Community rallies to ease Druze family’s pain during crisis
Pittsburgh's Jews embrace family of dying IDF soldier with meals, housing, solace. Family inspires Jewish Pittsburgh in return.
Eihab Falah always had a knack for bringing family together.
The 25-year-old Druze from Kafr Sumay`A, a village of 2,500 people in northern Israel, loved hanging out with his sisters, brothers, parents and cousins even more than with his friends. By Thursday each week, Eihab, a captain in the Israel Defense Forces, would message his family’s WhatsApp group to arrange weekend plans. His cell phone was filled with photos of his family.
What Eihab could not have expected was that his family would grow exponentially, and include dozens of Jewish Pittsburghers, in the span of six weeks.
Eihab was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain cancer on May 25, just weeks away from beginning medical school. In October, when efforts at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem could not get the cancer under control, the Falahs learned of a surgery at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital that offered hope.
The Falahs had never heard of Pittsburgh until that week, the same week of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting.
“We kept listening to the news,” said Eihab’s sister Eva, a medical student in Israel. “It was so awful — the shooting. But what happened in Pittsburgh after the shooting, the whole community of Pittsburgh came together, saying they were ‘stronger than hate.’ We fell in love with it then.”
“We asked Eihab if he was afraid to go there after the shooting,” said his oldest sister, Batla, a cardiologist in Israel. “He said, ‘to the contrary.’”
The family did not know a soul in Pittsburgh, but that was about to change
in a big way.
A staff member at UPMC’s International Relations Department reached out to Zipora Gur, executive director of Classrooms Without Borders, a non-profit educational organization that has conducted programs in Israel. Gur quickly contacted her friends, Michael and Amy Bernstein, to see if they had any thoughts on where the Falahs — mother Fadila, father Zaid, and sisters Batla and Eva — could stay for a couple weeks. The Bernsteins immediately offered a carriage house on their own Squirrel Hill property.
Gur then got in touch with Anat Talmy, an Israeli who has lived in Pittsburgh for 15 years and a volunteer with CWB, urging her to rally the Pittsburgh Israeli community to take care of the Falahs.
“They landed on Dec. 14,” recalled Talmy. “The next day I got a call from Tsipy telling me that an Israeli family had landed, and that the Israelis need to take care of them, that as Israelis, it’s up to us to care of them.”
“The Druze are an integral part of Israel,” Talmy explained. “They are like my brothers and sisters.”
The Druze comprise about 2 percent of the population of Israel, according to the Pew Research Center. Their tradition dates back to the 11th century and incorporates elements of Islam, Hinduism, classical Greek philosophy and Judaism. In 1948, many Druze fought for Israel, and today many serve in elite units in the IDF.
Upon meeting the Falahs, Talmy said, she immediately felt a connection with them, and knew she would be “very involved” in helping however she could.
To rally her friends in the Pittsburgh community, she created a WhatsApp group, and posted on Facebook, seeking volunteers to bring meals to the Falahs and to visit them at the hospital. As fluency in Hebrew was a plus, dozens of Israelis answered the call to help.
Nina Butler, who runs Bikur Cholim of Pittsburgh — a non-profit that helps Orthodox Jewish patients and their families who are receiving medical treatment in the Pittsburgh area with Shabbat observance and kashrut — also helped to organize volunteers through a website that tracked meal assignments and visits, and provided updates on Eihab’s condition. Because of kashrut issues, it is generally members of the Orthodox community who participate in helping families through Bikur Cholim, but because the Druze do not keep kosher, the opportunity to help was available to a wider swath of Jewish Pittsburghers.
“A lot of the people who came to visit and made meals were Israelis, or American Jews who were connected to the Israeli community,” said Talmy. “The Falahs came from Israel to a strange city and they didn’t know a single person. The Israelis wanted the Falah family to feel like they are not alone and that we would support them.”
Everyone who met the Falah family “fell in love with them and wanted to come back,” Talmy said. “The family really inspired everyone who came to visit.”
Eihab underwent surgery on Dec. 20, but the doctors were unable to remove the entire tumor. By Dec. 31, he had taken a turn for the worse and was back in the ICU. His two brothers joined the family in Pittsburgh, as did his brother-in-law and his cousin.
The extended Falah clan offered to move to a hotel, as they now numbered eight, but the Bernsteins insisted they remain with them.
Every single night, Talmy’s friends and friends of her friends brought the Falahs a hot, home-cooked meal. Often, they brought lunch as well. People slid generous gift cards to Giant Eagle under the door of the carriage house. Marlene Behrmann Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, became the family’s medical advocate and liaison for help in treatment. Rabbi Seth Adelson, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, became their de facto pastor.
“I told them I didn’t know anything about their traditions, but if it’s appropriate, in my tradition I can say prayers on Eihab’s behalf,” Adelson said. At the hospital, Adelson recited mi sheberach, the prayer for the sick, as well as Psalms.
Eihab was a fighter, but tragically lost his battle with cancer and died on Jan. 20. Although the family would be taking his body back to Israel for burial, they decided to first have a memorial service in Pittsburgh to thank the community to whom they had grown so close. Adelson officiated, reading from Ecclesiastes and chanting the El Maleh Rahamim prayer at the Jan. 22 service at the Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel. More than 50 Pittsburghers came to offer condolences to the Falahs and to pay their last respects to Eihab. At the service, the Falah family wore “Stronger than Hate” T-shirts.
“We wanted to say thank you,” said Eva. “We felt we found a second home in Pittsburgh. It really felt like family. We all felt connected and we haven’t been alone all this time.”
The Falahs inspired all who came to know them, their deep love and devotion to each other pouring out onto their visitors as well, according to Behrmann Cohen.
“I’ve never seen a family so concerned about the well-being of the people who came to visit,” she said. “As the news became less good, and Eihab was in terrible pain, they showed each other incredible respect and love, and showed it to everybody else as well. These people touched me very deeply, and I am of the view that I have a lifelong connection with them.”
Eihab was never alone, according to Talmy. A sibling was always by his side each night, while the others took turns napping in the hospital waiting room. The entire family spent all day, every day, at the hospital.
“We came to give them strength, and we left with strength ourselves,” said Talmy, translating a phrase from Hebrew. “I was there every day with them. I just had to be with them. I love them like my own family.”
Although they were here less than two months, “it feels like we’ve known these people for our whole life,” Batla said of Jewish Pittsburgh. “I don’t know if there are deep enough words for thank you. We love you.”
Before they left for the airport on Jan. 23, the Falahs left donations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Our Victims of Terror Fund, as well as Bikur Cholim. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at