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Teenager’s mysterious illness unites community in spirit of kindness

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When Gavi Waksman, 17, opened his “beautiful blue eyes” for the first time in days, the community breathed a collective sigh of relief after experiencing concern across the board since his mysterious collapse more than a week ago.

The well-liked teenager was in Boksburg – 30km from home – on Monday, 9 May, for an athletics cross country meeting for his school, King David High School Linksfield, when he suddenly collapsed during his race.

He was rushed to Life The Glynnwood Medical Centre in Benoni, where he remained in a deep, peaceful sleep, for days on end in the hospital’s intensive-care unit.

Only last Friday, 13 May, he tentatively opened his eyes, and is now alert and even smiles.

“On the way to the hospital, I frantically started what was to become the first of many tehillim [prayer] groups,” said his mother, Lauren.

While doctors continue to investigate what lies behind his baffling condition, communities of shuls and schools have rallied around the anguished family, holding it up during this dreadful time of fear and uncertainty.

The incident has united the Johannesburg Jewish community as news of his puzzling condition spread worldwide within minutes. A multitude of random and organised acts of kindness – too many to mention – are taking place daily in a contagious spirit of generosity, all in merit of a refuah sheleima (swift healing) for Gavriel Reuven Ben Liora.

There has been an astonishing display of magnanimity and kindness, and the family is literally awestruck by the abundance and growing groundswell of love and support from the community.

“I’m at a loss for words. The community is doing acts of kindness that we don’t even know about. It is astounding how many people have been praying for our son’s recovery and have been doing so much good in his name,” said his mother.

She and her husband, Larry, were given the keys to the Benoni Shul and house, which luckily is across the road from the hospital. The shul hasn’t seen so much activity in years, and has been the couple’s home away from home during visiting hours.

There has been a steady stream of visitors, even strangers, dropping off food and offering support. Hatzolah, which has been guiding the family through the ordeal, this week helped to transport Gavi to a new hospital in Johannesburg, which will allow the family to be closer to him.

Amid this unfolding personal crisis, this private family has been catapulted into the public eye, as the story of a young boy who slowly climbs his way back to full consciousness has gripped the hearts and minds of hundreds of people far and wide.

Friends of the family immediately rallied to look after the couple’s two younger children, Benji, 13, and Eliana, six, doing homework and arranging extra murals. A soup kitchen in Irvine, California, run by an ex-South African, is even making meals in merit of his full recovery.

To help alleviate his nagging worry about his best friend, Rafi Midzuk, 16, of Yeshiva College immediately got busy expanding the rolling tehillim groups, making sure people were praying for his friend’s recovery 24/7. At the last count, there were 1 200 people from all over saying prayers for him.

Rafi described his friend as a well-liked guy with a zest for life and a large amount of interests and hobbies including a love of Formula 1, athletics, volleyball, music, piano, and singing.

“The news came as such a shock, and the worst part is still not knowing what’s wrong and not being able to pick up the phone and give him support. The best I can do is send him voice notes,” he said.

People talk of Gavi as being wise, humble, strong, and a true mensch.

There has been a staggering number of initiatives set up in Gavi’s name from blanket, sandwich and food-parcel drives, talent shows, to night-time prayer gatherings.

Gavi’s cousin, King David Linksfield Grade 11 pupil, Ricci Waksman, who is also the co-mayor of the Johannesburg Junior Council, drove a gratitude greeting card initiative delivering hundreds of cards to nurses on International Nurses Day.

“It started off as a small project for the Johannesburg Junior Council and grew as high school kids made an insane amount of beautiful cards to show our support and love for Gavi and his family. Big cards, posters, and messages of encouragement were made for Gavi to read and keep with him as well as for the family to know that we’re there for them.”

The students collected 1 400 cards that were delivered to Milpark Hospital and Life The Glynnwood Hospital, where nurses were “gobsmacked” by the display of gratitude.

King David Linksfield and Gavi’s former school, Yeshiva College, have united in efforts designed in merit of his speedy recovery, including daily prayer sessions. Last Shabbos, the schools, together with Yeshiva Mizrachi, jointly encouraged the community to light Shabbat candles five minutes earlier.

With the help of some mothers, and for the refuah sheleima of others including Gavi, the Grade 11 group at King David Linksfield made 1 100 soup packs which will help feed more than 4 000 people in need this winter. Yeshiva Girls High School held a sandwich making drive for the needy; and Grade 11 pupils at Hirsh Lyons packed food boxes in Gavi’s name.

Messages have been sent encouraging people to give flowers to friends and family over Shabbat. Yeshiva Mizrachi and Yeshiva College hosted a special seudah shlishit as well as communal prayer sessions.

“We cannot begin to describe the overwhelming chesed and kindness in our special community and across the globe for Gavi’s full refuah. We see each day as a miracle, and we continue to pray for his recovery,” said Lauren.

“We have been so moved by the feeling of unity between the two high schools that Gavi has been a part of. The endless campaigns, visits, and messages by students, teachers, and principals of both schools has warmed our hearts,” said the couple.

“We have been particularly touched by Gavi’s friends and peers who have opened up their siddurim, put on tefillin and are rebuilding their connections to Hashem,” she said.

“One mother told me that her six-year-old daughter, in lieu of party packs, made lunch packs in Gavi’s name for his recovery, which she gave to guests at her party to give away,” she said.

“We are deeply grateful to Hashem for the miracles we have seen from the moment of Gavi’s incident onwards, accompanied by so much love, kindness, and prayer. While we don’t know what each day will bring, we’re doing all that we can to face this together, with the loving support of the community and the help of Hashem.”

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