From the Start, Committed to Each Other ‘in Sickness and in Health’

On a July morning in 2022, Shira Avia Zilberstein had a bone scan, a test when dealing with her type of Crohn’s colitis, a disease in which the colon is inflamed.

Afterward, she and her boyfriend of nearly a year, Emmanuel Cantor, swam in Mystic Lake, in Boston’s northwestern suburbs. Later that night, they went for dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, Oleana, in Cambridge. After they ordered, Mr. Cantor quietly asked, “So this is it?”

Ms. Zilberstein smiled. She agreed it was. Though not quite a proposal, they knew then that their relationship would likely go the distance.

“I knew I could love him on our first date,” Ms. Zilberstein said. “It was a combination of interest and excitement, with a real comfort and ease around each other.”

Like every couple starting their lives together, they didn’t know yet what challenges lay ahead of them.

The two first met at a Shabbat dinner in September 2019, when Mr. Cantor came to visit his childhood friend, Michael Zanger-Tishler, in Somerville. Ms. Zilberstein was just beginning a Ph.D. program at Harvard then. She remembered Mr. Cantor asking her interesting questions, and what an attentive listener he was.

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It was two years before the two met again, also in Somerville. In September 2021, at a dinner celebrating the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, she brought a dish of green beans and cherry tomatoes, both of which she had grown in her community garden plot. The two were seated at opposite ends of the table, but they made strong impressions on each other.

When Ms. Zilberstein asked Mr. Zanger-Tishler, who was at that time Mr. Cantor’s roommate, whether his close friend was seeing anyone, Mr. Zanger-Tishler said, “I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner.”

He then gave Mr. Cantor her phone number.

Their first date took place several weeks later at a now-closed Cambridge bar, Drifter’s Tale, where, because of Covid, they sat outside. They mostly shared about their academic interests, career goals and families.

Ms. Zilberstein, 28, a middle child with two brothers, is originally from Amherst, Mass. She is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, where she studies the intersection of culture, technology and organizations. Her bachelor’s degree is in sociology and history from Northwestern.

Mr. Cantor, also 28, grew up with two younger sisters in New York City. He received a rabbinical ordination earlier this month from Hebrew College, a pluralistic seminary in Newton, Mass. His bachelor’s degree is from Yale in women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

On their second date at Ms. Zilberstein’s apartment in Somerville, they broached their religious backgrounds. While both were raised in strongly identified Jewish homes, Mr. Cantor’s was traditionally observant; Ms. Zilberstein’s was not.

“It was so clear how much we enjoyed talking to each other,” Mr. Cantor said. “There was just a lot of excitement to talk about ideas.”

Ms. Zilberstein was reading “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” by the writer Maggie Nelson; soon Mr. Cantor was reading it, too.

They began studying the Torah portion of the week together, with each bringing texts relating to it; he would share a rabbinical commentary one week, and she would contribute a poem or social science text the next.

“It was never like he’s the expert and I’m the student,” she said. “We both were learning from each other at the same time.”

“One thing that impressed me early on was that Shira told me that every day she strives to stretch her mind, her body and her soul,” Mr. Cantor said.

This also extended to their Jewish practice.

“A lot of our Jewish life together has been honoring, embracing and also modifying the practices we grew up with,” he said. “Our Jewish practice might be different in five or 10 years.”

They began holding regular relationship check-ins, naming these Yesod, a term found in the Jewish mystical text, the kabbalah, that together mean a combination of acceptance and striving for change.

In July 2023, rather than a proposal, they invited both immediate families to Ms. Zilberstein’s parent’s home in Amherst, where each person was asked to share an item that symbolized a quality they appreciated about their family. Among the items shared: family photos, paintings, ceramics, a ritual Kiddush cup and a Lego menorah.

Two months later, they moved in together, into an apartment in Somerville.

Of course, by now, Mr. Cantor was well-aware of Ms. Zilberstein’s illness. At 14, she was diagnosed with indeterminate Crohn’s colitis. For nearly 10 years, it was managed with medication and monthly intravenous treatments. But in early 2020, it began flaring up in a more debilitating way.

Shortly after they moved in together, Mr. Cantor drove Ms. Zilberstein to the emergency room when she experienced extreme abdominal pain. It would be the first of five hospital stays over the next five months. She cycled through various treatment regimens; none of them worked. Finally, her doctors recommended a colectomy, or removal of the large intestine, resulting in an ostomy bag. She had the surgery in October 2023. They hoped that would free her of further symptoms.

But by January 2024, Ms. Zilberstein had developed a painful autoimmune skin condition accompanied by more extreme intestinal blockages. The disease was the fastest and most severe recurrence of Crohn’s disease her doctors had seen after a large intestine removal for what they thought was colitis. Once again, she faced decisions about treatments that had not worked previously, side effects from medications and postoperative recovery.

While Mr. Cantor’s pastoral training prepared him for dealing with illness, confronting that of his own partner was something different.

“Presence and accompaniment are really important,” he said. “It’s not always about saying the right thing, it’s about being there.”

Mr. Cantor realized he had a role to play in teaching their extended community how to deal with a friend’s illness. For many, bringing food was their go-to method to show support. But Ms. Zilberstein’s system couldn’t handle whatever food they made, no matter how much love they put into it.

Not only did he collect letters of love and support from their friends that she could read when feeling down, but after the colectomy, he gathered donations for a “Shira shopping spree,” to buy ostomy covers and clothing that could cover the bag.

“My training in grief work has helped me understand just how many things Shira has lost,” he said. “Beyond the concrete, meaning her G.I. system, there are lots of different kinds of loss that come with dealing with chronic illness as a young adult.”

There were some incredibly low moments for Ms. Zilberstein and those who loved her.

“The fear overtook me more than it overtook him,” said Karen Zilberstein, Ms. Zilberstein’s mother. “He was really able to hold onto the hope. They’re both such determined people, and he was determined to get her through this.”

“Emmanuel was always the first person to cheer me up and assure me how much I’m loved and accepted even if I have some detrimental medical thing or a surgery that will change me forever,” Ms. Zilberstein said.

“Obviously, we were scared,” Mr. Cantor said. “Yet throughout, I always felt that this is what I want my life to be. There was never any ‘Is this too much?’ or ‘Am I the right person for this?’”

They also kept a sense of humor about it, referring to Ms. Zilberstein’s upgraded hospital room on a later stay as a perk of her enrollment in the hospital’s “frequent stay program.”

Ms. Zilberstein read, studied and planned a wedding from her hospital bed. She also practiced yoga next to it. And she chose their wedding menu from the bed, knowing she wouldn’t eat any of it.

They were married on May 27 in front of 225 guests at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass., by Rabbi Dan Judson, a colleague and mentor of Mr. Cantor’s. They observed all the Jewish traditions, beginning with the groom being escorted by family members and friends to his bride before the ceremony, and stomping on a glass at the end.

The week after the wedding, while they were partaking in traditional “sheva brachot” — seven blessings, in the form of nightly gatherings hosted by friends for them to extend the celebration — Mr. Cantor was ordained a rabbi on June 2. On June 4, Ms. Zilberstein went back for yet another surgery, one she called “a stoma face-lift” to remove some scar tissue that was causing complications.

The couple will move to Washington, D.C., in July, where Mr. Cantor will serve as community rabbi for the Den Collective, an independent organization in the D.C. area that serves young Jews outside the walls of a synagogue. Ms. Zilberstein will be a visiting student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore while she finishes the Ph.D. program.

Given that the bride had been hospitalized two months before the wedding, being able to dance at it was not at all a given. Yet she was able to. Her parents, Shlomo and Karen Zilberstein, included in their toast, “Thank you to the doctors who made sure you were healthy enough to enjoy this day.”

When May 27, 2024

Where Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, Mass.

The Ketubah The couple wrote their own text for their marriage contract. It said, in part: “We commit to love in times of happiness and hardship, to communicate with compassion and curiosity, and to stretch our minds, bodies, and souls. We pledge to find gratitude and joy in community, beauty, and the companionship of one another, even in times of suffering or struggle.” Mr. Zanger-Tishler, the childhood friend of Mr. Cantor’s who initially connected them, was one of the witnesses who signed their ketubah.

The Ceremony Mr. Cantor was in tears throughout the ceremony. “It felt like a really serious moment of prayer,” he said.

The Reception As is traditional, the couple were hoisted in the air in chairs as people danced around them. While their mothers chose to stay on the ground, the couple’s fathers were hoisted in the air, too.

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