Chaiya Drabkin was a cancer survivor. Although it was decreed that she be taken in the end, emotionally she never succumbed to her illness. Instead, she took it on as a challenge, one that she passed with flying colors – yellow and blue, to be exact. These were the colors of her unique business cards, which she handed out freely in the chemo ward where she received treatment. Listed on this “business card,” against a backdrop of light blue with a cheerful yellow sun on the side, were her phone number and email address, inviting other patients – regardless of ethnicity or religion – to contact her for support. And that, concur all who knew and loved her, was typical Chaiya.
As the stories and memories emerge, I begin to realize how pathetic it is to try and encapsulate such a tremendous person in a short magazine article. Yet for Chaiya, a”h, there was nothing too small and nothing too large: every challenge, every situation, was an opportunity to give and grow. And it is with that approach in mind that I attempt to provide a glimpse of this one-of-a-kind woman.
Bringing Happiness to Others
Chaiya is known in Baltimore for founding and co-directing the Jewish Caring Network, launched a number of years ago as Gevuras Yarden. Seeing a need to help families facing life-threatening or serious illnesses, Chaiya launched this nonprofit organization with her friend Keren Traub, helping fellow Baltimoreans for years before she herself fell ill.
Chaiya’s upbeat attitude and her passion to spread this joy is what made her approach to helping people so unique. The question in her mind was always, “What can we do to bring happiness to people’s lives?”
So, for example, when a family had a loved one in the hospital, they’d return home to find a package containing blankets and fuzzy slippers in the right sizes – items that could help them feel as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. To Chaiya, it was never just about the bare essentials; it was about understanding another person and making him or her happy.
When it came to giving, Chaiya was truly a professional in her field. Never mind that she was already a mother, wife, and music teacher when she started Gevuras Yarden; when there’s room in the heart, there’s time in the day. And Chaiya had time for everyone.
The very foundation of Gevuras Yarden, says Becky Caplan, Chaiya’s close friend and JCN co-director, is a testament to Chaiya’s character. Her friend’s husband was sick – so she and Keren jumped to the challenge and began an organization in his zechus. But Chaiya wasn’t satisfied with letting others do the work while she directed them; she’d receive a phone call and the next thing you knew, she’d be jumping in her car to go clean another person’s house or help them out however they needed – often without telling anyone about it.
Perhaps Chaiya’s message is that it’s an honor to be able to help. “Don’t ask; just do” was her motto.
“It’s an art to do chesed properly, so people won’t feel like it’s chesed,” Keren Traub points out. Jews, she says, don’t want to be takers; we want to be givers. Chaiya understood this and constantly reminded people that they would at some point be able to give back. And this did come true for some determined recipients – like Stacey Goldenberg, who today serves as the organization’s operational director.
Elana Blumenthal, one of Chaiya’s daughters, shares a refrain of her mother’s: “Often, people make the chesed about themselves, but you have to do what’s helpful to the other person.” Even throughout her illness, Chaiya kept a list of what she would want to do for others in her situation.
Not surprisingly, a tremendous amount of money goes into JCN’s many projects. Just the cleaning fund, for instance, which helps keeps homes functional when parents are preoccupied and strapped for cash with a serious illness in the family, can cost over $45,000 per year. About $10,000 a month is needed for the Tikva House, a beautiful guest home located near Johns Hopkins where families of patients undergoing treatment at the hospital can stay free of charge. So many details are involved – and Chaiya overlooked nothing.
Chaiya’s heart let her see situations from a totally different angle than other people did. Even if a family became difficult to deal with, Chaiya would say, “But what about the kids?” She had a wisdom that enabled her to remember all the details involved in other people’s lives – down to the names of her friends’ grandchildren, Becky remembers. “She held it all in her mind because it was engraved on her heart. Wherever she went, she carried it, because she was feeling it.”
And intertwined with this love for others came a steadfast honesty. “She knew all the secrets [of the families that JCN helped] and divulged nothing,” Becky says. “She was 100 percent trustworthy.”
This went hand-in-hand with her complete submission to daas Torah on all matters. She always consulted Rabbi Mordechai Schuchatowitz regarding JCN matters and always, always complied.
The Language of the Soul
Music, as they say, is the language of the soul. And Chaiya’s soul was a passionate and lofty one, filled with a tremendous love for life that expressed itself in her music. Instruments came to life in her hands, bringing endless light to her home, to the lives of the students she taught, and to the hearts of the sick or needy people for whom she played.
Rabbi Yitzchok Sanders, principal of Bais Yaakov Lower Elementary School, tells fondly of the incredible work Mrs. Drabkin did as fifth-grade music teacher, instructing countless Bais Yaakov students in recorder playing. At first, he says, the playing sounds a lot more like squeaking than anything vaguely reminiscent of music. But Mrs. Drabkin wasn’t fazed by the nerve-grinding sounds; she encouraged the girls constantly, giving warmth and smiles and careful guidance, until, incredibly, the sound of real recorder music could be heard through the halls of Bais Yaakov.
However, Rabbi Sanders shares, it wasn’t only the staff and parents who found the transformation amazing; one Bais Yaakov bus driver joined the crowd of Mrs. Drabkin admirers when he heard the results. The girls had been practicing their recorder lessons on their way home from school – and the driver was so taken with them that he came with his wife to watch the recital. He just had to see the person who’d brought about such a musical makeover. He may have been a sideliner, but he, too, was inspired by Mrs. Drabkin.
Aside from fifth grade recorder, Mrs. Drabkin also taught guitar as an elective for the twelfth grade of Bais Yaakov, in addition to the private music lessons she gave at home. Despite her many students, Mrs. Drabkin made space in her heart for each one, bringing out their best musical talents and connecting on an emotional level as well. As Rabbi Sanders explains, “She had a standard, but she had so many ways of helping people meet the standard.”
He adds an oft-repeated line from Rabbi Mendel Freedman, z”l, who used to say about the recorder practice, “It isn’t just about music; it’s a lesson about life. If you put your mind to something, you can succeed.”
This, indeed, was the basis of what Mrs. Drabkin always told her students: “Slow practice makes fast progress!” And boy, did they progress.
“The Person with the Big Smile”
Throughout Baltimore, Chaiya was known for her trademark smile. Even the bank tellers knew her that way. Her daughter Elana recalls how her mother once sent her to the bank and told her, “Tell the teller you’re the daughter of the person with the big smile—because every time I go there, she comments on my smile.” The bank teller handed Elana a slip with a smiley scrawled on it and told her to give it to her mother; she was sending a smile back.
“A lot of people told us during the shiva that they loved all the hespedim, but something was left out – nobody mentioned how funny she was!” Elana remarks. “She always enjoyed bringing humor into her relationships, whether with family, friends, students, or colleagues.”
This joie de vivre extended through her illness as well. When the nurses inserted a port as an access point for chemo and IV lines, Mrs. Drabkin made herself special customized stickers with sailboats that read, “I’m a happy boat. I love my port.”
Once, when things were particularly difficult, Keren walked in and asked Chaiya how she was. “She touched my arm and said, ‘It’s all from Hashem, it’s all good.’” Chaiya also made time to speak to the girls of Bais Yaakov High School, who were so worried about her, giving them strength to cope with her illness. She had no complaints against Hashem.
Her son Eli recounts that on especially hard days, when asked how she was feeling, she would answer, “Im yirtzeh Hashem, tomorrow will be better.” And when talking about her illness, she differentiated between denial and believing; while some might say that by hoping so much for a cure, she was denying the nature of the illness, she stated that instead she was believing – of course, Hashem could do anything to cure her.
Throughout my conversations with Chaiya’s family and friends, I am struck by one thing: Even though the nature of these phone calls is somber, the happy memories and camaraderie that spill through the phone lines almost make me forget the tragic circumstances. Perhaps the greatest proof of a person’s true character is in how her children turn out – and Mrs. Drabkin’s children are, without doubt, fun people to talk to, even at this painful time.
Giving Is Living
It wasn’t just people who benefited from Chaiya’s love – animals did as well. “Anything that had a breath of life in it, she loved,” says daughter Adina Kravetz. Over the years, the family collected countless pets as Chaiya rescued and nurtured baby animals back to health.
In one particularly memorable incident, Chaiya’s son Ari found an injured hawk hopping around on someone’s lawn. He quickly got his mother, who threw a towel over it, carefully picked it up (wearing gloves), and then handed it to Ari to hold while they brought it to a bird sanctuary. Afterwards, the bird sanctuary contacted them and said that the bird had a concussion and a fractured wing. They were able to nurse it back to health and then release it into the wild.
And then there was the tiny kitten someone found in their garage just a year and a half ago, when she was already very sick. The helpless creature didn’t look like it would survive the night, but Chaiya took it home, nurtured it, and sought out medical treatment, eventually finding it a permanent home with her parents, where it still thrives today.
Elana remembers one particular elderly woman with whom the family was acquainted. The woman lived alone and her only daughter was far away. Chaiya would check on this woman every morning and evening and take care of her. She even fed a stray cat that this woman had “adopted.” Cat care became a regular ritual in the Drabkin home, as Chaiya would bake a potato each night and place it under a towel in a box that her husband, Joel, had found, so the cat would have somewhere warm to sleep.
For such a loving individual, it should be hard to pick one supreme love of Chaiya’s life. But to the contrary, no matter what else she was involved in, Chaiya had a fierce love for her family that trumped all else. Every family member was a treasure to her – even her children-in-law attest that they were just as beloved to her as her own children.
Her youngest son, Avi, recounts that his mother would wake up extra early every morning to make him a breakfast omelet, and then sit with him while they waited for his carpool to come. She did this until she was unable to do so anymore. For Aliza, Chaiya’s youngest daughter, a favorite memory is of her mother standing on the curb, waving goodbye as the carpool van drove away – and continuing to wave until the children couldn’t see her anymore. Because she always wanted her children to know that no matter when they looked back, she would always be standing there, waiting for them.
And grandchildren were the highlight of Chaiya’s life. She loved to say that she was the prototypical grandmother, showing off pictures of the grandkids to those who asked – and those who didn’t. She made “Mommy and Me” classes for her grandchildren and their mothers and loved to spend time with them, despite her illness.
At the shiva house, a close friend of Mrs. Drabkin shared that Chaiya had once told her that “the only things I want in life are to be a mommy and a music teacher” – and she truly accomplished that.
At the very end of Chaiya’s life, her family and close friends Stacey Goldenberg and Miriam Blajcman gathered in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was receiving treatment. At that point, Chaiya could no longer muster the strength to speak. The visitors were being hosted and taken care of by the Posner, Friedman, and Weinbaum families, who showed incredible and selfless chesed for these people whom they’d never met, enabling the Drabkins to be together at this emotion-fraught time.
But rather than weeping, it was the sounds of music and singing and the harmony of children come together that flowed out into the dismal hospital corridor that day. And then, in her weakened state, Chaiya managed to call out, “B.” Someone had hit an errant note, and she could still hear the difference.
It’s also not surprising that after not speaking for two days, the last word she uttered, only six hours before she passed away, was “Amen,” in response to Rabbi Shuchatowitz’s bracha in that Alabama hospital room.
“Even without cancer, she would have gone straight to Heaven,” Becky says. “Gevuras Yarden is unimaginable without her.”
“We can’t just say she was great,” adds Keren. “I feel like there’s something so much bigger here.”
Yehi zichrah baruch.
The Jewish Caring Network wishes to inform the Baltimore community of the new fund it will be setting up in Chaiya’s memory. Checks can be sent to The Jewish Caring Network: 122 Slade Ave., Suite 100a, Baltimore, MD 21208.
In addition, the Drabkin family is collecting memories of Chaiya. Please send your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org.