Bar mitzva traditionally marks a boy’s reaching the milestone year of 13.
This month, attorney Lee March Grayson of Randolph used the time-honored ritual to mark another milestone — 13 years of remission from an acute and life-threatening form of leukemia.
When he made a return trip to the bima Dec. 5 at Adath Shalom Synagogue in Morris Plains, it was a celebration of life itself.
“It was a very spiritual and moving service,” he told NJ Jewish News 10 days later. “It commemorated a milestone, and it had deep meaning for me.”
“It was a great day. It was a shul-wide celebration,” said Rabbi Mark Biller.
Just a year earlier, Biller presided at Grayson’s wedding to his wife, Judy. “It never occurred to me that I would officiate at somebody’s wedding and at their bar mitzva a year later,” the rabbi said.
When Grayson was diagnosed in August 1995, doctors said his chance of survival was “slim.”
“At 34 years of age, you don’t normally think of your future in terms of just two or three years,” he wrote in a preface to the program he distributed at the “bar mitzva” service.
After his diagnosis, he put his law practice in Randolph and his teaching schedule at the County College of Morris on hold while he hunted for salvation in the form of a compatible bone marrow donor.
It took more than a year for Grayson to meet his match — Cheryl Wrigley of Ventnor. Nearly a decade earlier she had enrolled with the National Bone Marrow Donors Program registry while working in the radiology department of Morristown Memorial Hospital.
The two linked up at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, one of the few places in the United States that had experience dealing with two problems — Grayson’s rare form of leukemia and Wrigley’s less-than-perfect match-up with his genetic make-up.
It turned out to be a wise choice of hospital.
In November of 1996, doctors there destroyed Grayson’s bone marrow with high doses of chemotherapy and radiation before injecting Wrigley’s into his depleted immune system.
Grayson said he “was brought to the brink of death. It is the atomic bomb of cancer treatment.”
The transplant succeeded. “There is no cure for cancer but I am in remission, I am alive, and I’m doing as well as can be expected,” he said.
Grayson called the transplant his “rebirth,” and decided to mark the 13th year since the procedure with the traditional Jewish ritual. Along with friends and family members, attending the ceremony were Wrigley and volunteer Diana Greenbaum, who helped Grayson and his family at the hospital. He dedicated the service to his parents, Stella Hart Grayson and Leonard Grayson.
“Strange as this may sound, I found that cancer can be inspirational. A new way to look at life,” Grayson wrote in the program. “The rat race is no longer important. Family and friends are the only things that matter.”
In addition to resuming his career, Grayson founded a nonprofit organization called Marrow Power (www.marrowpower.org) “to help others traveling the same frightening road as I did.”
Grayson counsels others with leukemia “to be strong, disciplined, determined, and never ever give up.”