Refael Elisha Cohen—in critical condition with a brain tumor—has attracted the compassion of people in the Houston community and throughout the world, who are trying to offer support in any way they can.

To date, more than 80,000 people have petitioned the White House online, urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to permit the 6-year-old to receive an unapproved alternative cancer treatment, but 20,000 more online signatures are needed by a rapidly approaching Jan. 2 deadline.

The boy, who was healthy until the age of 5, has what’s known as medulloblastoma—a highly malignant brain tumor that originates in the cerebellum or posterior fossa, a small space in the skull. He had surgery to remove the brain tumor 14 months ago, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. He went into remission for a short time and the family thought he was getting better, but a routine MRI for post-treatment care showed otherwise.


After exhausting all treatments available, his doctors have told the family that there is nothing more they can do. Refael Elisha is currently at home in hospice.

However, the family heard about an alternative therapy currently not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and with it a loophole known as a “compassionate use exemption,” which would potentially allow their son to receive this therapy.

They were aware that the treatment was controversial, but still went ahead with the option.

The Cohens—Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, his wife Devorah and their six children, now ages 2 to 19—came to Houston from San Antonio three years ago.

‘Light From Darkness’

Whether or not one agrees with the controversial therapy the family is seeking, the situation has invoked compassion from many people and brought the Houston Jewish community together.

Rabbi Yaakov Cohen and Refael Elisha
Rabbi Yaakov Cohen and Refael Elisha

“They have given everybody in the community and around the world a chance to help,” says Rochel Lazaroff. With her husband, Rabbi Lazer Lazaroff, she co-directs Chabad at Texas Medical Center and Aishel House, an 18-unit facility that provides out-of-town families coping with a health issue with a place to stay, as well as spiritual support and daily kosher meals all at no charge.

At the Aishel House, Rochel Lazaroff works with sick children and their families all the time. Sometimes, kids get well. And sometimes, they don’t, and it’s difficult to watch, she says. Still, they are there to support Jewish patients and families, like the Cohens, in whatever ways they can—from the spiritual to the physical, explains Lazaroff. Like they do for many other patients, they have provided ongoing kosher meals, as well as a shoulder to cry on.

She adds that people around the world have given of themselves in all kinds of ways, and that every bit of goodness, every mitzvah, helps: “You see the power of good, the light, that comes from darkness. I’m totally moved by the amount of chesed [lovingkindness] we have seen. It just goes to show that we can change the world in an instant.”

“Yes, the situation is grim—he needs a miracle—but every click on the petition is like a hug” around the family, she adds.

Of Raphael Elisha’s mother, Devorah Teicher Cohen, Lazaroff says she’s a “guiding light for emunah [faith, belief]. She took this hardship and let people do good for her son. Everyone feels their pain to the extent that they can.

“She’s such a spiritual person. She sees everything in the hands of G‑d.”

The family also made it a point to note that they have been supported by Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky of the Aleph Institute, the Florida-based advocacy and support organization for those in institutional environments.

Right now, all they can do is offer their son pain medication. But they say he is a fighter. There is one last option, and “when someone is running,” insists Lazaroff, “you don’t tell them to stop.”

To sign the petition, go to the White House petition page.

Donations to the family, who have been struggling with medical and other bills, can be made here.