If Menachem Ehrental had lived instead of succumbing at age 16 to the relentless leukemia that struck around his first birthday, he would be 41 today, undoubtedly married and a father living in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood.
Thanks to improved treatment, the cure rate for blood cancers in children today has reached 80 percent or more – too late to save Menachem, whom I had by chance interviewed about his illness just a few months before his passing.
If he had lived, his parents, Miri and Chaim, would today probably still be selling watches, necklaces, bracelets and rings in their King George Street jewelry shop, as they had been doing for 25 years and as Chaim’s own parents before him had done for a quarter of a century.
“Menachem went to class in Bayit Vegan, carrying his schoolbag, right after going for chemotherapy. Miri said I was too tough on him, that he should be allowed to go home and rest. I told her that he would recover and should be treated like any child so he’d be able to cope with society. He was a natural leader, even though most of his friends were much older than him,” Chaim recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
But it was not to be. Menachem’s sacrifice and the Ehrentals’ awareness of the dearth of special services for families struck by malignancy triggered the establishment of Zichron Menachem – their unique and indispensable voluntary organization that has helped 3,500 such families since 1990. Most of those the organization helps are secular Jews, not ultra-Orthodox, and Israeli Arab children are also prominent. Although the Ehrentals regard themselves as ultra-Orthodox (haredi), few haredi families have participated in Zichron Menachem’s activities because boys and girls are usually mixed. “We are now considering the holding of special gender-separate camps so this sector can benefit as well,” Chaim said.
Starting small, the organization’s first activity was assembling yeshiva students to donate urgently needed blood components for children with cancer.
Miri is now director of Zichron Menachem’s huge day center for children with cancer and their families, as well as coordinator of national service women who have worked in its various facilities, and keeps in regular contact with the 300 or so who did this work over the years. She also calls parents on the yahrtzeits (anniversaries of the deaths) of the children she knew over the years to console them.
The day center is a large and beautiful campus at the foot of Bayit Vegan where children with cancer who cannot go to school because of their own weak immune systems study and play. Parents also attend lectures on coping with the disease and attend support groups. Siblings who are often neglected by parents overwhelmed by their sick child’s needs are invited to play.
Chaim, the organization’s chairman, has become an outstanding organizer, logistics expert and master of computer programs, annually organizing down to the tiniest detail three fun camps – one of them in England, Holland or France – without charging a shekel.
These give the children a respite from their constant worries and painful treatments.
Born after Menachem, Moshe (39) works in the diamond industry here and in Europe; Zvi (37) works with troubled school dropouts; Yehoshua (34) teaches in a yeshiva for boys with learning problems; Esti (32) is a graphic artist at Zichron Menachem; and Yisrael (30) is a yeshiva student. However, in their spare time, all partner with the organization, especially to help organize the free camps.
In a interview at Zichron Menachem headquarters in Bayit Vegan, Chaim explained what a difference it makes to the children when they are flown abroad along with an equal number of volunteers and entertained in the most intensive, exciting ways – from going up in hot-air balloons and sailing to riding horses.
“When abroad, they know they will not have to go back to the hospital for more blood tests and treatments and that we can take care of them. The camps include all the necessary doctors, nurses and equipment, and their medical conditions are closely supervised.
The camps are much cheaper, but it’s worthwhile to take 150 children abroad. They are completely detached from their worries. They are free, lose their aggression. Such a release can’t occur in Israel. Upon landing, we allow them to throw pillows at each other for half an hour until they enter the airport; we inform the airline in advance, so they are not surprised or upset.”
The ability to think about happy things beyond cancer is a great boon to their recovery, Chaim added. As emotional strength is vital in patients’ abilities to overcome cancer, these “frills” are considered by oncologists as lifesaving measures.
But they enjoy the Israeli camps as well, going jet-skiing in Eilat, watching movies, playing with computers and touring the country.
With their children in reliable hands, the parents are able to relax and go on a vacation themselves and pay more attention to their healthy children.
The survival and cure rates among children with cancer, at least those involved in Zichron Menachem, is over 75%, said Chaim. “We have a lot of satisfaction, but it is a lot of responsibility,” he added. Chaim oversees an annual budget of NIS 17 million, most of it coming from donations and a small minority from government ministries and other sources. “We get a small amount of money from the Health Ministry for emotional support for the families and a tiny bit from the Jerusalem Municipality. The Social Welfare Ministry pays the cost of national service women, while the Administrator General helps us a little” It has friends’ organizations in a few countries, and many Israelis give as well.
But receiving enough donations from the general public was not always a sure thing. “I recall one year in our early days when we had no money for a camp for the kids.
I said we could sell our car to cover the costs if necessary. I said, we will jump into the water like Nahshon did before the waters of the Red Sea split to allow the Israelites through to escape from the Egyptians. Then a cousin of Miri came from San Francisco to visit. He asked how much the camp would cost, and we told him $35,000. He returned home. A month later, we received a check for $35,000 in the mail, a donation made through PEF-Israel Endowment Fund. We are believing Jews.”
THOUSANDS OF people flocked to Jerusalem’s Heichal Hapayis Arena last Thursday evening and heard President Reuven Rivlin and Health Minister MK Ya’acov Litzman praise the Ehrentals and their organization’s many volunteers, who performed 200,000 hours of service in 2015. They chose the arena to make room for 25 “stations,” each of them representing a year in the history of Zichron Menachem.
Each served as a meeting point for former cancer patients and volunteers in that year.
The proceeds of the event, which highlighted singer Rami Kleinstein and other stars, went to purchase a NIS 2 million mobile emergency room to treat the children during their participation in activities around the country rather than their having to drop out to go to the hospital. When there are no such activities, the van will park near a hospital and turn into a beauty parlor for girls with cancer and their mothers, where they can have massages and be treated to makeup sessions, manicures and pedicures and other luxuries to forget their problems.
Hair for wigs will be donated and the wigs will be custom-made inside the van; already, they make 1,400 a year for sick children.
The wigs are vital for girls. “You’re ashamed to go outside. You don’t want people seeing you like this, and certainly not your friends. People stare at you. They point. Some whisper behind your back; others talk about you out loud, as if you’re not there. You soundlessly cry, ‘Why me?’” But he opposes the idea of wigs for boys. “We tried but they are not comfortable with them. Instead, they wear a cap. But we do make peyot [earlocks] for boys, that are pinned to the kippot of hassidic boys,” Chaim noted.
“I told Miri that many people die, and after a few years, nobody remembers them anymore. But at Menachem’s funeral, the streets were packed with mourners, and 26 years later, he is constantly remembered and good deeds are carried out in his name,” said the formerly pudgy Chaim, who four years ago underwent bariatric surgery and lost 50 kilos, making him look much younger and giving him boundless energy.
“Thousands of people volunteer for us. They entertain children at the nine hospitals where we are active, donate blood and thrombocytes, work with children in the day center. We have only 40 paid staffers; the Justice Ministry’s coordinator of voluntary organizations allows up to 21% of the budget to be spent on salaries. In our case, it is only 7% or 8%,” said Chaim.
“If volunteers were paid NIS 50 an hour for their efforts, it would all add up to NIS 11 million a year.”
THE ORGANIZATION organizes a special, half-hour consultation of senior pediatric oncologists who are asked to “think out of the box” when a family is informed that their child has cancer. “We are so happy to see children recover, marry and have families of their own. There is such satisfaction,” Chaim noted.
He remembered one trip in Eilat to visit the Magic Palace. “Everyone was so happy, laughing and dancing.
But in one corner I saw a young woman who was crying. I asked what was wrong. She said she was treated for gynecological cancer in a hospital and lost one ovary. I gave her the home number of a woman who had been in the same position, having a defective BRCA gene and receiving chemotherapy for a long 18 months.” The woman Chaim met now has four healthy children.
Sixty-six years old, the chairman thinks about the time when he and Miri won’t have the energy to run the show. “Although I have no plans to step down, I am learning gradually to open my hands and release things. I hope one of my talented children will eventually take it over. But in the meantime, I hired people responsible for manpower and other functions instead of doing it myself. Management of the organization is less important to me. I like working with the families and the kids. I won’t be able to do it forever, but as my father worked until his last day, at the age of 84, at the jewelry store and died with a smile on his face, that’s what I want.”