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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this year on the evening of Sept. 13. On that day Micha Cohen, 35, who recently had to give up his job as an evangelist with Jews for Jesus, will be remembering how he spent eight to 10 hours a day on the street, six days a week, during intensive outreach campaigns.
He faced strong opposition. Once in Israel, two Orthodox Jewish men knocked down his booth and beat him viciously with a stick. When they left, two veiled Muslim women came up and asked incredulously, “Why did those men attack you?” Cohen answered, “Because we believe in Jesus.” The women asked, “Why didn’t you fight back?” Cohen replied, “Because we believe in Jesus.” Intrigued, the women took two Arabic New Testaments.
Much of Cohen’s zeal could be traced to his mother, a woman he remembers as “totally in love with Jesus.” She raised her hands during worship at the Lutheran church of his childhood (the only lady there to do so) and burst into song to God over a sunset. When Huntington’s disease ravaged her body so that walking and speech were impossible, she sang persistently—praise intelligible only to God.
It’s not always easy to understand Cohen himself as he discusses his mom’s legacy or his evangelistic work. He often slurs his words as facial muscles twitch uncontrollably.
In addition to his mother’s vibrant faith, Cohen inherited something else: the gene for Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that causes progressive loss of muscle, nerve, and motor control to the point of paralysis and then death. It’s a disease without a cure.
Cohen was 12 years old when he learned his mom had Huntington’s. He also learned he had a 50 percent chance of having it as well. But he postponed genetic testing until his own body parts started to twitch involuntarily. Finally, in 2012, he sought and received genetic test confirmation. All along, though, he tried to make his time count. No better way to do that, he figured, than to spend his days telling folks about the only hope to be found amid a death sentence: the forgiveness and eternal life found in Jesus.
Watching God work through weakness is why, despite regular pain and depression, Cohen calls Huntington’s disease ‘a gift to help me grow.’
Now, his unsteady gait keeps him from street evangelism, but he still engages people in online chat rooms and uses voice recognition software to substitute for fingers that can no longer type, since they stick out at right angles from his wrist. Some days he leaves his home in Wheeling, Ill., and strikes up spiritual conversations at the gas station, grocery store, or doctor’s office.
Especially the doctor’s office. Huntington’s affects so many cognitive and physiological systems that sufferers consult a team of doctors on a regular basis. Cohen jokingly refers to his appointments as “medical missions trips” because he unfailingly asks his doctors, “Who do you think Jesus is?”
Watching God work through weakness is why, despite regular pain and depression, Cohen calls Huntington’s disease “a gift to help me grow.” His wife, Leah, concurs, saying her husband’s needs have forced her to give up “being a control freak” and have also helped their two daughters (9 and 10 years old) not be wrapped up in themselves. Days and nights are hard, though. Cohen puts on an apron before eating. It’s a victory when he doesn’t choke on food.
Prone to daily injuries, Cohen recalls the bruises on his mother’s face after she would fall against a post or cabinet. He recalls his dad running downstairs and shouting happily, “Your mom fell down in the closet but didn’t get hurt so let’s celebrate with cake and ice cream!” When Cohen curls up on the kitchen floor with sudden exhaustion, he remembers his mom lying on the grass, taking a desperately needed break during a walk to church.
Choosing and planning his activities is increasingly difficult, so Cohen occasionally stares blankly at his computer screen or wanders aimlessly around his house. The gentle demeanor can descend into intense outbursts: Leah says it’s hard when “your loved one becomes a different person.” A Mayo Clinic warning is a sobering view of the future: A person with Huntington’s “will likely be confined to a bed and unable to speak.”
But Cohen says Huntington’s disease gives his witness credibility. He tells people, “I’m dying, but I know 100 percent that I’m going to heaven.” He says they can have that hope too.
—Jeff Koch is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course