Menachem’s enduring gift

The Ehrentals, Israel Prize winners, provide a House of Dreams for children with cancer

By
August 20, 2019 17:34
Menachem’s enduring gift

Chaim and Miri Ehrental outside Zichron Menachem. (photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)

In 1975, Chaim and Miri Ehrental, both 24, were a happy young couple. Married only a year, their firstborn son, Menachem, was a delight. But there were troubling signs; he did not seem healthy. In fact, at only 15 months old, Menachem was diagnosed with leukemia.

On that day, Chaim and Miri found themselves transported to what seemed like another dimension. Their new home became the hospital; their new language, medical terms and treatment protocols; their new role, caregivers to a physically sick child who, nonetheless, exuded life.

The transition was a shock. The close-knit religious community of which they were a part was kind but also ambivalent. It was as if the “c” word was a scarlet letter. Instantly, Menachem was transformed: one day he was a celebration of life and hope, the next a shocking reminder of mortality and death; on Monday, he was a boy; on Tuesday, a symbol.

Cancer is a curse, but what Menachem proved to be was just the opposite. For the next 14 years, he battled the cancer like one of David’s mighty men. Fighting for life throughout, he celebrated (and argued with) his siblings, loved (and argued with) his parents, and teased (and argued with) members of his medical team.

He was “the boy who lived.”

Until the day he didn’t.

After four-year cycles of chemotherapy and even a bone marrow transplant, Menachem’s teenage body reached its limit. He was 15 and a half on the day he died, April 8, 1990.

It was, simultaneously, the death of a firstborn, and the birth of a dream. Literally.

“I sank into dark when Menachem died,” says Miri, “but God had different plans.”

One night Chaim had a dream that ignited a vision for the future.

Zichron Menachem brings joy and support to children with cancer (Credit: SARAH LEVIN)

“All the knowledge, all the experience we have accumulated through these years,” he said to Miri, “it is inconceivable that all of this has been in vain. We have been given a mission from above. We must gather ourselves together and give to others what we lacked: companionship, support, good advice, a sympathetic ear. And it must include assistance to parents to cope with their healthy children, too.

“We can sit with the sick child in the hospital so that the parents can take a break from the disease.

“We can provide information about medical and bureaucratic procedure, help family members to enjoy life – and give them a way to cry their hearts out without being shattered to pieces.”

And so, in the same year Menachem died, Zichron Menachem was born. Zichron is the Hebrew word for memorial. Put together with Menachem, the meaning is “Menachem’s Memorial,” but indicating a living thing, not a monolith or building.
Twenty-nine years later it is a fulfillment of Chaim’s dream and on a scale he could not have imagined.

Almost three decades have not diminished Menachem’s parents’ love for their son. If anything, it has grown. What’s more, his life has given life and joy to almost 36,000 children who, like him, fought and are fighting cancer.

Actually, 36,000 is only a fraction of those to whom Menachem’s death has brought the gift of life. Not only are ill children beneficiaries, so too are their siblings and parents, their caregivers and communities, even their cultures and countries.
Incorporated as a nonprofit organization in four countries and operating in at least six, Zichron Menachem’s focus and zeal is doing everything that Chaim envisioned in his dream.

Headquartered in Jerusalem, Zichron Menachem’s home office is not about administration so much as it is about life. Called The House of Dreams, its activity rooms, outdoor gardens, petting zoo, wig weaving and spa make up about 80% of the facility. Perhaps another 20%, mostly in the basement, are tons of medical and cooking equipment stored in pristine environments. And there is a hostel for parents whose children are being treated for cancer in Jerusalem but who reside outside the city.

The medical and cooking equipment are never in the basement very long. Three times a year Zichron Menachem sponsors ‘camps’ for parents and for children. Separate camps, that is.
In May this year, about 100 parents and children went to London for a week, all expenses paid.

It was an experience designed to get them away from the confines of caregiving, where in a community with other parents like them, participants could take a step back for perspectives that otherwise would be impossible.

The Zichron Menachem House of Dreams on Leo Weissman Street in Jerusalem (Credit: SARAH LEVIN)

In preparation for the trip, the parents met several mornings with a psychologist to equip them with tools for positive thinking.

“One of the exercises,” Chaim explains, “had one couple express a situation to another couple in negative terms. Then a different couple discussed the same situation in positive terms.”

Common fears shared by all parents include concerns about money, work, and their child dying. How can these things be discussed in a positive way?

“For example,” Chaim said, “everyone was asked to share one good thing that happened in the past week. One couple replied, ‘Nothing good happened this week! I lost my job. There is no way to pay the mortgage. There is no intimacy with my spouse. All we have is a “hallway” relationship.’

“The couple was affirmed and also challenged: ‘We will stay with you until midnight, if we must, until we can help you express something positive about the past week.’

“Eventually, the father remembered: ‘Our daughter is now halfway through her chemotherapy and radiation course of treatment!’ That was positive!”

As parents go on their summer excursion, they continue to meet each morning to share a positive story with other parents.

Last year, one mother said, “I’m here having fun, but have been constantly worried about my children who are at home. Last night I called them and heard total chaos. They were having a blast. ‘We are having so much fun, we want you to stay in London longer!’”

On another trip several years ago, there was a couple in the process of getting a divorce. Basically, the husband blamed his wife for their child’s cancer. The trip was the first time they had been apart from their children, the first time ever, and they have adult children.

In a group meeting, the husband confessed he had been wrong. Divorce proceedings were stopped. Today they remain married.

The only qualification for participation in Zichron Menachem’s programs are that there must be a child fighting cancer and the family must be Israeli. That leaves room for profound differences. Children and family members come from every kind of background: religious, non-religious; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze; Arab, Arameans (Syriacs), Ashkenazi Jews (European), Sephardi Jews (Middle Eastern).

When parents leave their children to take a trip abroad, these differences do not disappear, but they are diminished. Everyone quickly comes to regard others as someone very like themselves: the parent of a child with cancer. Though not a ‘club’ anyone would ever want to join, those who are admitted, albeit involuntarily, find that ‘membership’ has the ability to unify them with others who are very different from themselves.

It is a bond that happens almost instantly. Parents who have been struggling alone suddenly realize there are others dealing with the very same kinds of things.

All at once, none of them is alone. And it is a camaraderie that endures.

Last year on the 2018 excursion, one parent started a WhatsApp group for everyone on the trip. Twelve months later, no one has left the group.

It is not just parents who gain from getting away. Back home, children fighting cancer also benefit. For them, a heavy burden is lifted: hearing and seeing far more than most parents realize, many sick children tend to take on responsibility for their parents’ emotional well-being, a burden no child should have to carry, let alone one who is fighting a life-threatening disease.

When parents bond and release fears to one another, this dynamic is broken, freeing the child to be a child, dealing with his or her own situation. And it frees the parents to help their children instead of the other way around.
The problem of children carrying a parent’s burden is especially common when it is likely she or he is going to die. All too often parents refuse to accept that likelihood, choosing instead to deny it.
Keenly aware of this dynamic, Zichron Menachem deals directly with it when the situation presents itself.

“Not only are parents often in denial,” Chaim explains, “the child’s siblings are not prepared. It is a very difficult situation.”

Tears in her eyes, Miri nods and interjects. “I have a friend who just lost her ninth child,” she says.

Interviewing her I am shocked, at a complete loss for what to say.

Chaim steps in. “For people of faith,” he says, “acceptance of pending death is easier than for those without faith.”

One of Zichron Menachem’s goals is to either put parents on track with their faith, or to orient them in a new way to it.
And when a child dies? What happens to those parents?

In short, they are not abandoned. For 12 months, parents of a child who has died are given monthly coaching sessions. If after that time they are still crippled by debilitating grief, they are given an additional 12 months of sessions.
“For parents who need the additional 12 months,” Chaim says, “the sessions do miracles for them.”

Children fighting cancer also get three excursions a year. This summer they went on a  trip to London for a week (see sidebar on page 11). Their experience is so profound, so joyous and full of life, it will be the subject of a separate article.

For now, it is enough to say that anticipation of the trip has a healing benefit on children dealing with low blood counts, weariness and fears. The excitement generated infects the mind, and the body too, with life.

Clearly, these services and many, many more cost a lot of money. Those who go on the trips do not pay a single shekel. From where then does the funding come?

“Appeals are made to foundations, companies and other entities,” Chaim explains, “but at least 90% of money raised comes from individuals. The home office in Jerusalem raises money from donors in Israel, and together with its satellite offices in England, France and the Netherlands, it raises funds in those countries, too. And donors around the world give to the nonprofit online at www.Zichron.org.”

On May 19 this year, Chaim and Miri Ehrental received the prestigious Israel Prize in the category of Lifetime Achievement.

Accepting the prize, Miri told the story of their son Menachem, the struggle both he and the family endured, and how in spite of his death, life continues to blossom in the lives of Israeli children fighting cancers and in their families, too.

“Our son Menachem is not here with us this evening,” Miri said in her closing remarks. “But in a sense, he is very present. Not a day passes in which I do not contemplate on the wordless will he left to us: ‘Grow out of the pain. Turn the bitter into sweet. Take the loss and give it meaning.’”


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