Michelle Bar-av is lifted up by community

Michelle Bar-av
Michelle Bar-av is the owner of Serenity Family Massage Center. (David Stuck)

Jewish community has been a lifesaver for Michelle Bar-av and her family.

When her daughter, Lilah Henderson, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 13, the Jewish community stepped up to support them. In particular, Chai Lifeline, a Jewish organization that helps families with children with life-threatening illnesses, and which has locations around the world. Its Mid-Atlantic chapter, located in Pikesville, helped the family through the process.

Lilah Henderson, now 19, has since made a full recovery, and her mother attributes some of that to the support the Jewish community provided.

“They completely lifted us and held us together while my daughter had cancer,” Bar-av said.

Bar-av, 49, is the owner of Serenity Family Massage Center in Pikesville. She lives in Reisterstown and is the mother to two daughters, Rosie, 21, and Lilah. She is involved in Chabad of Owings Mills and Etz Chaim, and she tries to give back to Chai Lifeline however she can.

Bar-av has lived in the Baltimore area practically her whole life. She grew up in Pikesville, where she attended Pikesville High School and Beth El Congregation. She later went to Towson University, where she studied theater.

After seeing that a life pursuing theater might mean a life waiting tables, she decided to become a licensed massage therapist and went to Baltimore School of Massage, now called Cortiva Institute.

“I’ve never looked back, and that was about 20 years ago,” Bar-av said. “It’s been a very fulfilling career. I’m a single mom, and I’ve been able to have a lot of flexibility with my career.”

She taught at Cortiva Institute and managed Massage Envy locations in Pikesville and Clarksville. In 2014, she decided to open her own practice, Serenity Family Massage Center.

Four months after starting her own business, her life was rocked with some devastating news.

Lilah had started having some strange symptoms. She went to the doctor, who sent her to get a chest scan. The scan revealed that her lungs were full of tumors. Lilah had stage four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She went into surgery the next day.

Within a week, Chai Lifeline had entered the picture. Bar-av’s cousin had put the organization in touch with Bar-av. Chai Lifeline went with the family to chemotherapy appointments. They sent Lilah to camp, completely paid for by the community, and took her out to events with other local Jewish children. Bar-av and her daughter even took a trip to Israel with the organization.

Even now, so many years later, Chai Lifeline is still a part of their lives and still checks in to see how Lilah is doing.

“I can’t say enough about this organization,” Bar-av said.

In some ways, Bar-av thinks the timing of when she started her business was perhaps meant to be. It gave her more flexibility to care for her daughter.

Over the years, her business grew to the point where Bar-av knew she wanted to get a bigger space. On Jan. 1, she did just that. Serenity Family Massage Center, at 7 Church Lane, now has several massage therapists, and Bar-av hopes they can expand to provide more services, like acupuncture and mental health therapy. The pandemic has hurt the business, Bar-av said, but she believes that will pick up when COVID-19 gets more under control.

For Bar-av, her Jewish identity is everything.

“I identify first as Jewish, then as a mother, Jewish mother,” Bar-av said. “I’m not observant, but I light candles every Friday night, and I try to have my kids here for dinner every Friday. … It means just about everything to me and to my family.”

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