Dallas Jewish Community Helps Teen Bounce Back
Read this story in The Dallas Morning News
Life had always been tough for Mika Stein. Raised by a single mother. Didn’t know his father. Grew up poor.
But then last April, his mom died of cancer.
And, at 17, Mika was an orphan.
When some teens face tremendous pressure, they buckle, overwhelmed by their lives caving in on them.
Not Mika. Since his mom’s death, he’s been elected leader of a prominent Jewish youth group, BBYO, and will soon spend a year traveling the country and world. Then he’ll attend New York University, where he’s earned a scholarship.
What is it about Mika that allowed him to persevere through the toughest year of his life?
Credit supportive friends and a nurturing school. A grandfather with high expectations. His Jewish faith. A couple who took him into their home and treated him as their own son.
Credit the Dallas Jewish community, which celebrates Passover this week, for rallying around him.
In the Torah, the orphan is mentioned countless times, said Naomi Schrager, associate principal at Yavneh Academy in North Dallas, where Mika is a senior.
“In our Jewish tradition, when there’s somebody who literally doesn’t have anybody else, you come together as a community,” she said. “It’s our finest moment in the community when we’re able to support the person who has the least.”
But give Mika (pronounced Mee-kuh) credit, too, for getting through the past year.
He gets his strength from his mom.
“When we were living paycheck to paycheck and things were rough, she never showed weakness,” he said.
“She told me it was important to appear as if everything is OK, even when it’s not.”
A mother’s devotion
Deborah Joy Stein was a free spirit who loved art, music and high-heel shoes.
She pursued a teaching career, but politics was her passion and she worked on behalf of Democratic candidates.
Deborah and Mika lived in an aging duplex in Old East Dallas.
Mika was what Deborah lived for, said her father, Moe Stein, 87, who is well-known in the local Jewish community as the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
In December 2011, Deborah landed in the emergency room. An infection ran from her hip down her leg. Something was wrong with one of her kidneys, and there was a tumor in her bladder.
With Deborah in the hospital, Mika told Moe he wanted to live by himself at the duplex. But, after a few weeks, that became overwhelming. So Mika moved in briefly with a friend and his family.
Doctors removed Deborah’s left kidney, then her cancerous bladder.
But by April 2012, the cancer spread to her bones.
Deborah was dying, but a mother’s instinct never fades away. She waited until after Mika took his ACT college entrance exam before telling him. She never said “cancer.”
“I only have a few months left to live,” she said.
Deborah moved into hospice.
A new home
One day, Mika was hanging out at the Far North Dallas home of Suzie Blumenthal and Scott Birnbaum. Mika and Scott’s son, Jeff, had attended preschool together.
Suzie and Scott had heard what was happening. It hit close to home.
Both had lost their moms when they were teens.
But Suzie and Scott could lean on their dads and other family. Mika didn’t know his dad — he only met him once when he was a kid — and he didn’t have siblings.
“I couldn’t have imagined not having that whole support network at that critical point in my life,” Suzie said. “Here is this incredible young man. If he needs a place …”
Scott handed Mika a house key.
“If you want to live here, we would love to have you,” Scott told Mika.
Scott visited Deborah to get her blessing.
Mika moved out of his friend’s house and moved in with Scott and Suzie.
“Our lives got better that day,” Scott said.
Surrounded by friends
On April 30, Deborah passed away. She was 51.
Scores of friends attended the funeral to hear Mika eulogize his mother.
Mika’s friends have helped him get through the past year, Moe said.
“My friends, they’re important to me,” Mika said.
Mika has made many friends through BBYO. He calls them his brothers. The group, which has 18,000 members worldwide, allows him to form a deeper connection to Judaism.
In February, at BBYO’s annual convention, speakers included Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. President Barack Obama offered a videotaped greeting.
At the convention, Mika was elected as one of two international presidents.
Mika stands out for many reasons in Dallas’ Jewish community: He lost his mom. He’s a BBYO leader. He’s also biracial — his mother was white and his father was black.
But Mika said he’s never felt out of place.
“I’ve always felt Jewish,” he said. “Black — that’s just the color of my skin.”
One recent afternoon at Yavneh Academy, students gathered in a large room filled with windows for mincha, a prayer service.
Soon, one voice emerged from the crowd — Mika’s. He recited a prayer in Hebrew.
Exalted and hallowed be his great name.
The students responded.
It’s the mourner’s Kaddish, which a family member says in the year following the death of a loved one.
For Mika, it’s a daily reminder of what he’s been through, said David Portnoy, head of school at Yavneh. It’s also a reminder for the students who’ve helped their friend.
“The school is a big snuggie for Mika,” Portnoy said, “a big group hug.”
At Yavneh, Mika commands respect for being laid-back.
“He has depth,” Portnoy said. “As anxious as teenagers tend to be, he really is the opposite because he has lived through important stuff.”
Meir Tannenbaum, an assistant principal who serves as Yavneh’s rabbi, sums up Mika in one word: inspirational.
“To him, life is a big obstacle course,” he said. “You have to keep jumping over one obstacle to the other. … Nothing stops him.”
A normal life
One recent evening, Mika and Jeff hung out at home with Scott and Suzie.
It’s a different world from the duplex. The house is spacious, the kitchen spotless, with a huge island.
Mika raved about Suzie’s cooking and baking.
“Suzie’s like a Jewish Martha Stewart,” he said.
Her eyes widened.
“Wow,” she said. “You couldn’t have said anything nicer!”
They gathered around the dinner table, talking over chicken, couscous and chocolate Bundt cake.
Scott and Suzie take Mika on trips, something he never did growing up.
But they’ve given Mika something more important. They give him stability.
“It’s my family,” Mika said. “I never had that experience of having two parental units coming home every night and a cooked meal. It’s cool living a kind of normal life.”
Scott and Suzie don’t think they’ve done anything heroic. “We tell our friends: She has three kids, I had one, and we finally had one together,” Scott said.
Scott and Suzie are selfless, Mika says.
“It’s insane that there are people that nice in the world — and that they’re part of my life,” he said.
Mika is also grateful for the Jewish community that’s supported him during bad times, and good times, too.
His goal, he says, is to give back to that community.
“I think I’m doing them proud,” he said.