% of life is showing up. And that's without an oxygen tank. Sherry's choice to "show up" went beyond her physical and financial limitations. Dvora, a young woman who boarded with the Dimarskys for two years, became engaged. She planned to get married in Chicago in eight weeks' time, but suddenly five weeks into the engagement, the couple decided to get married the following week in Lakewood, N.J.

On Monday night Sherry sat me down in the kitchen. "Dvora," she said, "if anyone knows the financial situation in this house, it's you. We just can't afford a trip to Lakewood right now. I'm sorry." I told her I understood, and I did. I couldn't expect everyone to jump on a plane just because we changed the locale of the wedding. But that wasn't good enough for Sherry. There is a picture of me in my wedding proofs, taken before the chuppah. Everyone who sees it wants to know what happened. I look like I'm about to jump off the platform. I was. Sherry had just walked in the back door. She told me that she just couldn't let me get married without being there.


Breath -- and time -— was running out for Sherry.

Breath -- and time -— was running out for Sherry. By the summer of 2004, she was using the maximum amount of oxygen permissible outside a hospital. It wasn't enough. Although she was at the top of the list for a transplant, upon admission to the hospital her name would be deleted from the list. Hospitalized lung patients do not qualify for transplants.

The Dimarskys waited as long as possible. Hospitalization was a death sentence. Finally, however, on a Saturday night, Sherry gave up. She said she had no more strength to fight for breath.

Early the next morning the phone rang. "It's Shelly from
Loyola," a voice announced. "We have a lung. Do you want it?"

"Thank God, I wanted it," a euphoric Sherry later wrote. "I got it, I have it. Life is utterly, indescribably
wonderful, the ultimate gift."

Sherry was as if reborn. She sent out an email to all her friends:

I write with a heart filled with joy and tear-filled eyes to let you know, each and every one of you, that I am alive, glad to be alive, thrilled to be alive, and grateful to be alive. For those who were not already notified, and for those who did get the word, I was given a second gift of life just two weeks ago with a left lung transplant at Loyola Medical Center here in Chicago. Thank God, the surgery went without a hitch, the recovery is going steadily forward, and I am re-embracing life with a joy I cannot describe.

Before Purim, 2005, she wrote to an acquaintance:

Dunno if Shirah told you but I recently experienced my own personal miracle, the gift of life in the form of a lung transplant last August. I had been critically ill with this nasty lung disease for over 8 years, and have been totally renewed with the transplant. Thank God, I am back in the fast lane again, running as fast as I can to keep up with my four boys, my husband (Eliezer), and our life, which is blessedly rich. Why do I mention all this? Well, it is the season of miracles, but really I mention it because one of the ideas I am toying with is how to get me and the guys to Israel over the summer (if not before). Coming so close to not being here, I live with a profound desire to DO IT TODAY, whatever the "it" is. The biggest "it" of all is to bring the kids (and E) back home, to Israel. E and I were there 5 years ago (before I became unable to travel), and I am itching to get back asap. The only problem is that we are deeply capitalistically impaired, and shamelessly broke, so we will have to be very creative to make this happen.

She made it happen. In August, 2006, the whole Dimarsky family came to Israel. Sherry spoke freely about how much she yearned to live in Israel and dreamed of making aliyah. Her dream would be fulfilled on January 9, 2008, when she found her final resting place in the Har Menuchot cemetery in Jerusalem.

For two and a half frenetic years, Sherry's body accepted the new lung. Then, early in 2007, despite a host of anti-rejection medications, her body started to reject the lung.

Her email letters of that period reveal a woman who relentlessly worked on herself, striving to live better even as she was dying. To a friend she wrote:

As for improving my thoughts re people, I noticed myself making mental minced meat of people as I sat in the Jewel parking lot waiting for my kids. While I might have been witty and wry, I was awful. So, I decided to find something nice to think about each of the people going through the door. Instead of thinking "Gosh, that guy has a huge gut and really needs to get rid of the comb-over" I noticed that he had his not so gorgeous teenage daughter in tow, and he was laughing with her. "What a nice and loving father," I thought. And so forth. It was just great. I didn't even mind waiting so long, and sometimes even had to be reaaaaaaaally creative to think of something nice. It was a good challenge, put me in such a positive mood, and left me feeling more tender towards all of us, even me. Yeah team.


Sherry confided her deepest thoughts and feelings to the email list of the Second Wind Lung Transplant Association, all of whose members had also undergone lung transplants.

13 Apr 2007

Because of my rapid decline, my prognosis isn't great, and I am in the midst of testing to see if I am eligible for re-tx [transplant]... So now I have my work cut out for me...

To say that this has been a challenge for me -- emotionally, spiritually, and physically -- is an understatement. I have spent a great deal of time deepening my trust in God, counting my innumerable
blessings, and cultivating my understanding that this is all good, whether obvious or not. That is not to say that I'm not sad or scared -- I have those moments too. It IS to say that I would deeply appreciate your prayers, and any encouragement you can provide. The support of my husband and kids is just amazing, as is their ability to
help me live fully in each day. Ditto for my community and friends. I know that all this love, and all these prayers, will be the net that helps hold me aloft as the road continues.

So, thanks again to all. Once again the 2ndwinders show that while our lungs may or may not be so good, our hearts are magnificent!

12 Jun 2007

Just a quick note to all in Secondwind Land that I just received notice that I am being listed for re-transplant, this time at the University of Chicago... Now that my medical efforts are being focused and that path is clear, it is time to do some real work on my spiritual efforts, which never end. Thank God for the opportunity to do
this work!

4 Jul 2007

A few months ago when I was hit hard by the diagnosis of chronic rejection, I instinctively found myself needing to face the inevitability of death (after 120 years, please!), and my fear thereof. Reading this book [Life after Life], and a few others that address the topic, I was extraordinarily comforted. I do not want to say that I look forward to dying; each moment of life is a gift that cannot be over-valued. Rather, reading these accounts helped tame my fear of the transition, and allowed me to re-evaluate my purpose here on earth

7 Jul 2007

"It's the time you have that matters, not the time you don't have."

There are so many lessons I hope I've learned in this
journey, and one of the finest is to embrace my life and give it my best with whatever gifts and tools I still possess. It brings to mind another saying that has helped keep me going: "It's the time you have
that matters, not the time you don't have."

May we all find joy in each moment -- it is always a choice to look for the good- and resist cynicism.

15 Jul 2007

The question is whether any of us have *NOT* experienced this all-consuming fatigue. It is bone deep,
nonnegotiable, elusive and still ever-present. I still have this experience many many many times a day. Sometimes I try to fight it and plow my way through, but
usually, try as I might, the fatigue is still larger than I am. It's not sleepiness, it is EXHAUSTION. During those times I try to remind myself that I am working harder just to be alive than most people ever work in
their whole life while "doing" things. Just staying alive is all-consuming. Breathe in, breathe out. And again. And again.

When you do have the energy, you can use it as you like. Consider it a great gift, and try to remember that post-tx, when one inevitably begins to take it for granted. Another idea: you can use those times to pray -- for yourself, for others, for peace, for hope. Even for the ability to pray better. You can do a spiritual accounting, make a gratitude list in your head, bless other people in your mind (or even out loud), think about the enormous amount of suffering in this world and the
enormous amount of goodness, and learn all the lessons you can. Very often I (Motormouth) cannot speak at all, even to say yes or no to a simple question. It's just too hard. But inside I can feel grateful that my
husband/kids/friends/student understand(s), I can smile (weakly, but it counts), I can lay my head down for a better time.

This is also living.

11 Nov 2007

...I feel as if I am hitting a wall. I sit here atop the waiting list waiting for my re-tx. My endurance is waaaaay down. I can barely walk across a room (on oxygen) without having a panic attack, or wanting
to collapse. I cannot exercise, I am scared to go outside alone, I am getting depressed, losing hope, and feeling like I am falling into a black hole. I have no excuses: my time is mostly my own, my house is even clean (for a change), I am technically safe, but I just can't function. I am going to clinic on Tues, and will talk to the docs, etc, then, but I am scared and need your support and prayers asap. It's so much harder this
time than it was last time -- physically harder, emotionally harder, spiritually harder. I feel so alone, so disconnected, so deflated, so disinterested in everything. Wherever I go, wherever I sit, when in bed,
when out of bed, I am dissatisfied and uncomfortable. I feel as if my chest is full of phlegm (it is), my legs and arms are atrophying (they are
certainly very weak), my mind is dulled, my hope limited.

Any ideas, folks?

13 Nov 2007

Hello all. I want to write to thank so many of you for responding with so much love and wisdom to my call for help.

You were all so understanding, as only a fellow traveler could be, of the place where I stood then. It made all the difference to me. I took many of the ideas you shared, plus a few of my own, and began to make some critical changes. I also found that once I was making my baby steps of change, other things began to fall into place, again piece by small piece, but still moving forward.

The depression has lifted, although it was a slow and steady process, very rare for me.

Another friend came to haul my O2 stuff to the car, and then I drove us to the grocery store, where she helped to unload me, parked the car, helped me get one of those electric ride 'em carts (let's admit it: they are fun),
and helped me lift the heavier items, and bring the groceries (and me) to the car. Then she helped me get back into my house (not easy, and involving a half flight of steps straight up), and was tremendously comforting. She shared with me some of her own struggles both with epilepsy and infertility, and reminded me that none of us get out of this world untouched. It helped me remember to count my blessings, at least some of the myriad which I have been given.

I even managed to use my time up early this morning to make my kids a treat and say some early prayers, a treat for me.

In short, things are looking up.

13 Dec 2007

Ah, the $64,000,000,000 question. We are still not sure what causes chronic rejection/BOS, and it is likely any number of factors, including infection (of one sort or another), reflux, or many other things. Bottom line: we
seem not to control the length of our days or our years. Our influence comes in what we do with what we are given. Dream big, live big, hope huge (there is no such thing as false hope), and every day be grateful.

14 Dec 2007

Count today. Am I using today as well as I can? It is a gift of infinite value that does not come back. Today. This moment. Now.

The joys of life post-tx can defy description. The fears of life post-tx can also defy description. Heck, life every day, tx or not, can defy description.

Hang on.

Wishing you enough gratitude to open your eyes to the beauty, and enough love to share the ride with others. Oh, I nearly forgot: wishing each and every one of us a full, quick and gentle recovery. I, for one, am hanging
on here by my fingernails (and they are pretty short).

Three weeks later, Sherry could hang on no longer. This time there was no miraculous phone call. She who had so valued every day of life ran out of days. She who had doggedly believed in hope ran out of hope. Yet she who had adamantly believed in gratitude even on her deathbed found something to be grateful for. She turned her face heavenwards and recited the blessing thanking God for creating her a Jew. Those were her last words. She was 46 years old.

At Sherry's burial in Jerusalem, Menashe Elkin, who had known the Dimarskys in Chicago, approached Sherry's fifteen-year-old son Aiyi to express his condolences. The boy surprised him by asserting how lucky he was. Menashe could not believe that a child standing over his mother's grave could consider himself lucky. "Why? What do you mean?"

Aiyi replied that many people lose their parents in sudden deaths, without time to prepare. "Although our mother was sick," Aiyi explained, "we had many years to be with her."

As Sherry had written, "It's the time you have
that matters, not the time you don't have."

Sara Yoheved Rigler will be speaking in Teaneck, Philadelphia, and Cherry Hill in March. For her complete schedule, click here.
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