What the Bar Mitzvah Boy Really Learned

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At about the same time that Ben started studying for his Bar Mitzvah, his father started fighting for his life.

Ben Ross doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t like the violence in the Bible, nor does he think that its stories actually happened. And if God really is the Almighty, how can Ben explain what happened to his father?
In September 2014, Dr. Michael Ross was diagnosed with Stage IV of a rare kind of colon cancer. “Michael’s case was so off-the-books that we didn’t have a standard of care to follow,” explains his oncologist, Dr. Ursina Teitelbaum of Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center. Five-year survival rates for colon cancer hover at around 6 percent. So at about the same time that Ben started studying for his Bar Mitzvah, his father started fighting for his life.
It’s a good life. Michael is a sports medicine physician and the founder and director of the Rothman Institute’s Performance Lab. He designed the lab to improve athletes’ performances by diagnosing and treating their often-unseen physical obstacles. His wife is Dr. Wendy Ross, an autism expert and the founder of Autism Inclusion Resources. Wendy believes that, with the proper support, people with autism can visit museums, attend sporting events and travel on airplanes without becoming overwhelmed and agitated. For her work, she was nominated as a 2014 CNN Hero.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Rosses were public about Michael’s diagnosis and treatment, chronicling it on Facebook and in the media. Their goals were to increase awareness about colon cancer and raise money for research for cures. The Rosses are can-do people who, when faced with cancer, were determined to kick its tush.
But the disease was a formidable opponent. It eluded imaging, playing a lethal form of peek-a-boo as it hid in the tunnels of Michael’s intestines. “It’s hard to fight what you can’t see, let alone excise,” Teitelbaum says. Following her advice and that of Dr. Daniel Labow, chief of surgical oncology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Michael decided to have cutting-edge surgery and hot chemo, a new and nasty-sounding treatment that pumps the medication directly into his abdominal cavity. It worked. Michael’s status is now NED: There is no evidence of disease in his body. The cancer is gone.
So, it was time to party. Two weeks before Ben’s March 5 Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Beth Am Israel, the Rosses sat at the kitchen table in their Wynnewood home to discuss the father-son celebration. As his mitzvah project, Ben created websites that raised more than $7,000 for Teitelbaum and Labow’s discretionary funds. The Rosses also raised money by selling blue T-shirts with yellow semi-colons that reference Michael’s now partial (or semi) colon. Michael thinks the T-shirts are not only empowering, but hysterical. There’s a saying that God has a strange sense of humor, and if that’s true, God would love the Rosses. “When life gives you cancer, you make cancer jokes,” Michael says. He’s full of them, and Ben slings zinger after zinger. Wendy mostly rolls her eyes and sighs, clearly having given up on censoring her husband or son.
This is what everyone says about the Rosses: that their unflagging optimism and infectious positivity is not only admirable, but downright heroic. Teitelbaum, a mother of three, says that Ben is a role model for other kids whose parents are going through illnesses. Labow even wrote Ben a letter bursting with praise.
Ben scoffs at the idea that he’s the poster boy for parents with cancer. Ben is quite a handful and he knows it. “So cancer turned me into a saint? Give me a break,” he says. “It didn’t change my dad, either. He was a warrior before cancer and he’s a warrior still. Cancer isn’t magic, certainly not the good kind. It’s a disease. Nothing positive comes from disease. It only does one thing: It sucks.”
That’s the truth, as plain and simple as it is refreshing. All of the community support was amazing, Ben says, but in some ways, it was camouflage for the really scary parts of last year. Ben’s parents wouldn’t tell him the survival rates for colon cancer because, they say, Michael’s form of it was rare. Ben went online and learned the sobering facts for himself. “I wish they’d just given it to me straight,” he says. “If I’m supposed to talk to my parents about everything, then that includes the stuff that’s really hard — and that includes the fact that Dad might have died. Like, let’s just be honest and talk about it.”
They did. And Ben’s right. “It did suck,” Michael admits as his eyes water with tears. “God, this is really hard to talk about. It sucked. No doubt.”
And it wasn’t fair. Michael dedicated his life to healing other people. He exercises religiously and is a vegan master of clean living. Michael did everything right but still got a rare, very deadly cancer at a young age. “No, it’s not fair,” Michael agrees as a few tears ease down his visage. “I haven’t put thoughts to this because it’s easier to dwell on the positive.”
But Ben has put thought to this, aided by his Bar Mitzvah tutor, Rabbi Yitzhak Nates of Derech HaLev, a havurah in Lower Merion Township and Jenkintown. Nates says that, whether he realizes it or not, Ben’s questioning God is quintessentially Jewish. “With Ben more than the average student, we’ve been talking about ways to live life, what’s important and how we want to spend our days,” Nates says. “He’s gravitated to larger religious questions, probably because he’s dealing with large issues.”
Truth is, Ben didn’t need to read the Bible or memorize a Haftorah to become a Jewish adult. He learned Jewish values like family, community, tikkun olam and courage by watching his parents, especially his father.
Back at the Ross’s kitchen table, Michael wishes that Ben could’ve learned those life lessons without cancer. The worst part of last year, Michael says, was the uncertainty over whether he would live or die. Watching Ben and his younger brother, Jacob, deal with his cancer was more painful than anything Michael experienced physically. As he thinks about it, Michael’s eyes fill with tears again.
“Oh, Dad,” Ben gently scolds his father as Michael lets the tears flow. Ben circles the table to where Michael sits and wraps his father in a big hug. They stay like that for a while, in what seems like a familiar embrace. Ben comforts his father with pats on the back, having no problem displaying affection. He’s proud of their bond and understands that, although Michael’s warrior status is uncontested, Ben himself is a source of his father’s strength. It seems that Ben has plenty to share. Clearly, the boy has become a man.

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