When Chaim and Miri Ehrental’s first-born son, Menachem, was diagnosed with leukemia as an infant in 1976, they felt utterly alone.
For nearly 15 years, the Ehrentals’ learned first-hand the agony and isolation encountered by families with a child facing a malignant disease, manifested by an overwhelming lack of psychological and social support.
By the time Menachem died six months before his 16th birthday – after five relapses, a failed bone-marrow transplant from his brother, and incalculable psychological and physical pain – Chaim and Miri knew the challenges all too well.
Six days before his death, Menachem made one last request of his parents: ensure that other children suffering from cancer can get the support they need to live and die with as much dignity and happiness as possible.
As a result, for nearly 27 years, Zichron Menachem (“In memory of Menachem”) has fulfilled that promise on an unprecedented scale in Israel.
Operating in partnership with Soroka Hospital, Sheba-Tel Hashomer, Dana Medical Center, Schneider Hospital, Wolfson Medical Center, Rambam Medical Center, Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Ha’Emek Medical Center, Kaplan Medical Center, and Bnei Zion Medical Center, Zichron Menachem became the nation’s first organization to offer comprehensive support to the children and families battling cancer, day in and day out.
Beyond offering comprehensive emotional and practical group-support programs throughout the year to children and their parents and siblings, perhaps what most distinguishes Zichron Menachem from similar NGOs is its annual eight-day camp retreat abroad.
Every July, 110 Israeli children and young adults between the ages of six and 25 with various forms of cancer are invited to travel for free to picturesque cities in Europe where they participate in structured and exciting activities to help them forget their illnesses and live life to the fullest.
Accompanied by a staff of five doctors and five nurses, a well-stocked mobile clinic, and nearly 100 trained young volunteers serving as counselors, the children are constantly encouraged to laugh, sing and dance – unencumbered by the long shadow cast by their respective illnesses.
Indeed, shortly after departing Ben-Gurion Airport at 6 a.m. to Amsterdam on July 9 for eight days, the children participated in a 20-minute free-spirited pillow fight at takeoff designed to help them release pent-up emotions, frequently exhibited in anxiety, depression and a sense of alienation.
According to accompanying clinical psychologist Dr. Carl Hochhauser, who specializes in treating children with cancer, the release and time spent with contemporaries facing similar life-threatening challenges serves a critical function.
“From a psychological perspective, this helps them get support from meeting with other kids who are going through what they are going through,” said Hochhauser.
Noting that the majority of children fighting cancer spend a disproportionate amount of time in hospitals, isolated at home and away from their peers, Hochhauser, who treats a number of the children on the trip, said spending time together presents benefits that no psychologist can offer.
“I think it’s good that they get professional support from someone like me, but help can only go so far,” he said.
“From a social aspect, when they are in school they feel they have to hide [their feelings] from their friends, so a major part of what they are going through, they are going through alone. And when they come here, it’s the opposite because what was in the background before is now in the foreground, and suffering from cancer doesn’t make you different; it makes you feel normal. It’s what everyone has.”
Prof. Yechiel Schlesinger, chief of pediatrics and director of the Wilf Children’s Hospital at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem – who was one of four physicians voluntarily treating roughly a quarter of the children in Amsterdam – said he has been closely affiliated with Zichron Menachem for the past three years.
“This is a very unique organization, full of enthusiasm,” said Schlesinger, as the children sang, danced and clapped their hands in unison amid drum beats led by National Service volunteers at a 400-year-old synagogue in Amsterdam, after taking a boat ride down a nearby canal.
While Schlesinger was reluctant to quantify the advantages of such a trip on a clinical scale, he nonetheless asserted that anecdotally, the trips provide an undeniable spike in an otherwise dim and frequently stagnant baseline.
“In terms of their spirit and their mood, it’s really obvious that [this trip] is just a diamond in their yearly activities” he said.
“They really look forward to this. In an indirect way, it gives them energy and more positive power to find within themselves. Just by joining the camp, it improves their prognosis for fighting the cancer.”
Indeed, Schlesinger cited numerous examples of children – who refused to eat prior to the alternating annual retreats in Amsterdam, London or France – then later regained their appetites while spending carefree time with their peers for eight days of fun and therapeutic activities.
“There are many organizations for kids with cancer, but what is unique about this one is the optimism,” he said.
“They feel that even though they have a severe disease and go through hell in terms of treatment, that this is the peak of the year where they are almost lucky to be together and have counselors who lead them in activities where they sing and dance.”
Schlesinger continued: “It has become a tradition to celebrate life with first-class treatment, hospitality, activities and food. It is truly a great time of year for them.”
Dr. Matti Erlichman, head of the pediatric emergency room at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, who has volunteered for the program for seven years, echoed Schlesinger’s sentiments.
“I think it is a very, very nice project, and we are doing it throughout the year,” he said, noting an additional annual five-day trip in Israel during Hanukkah and threeday getaway before Passover.
“There is a discernible difference; not in all of them, but in many of them. This project is a second home for them, and for some of them, it is their last journey,” he added ominously.
“They can be free for over one week and come here full of energy to help struggle with their disease. Every year I see the same thing: that they are very happy – even while we treat them with a full mobile clinic that is like a tiny hospital.”
The children and young adults are divided into four groups based on age and travel on separate buses to attend age-appropriate activities ranging from bicycling, repelling, go-cart racing, touring a Heineken brewing factory, going to an amusement park, and riding on hot-air balloons.
Liav Izhaki, a 21-year-old former Lone Soldier from America living in Modi’in, said that one month ago she finished treatments for a rare form of cancer first discovered in her brain, which spread to her ovaries.
Wearing a stylish knitted cap to cover her still-bald scalp, Izhaki, who was diagnosed in December, said she first heard about Zichron Menachem from a friend during her chemotherapy treatments.
“[My friend] told me that I definitely should join because there are a lot of people my age, so I decided to go for it because we are a group and we all have the same problems, and it’s a lot easier to have a conversation with them,” she said.
“Normally, our daily routine is going to the hospital, having surgeries, giving blood, getting radiation and chemo, and this is basically a time to leave all of that behind and forget everything by being with people who are going through the same thing, and knowing you have a support system behind you, including nurses and doctors just in case you need something.”
Izhaki emphasized that the power of comradery with similar peers cannot be overstated.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “I feel like these people get what I feel like more than my family and friends. We can talk very openly.
You know, a lot of us don’t have hair, and it’s easier to talk and joke about it with them.”
Izhaki continued, “This organization is amazing: Everything is on them, and you have so many activities and so many parties and days for shopping, and it’s amazing that people donate so much money for us.”
Chaim Ehrental, who once worked as a successful Jerusalem-based jeweler before dedicating himself full-time to Zichron Menachem, said the non-profit works with an annual budget of approximately NIS 20 million, largely donated by international benefactors.
“Unlike most similar organizations that spend up to 23% of their annual budgets on their salaries, we only spend 6%, so we can use as much of the money as possible for the children,” he said with pride.
“We want to make sure the money goes to them.”
Bernadette Dakyar – a 14-year-old 9th grade Beersheba resident who lost her hair from chemotherapy to treat a spreading form of Ewing’s Sarcoma, which has necessitated two major surgeries – has been part of Zichron Menachem for three years.
“I have been to France, London, and now Amsterdam,” she said over a dinner of chicken, vegetables and macaroni at the hotel outside the city that served as a comfortable base camp.
“I enjoy this very much because I see there are people like me, and that I am not alone,” she added, noting she still has to undergo three more rounds of chemo. “I say to myself that if it comes back again, I will win again.”
To be sure, Dakyar said she takes pride in not allowing the cancer to victimize her.
“When I finish the chemo, I go to the pool and don’t sit at home crying,” she said. “I am very strong. I am a winner.”
Dakyar’s close friend, Dana Omar, a 14-year-old Palestinian resident of Bethlehem who is undergoing radiation therapy for a form of sarcoma that has left her left leg – which was recently operated on – severely weakened, wore a pink bow in her newly regrown hair, and matching pink cast.
“I can’t walk very much, but have had surgery, and now am going to walk straight again,” she said confidently, sitting in a wheelchair by Dakyar’s side at the dinner table.
“I have a lot of pain and feel sick from the cancer, but now I’m good and don’t feel sick. I’m not scared from the cancer because I will stay strong even though I lost my hair.”
Omar added defiantly: “I still went everywhere with nothing on my head. I must stay strong, and nobody can tell me that I am not beautiful because I don’t have hair. We are beautiful if we are sick or not sick.”
“We are stronger together,” she said.