Eitan Ashman and Rabbi Johnny Solomon
From Efrat to Atlanta: Raising Awareness of Aphasia
BY KALLY KISLOWICZ
Eitan Ashman, 42, was the ultimate community member and family man. Owner of a property management business, CrossFit instructor, volunteer paramedic, and ambulance driver, Eitan regularly made time to give shiurim in Efrat, where he lived with his wife Leora and their 4 teenagers.
But in 2017, the Ashmans’ world shattered. Eitan suffered a massive stroke, which extensively damaged the left hemisphere of his brain. After months in the hospital, he was unable to use his right arm, and had minimal use of his right leg. Eitan experienced memory loss, chronic pain, and fatigue. Most devastating of all, the stroke left Eitan with aphasia, a language disorder that affects communication and comprehension.
Eitan’s aphasia, known as Broca’s aphasia, means that he can conceptualize words, but has tremendous difficulty articulating them. Following the stroke, Eitan could only say the word ‘savta’. While he knew what he wanted to say, he was only able to repeat this one word. Years of hard work and therapy have helped to expand Eitan’s vocabulary, but communication is still frustratingly slow. Eitan remains as intelligent, kind, and funny as ever, but his language, his comprehension, and his ability to read and write are limited.
Aphasia has no cure, but many people show improvement over time. And while approximately two million Americans suffer from aphasia, most people have never heard of it. The Ashmans are working to change that.
After Eitan’s stroke, Leora created Koach Eitan (Eitan’s Strength), a Facebook group intended to provide updates about his condition. Koach Eitan has since grown into an organization whose mission is to spread awareness of and provide resources for people living with aphasia and or the effects of stroke, and now, also creating a worldwide Jewish network and support for those with aphasia. Aphasia can lead to social isolation, so Koach Eitan launched initiatives to promote inclusion. The I’m ME project encourages people to see beyond the disability and connect with the individual. The LET’S TALK initiative offers guidance on how to speak to someone with aphasia. Koach Eitan has become a lifeline, fielding calls from people and family members who need information, support, and assistance navigating the medical system.
Last month, Koach Eitan launched a major awareness campaign: World Aphasia Shabbat. On June 16th, 2023, participating shuls throughout the world learned how to understand, communicate with, and include those with aphasia and other language impairments. Shul can be intimidating to someone who cannot read or speak with ease, but these communities learned how they can make it a welcoming space for those with disabilities.
World Aphasia Shabbat is a joint project between Koach Eitan and Congregation Ohr HaTorah of Atlanta, where Jeff Weener, an active member of his community with aphasia, is a congregant. Jeff reached out to Koach Eitan in search of support and Jewish connection, and with the encouragement of Rabbi Adam Starr, World Aphasia Shabbat was born.
Efrat resident, Abi Moskovitz explained why this Shabbat was necessary: “Jewish communal life provides us with a religious and social framework for our everyday lives. Imagine, for a moment, if you were not able to communicate with those around you; you couldn’t easily wish your neighbor a ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ make the berachah for an aliyah l’Torah, or strike up a conversation at a kiddush. You would feel alienated and excluded, despite your community’s best intentions. This Shabbat was an effort to teach the Jewish world, a world so steeped in verbal dialogue and tradition, how to include those with aphasia.”
Eitan’s continued recovery, like Jeff’s and so many others, is a result of his hard work, and the commitment of his family, friends and community, who have cultivated skills to engage him in conversation and keep his mind and body active. With the help of Rabbi Johnny Solomon, the Ashmans have developed creative solutions which empower Eitan to participate in day-to-day activities as well as in Jewish life. Visit koacheitan.com to learn more about these creative approaches to helping those with aphasia and other language impairments.
Kally Kislowicz made Aliyah from Cleveland,Ohio, to Efrat in 2016.