(VINnews/Sandy Eller) Chava Willig Levy, an internationally noted lecturer and award-winning author who triumphed over the polio-induced paralysis she suffered as a toddler, passed away on the first day of Pesach.
A Woodmere, New York resident, Willig Levy was the sister of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi David Willig, and was paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio at age 3.
Having personally experienced discrimination, she became an outspoken advocate for the disabled, and she went on to publish writings that appeared in both Jewish and secular media on disability rights that were read by millions.
Her 2013 memoir, “A Life Not With Standing,” described how polio affected her life as well as how she refused to let the disease define her, and was just one of several books that she released to wide acclaim.
Willig Levy became an outspoken advocate for the polio vaccine in recent months as the disease resurfaced over the past year, noting how she contracted polio before the vaccine was widely available, reported the Forward.
She was featured in a 13-minute video released by the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association promoting the vaccine, describing how an unbearable headache left her unable to come to the Shabbat table.
“Within three days, I was hanging precariously between life and death,” said Willig Levy, who was put in an iron lung in order to be able to breathe for a period of time.
Willig Levy had spoken openly about her challenges, drawing on her personal experiences with long hospital stays, difficult surgeries and the social isolation and stigma that she experienced as a result of her paralysis. Her speeches and her “Breathtaking” podcast launched several years ago emphasized the importance of positivity in creating a productive, happy and fulfilling life.
Refusing to let her reliance on a wheelchair hold her back from experiencing life, Willig Levy was the mother of two, graduated summa cum laude from Yeshiva University with a degree in French literature, earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Columbia University and founded a communications consulting firm.
Willig Levy, who was 71, was buried in Israel in Beit Shemesh. Her LinkedIn profile bears testament to her personality and her perseverance, with a description of herself as “a writer, editor and motivational speaker who zips around in a motorized wheelchair.
“I have used my words to shatter stereotypes about people with disabilities, enabling my audiences to view disability with pride, not prejudice,” wrote Willig Levy on LinkedIn.
“You probably won’t be surprised to hear that my lectures, CDs and articles — like my life — are not limited to the subject of disability. With enthusiasm and humor, they also explore parenthood, marriage, childhood, spirituality in general, Judaism in particular, and the quality and meaning of life.”