I have always been fascinated by people who undergo radical change. It’s a herculean feat to do battle with one’s innate self, and most of us struggle not to revert back to the default position at which our natures are set. While we may refine our character traits and evolve in the spiritual or career path we choose to take, our personalities are pretty much stamped by the time we’re two years old. Of course there are those who—with great intention and strength of will—transcend their limitations and reconfigure themselves into different shapes, but generally it is rare to encounter individuals who have strayed so far from the person they used to be that you barely recognize them anymore.
And yet, there are those people who take us by surprise, and I am always eager to ferret them out. Perhaps it is my own personal need that drives my ongoing search; I want assurance that I can still change my warts and flaws and branch out into new emotional, spiritual and professional terrain, even at this late stage of my life. I want to be privy to their secrets, learn their strategies and skills, glean insights and lessons on how to pivot 180 degrees. I’ve met a man who lost 500 pounds on his own (no gastric bypass), a woman who went to school for the first time at the age of 86, and a Palm Beach socialite who gave up all her trappings of wealth and privilege to lead a simpler life. But none of them elicits within me as much surprise and awe as Chaya Lipshcutz, Boro Park’s own “Health Hero,” as she was aptly described by the secular national magazine, Prevention.
I can rightfully say that I knew Chaya “when.” Or perhaps “before” is the better word. Before she was placed on the public stage, front and center, where she occasionally finds herself bathed in the dazzling lights of television cameras, her feats drawing continuous media applause. A media that normally doesn’t fawn over a chareidi woman dressed in high necked blouses and long skirts. But it has embraced her—with ardor. She’s appeared on, among others, ABC, Fox News, WPIX, and NPR (National Public Radio); been featured on the pages of such diverse publications as the New York Daily News, New York Post, The Jerusalem Post, London’s The Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish Press, Yated Ne’eman, and has spoken at numerous venues, eloquently and with poised confidence, all in the service of her cause.
“I don’t do this for personal publicity,” she insists, and I believe her. “I just want to galvanize more people.” I watch some of the footage and shake my head in disbelief. What happened to the shy, retiring young woman I once knew, a gentle lamb who apparently has turned into a fierce lioness, rising up to protect and save.
Her metamorphosis startles everyone who knew her “before.” “Chaya?” they blink in shock. “Chaya Lipschutz is the famous kidney matchmaker?” For all those who remember her 15 years ago as an extremely eidel but unobtrusive presence, her current status as a fearless activist certainly strikes a discordant note.
I first met Chaya when I joined a Jewish non-profit organization in late ’96. The first Small Miracles book was slated for publication in April 1997, and as we could not predict whether it would take off or not, there were no plans for a sequel (Baruch Hashem there were seven). I was in a “wait and see mode,” so I accepted this part-time job in public relations with alacrity. I had worked in secular Jewish and modern-Orthodox organizations before and basically was at ease in my surroundings, but at the end of the day I always felt like an “outlier.”