In this overnight summer camp there is running laughter, singing camp spirit songs in a loud drumming circle, shouting, games and a bit of homesickness. There are wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces, feeding tubes, and bare skulls – some with the cropped fuzz of newly growing hair following chemotherapy treatment. Also, there is a nightly medical clinic in a fully equipped mobile hospital, including senior heads of the oncology departments of major Israeli hospitals and all the necessary lab instruments and medical supplies.
Welcome to the 26th Zichron Menachem summer camp, which flew some 100 children and young adults from the age of 6-24 with cancer to the Netherlands this year for a week of adventures and experiences far from their daily world of hospital visits, medical treatments and hovering parents.
Zichron Menachem was founded by Chaim and Miri Ehrental in 1990, after their eldest child, Menachem, died of leukemia at the age of 15, following a 13-year battle against the disease. There had been very few organizations where they could turn to for support, so the Ehrentals created Zichron Menachem in their son’s memory so other families would not be alone in their struggle. The organization provides year-round activities, excursions and assistance to families of children with cancer.
Now, shortly after landing in Amsterdam for the week-long camp in mid-July, Tamar Noyman, nine, from Givat Shmuel, and Hadar Itzhak, 10, from Rehovot, were in full camp mode.
The girls bonded over their shared mischievousness in a previous Zichron Menachem camps and now, as the group toured through the center of Amsterdam, they managed to wrangle their counselor Yitzhak “Schnitzel” Jacobson into sitting with them on the bus and were busy clipping his short hair into tiny pigtails.
“With some counselors, we like to get silly,” said Itzhak, who wears a brace on her leg following her treatment. “We are away from our parents here and can be more independent. It is more fun.”
Jacobson, 19, who had been with the younger campers since their early morning flight, took all the teasing in stride, feigning a mixture of surprise and indignation at his new hairdo, to the pair of campers’ delight.
Currently a student at Yeshiva Dorot Shaul in Tel Aviv, he said his volunteer work with the children through Zichron Menachem has helped him put things in perspective and matured him, as he has become exposed to their lives as they deal with cancer.
“It has also taught me the power of a smile. They are always looking for that after the long time in hospital going through treatment,” he said. “We are always looking for a chance to fly with each one. We just have to find the way to reach that point.”
For example, one teen camp participant, who is confined to a wheelchair and is a large young man, was worried he would not be able to get on the boat for a canal cruise. With the help of several counselors, they lifted and maneuvered the wheelchair so that he could sit with the rest of the group in the boat.
“You really learn to appreciate things in a different way here. You see how you can deal with difficult situations and in reality, you feel that you are receiving much more than you are giving,” said Tzali Sunray, 31, a yeshiva student who is the organizer of the volunteers.
Different is the norm
“For us, the different is the normal,” said Haim Ehrental, noting that no one bats an eye and there is no teasing if a child uses braces or crutches to get around or has lost hair due to chemotherapy treatment, as might happen at other camps. No one is scared by seeing a feeding tube. “Everyone feels comfortable here to be as they are. Look how much Menachem has done. How many people he has made happy.”
The Ehrentals’ adult children are also involved in the enterprise, from helping with logistics and administration, to photography and the medical clinic.
Despite the over two decades of experience with the summer camps, every year is a different challenge, he said, noting that the camps were not held during the COVID-19 pandemic. Camps are held alternately in London, Strasbourg and Amsterdam, wheree the activities have included amusement parks, hikes, bike rides, zip lines, tree-top obstacle courses and hot-air balloon rides.
Zichron Menachem and the summer camp are open to everyone regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Kashrut is observed, as is Shabbat. Volunteer chef Michael Akasiaev of the Plaza Hotel prepared all the camp meals, with the assistance of a group of logistic volunteers who did everything from cooking to transportation. Many of the counselors and National Service volunteers are graduates of the religious B’nai Akiva Youth movement, and undergo a stringent interviewing process to make sure they are suited to the kind of emotional and physical work required for participating in the organization’s activities, noted Miri Ehrental.
“There is no doubt that there are difficult moments, but we believe that despite the difficulty, when they are riding, for example, on an amusement park ride, they will not be concentrating on their difficulty or pain, they will be caring about the here and now where they are having fun.”Haim Ehrental
“There is no doubt that there are difficult moments, but we believe that despite the difficulty, when they are riding, for example, on an amusement park ride, they will not be concentrating on their difficulty or pain, they will be caring about the here and now where they are having fun,” said Haim Ehrental.
Medical team and fully equipped mobile medical clinic allow moment of distraction
Because of their mobile medical clinic brought over from Israel on their chartered flight and their volunteer medical team, which includes two psychologists, they are also able to bring some of the more difficult and sometimes even terminal cases to enjoy this moment of distraction, he said. Knowing the medical staff is on 24/7 also gives the parents peace of mind, he added, so they can recharge their batteries during these few days of respite away from daily attention to their child’s illness, and they can spend time with their other children and take time for themselves, as well.
Zichron Menachem works with four hospitals and some of the medical team at the camp have treated the children, so there is almost a feeling of being with family at the camp.
“Here I get to see the children in a very different light outside of the hospital setting,” said Schneider Children’s Medical Center pediatric oncology nurse Hadar Klapper, who joined the medical team for the first time this year. “In the hospital, I only see them lying in bed, with their parents around them all the time, in an atmosphere of sickness. But here I suddenly see them being noisy and funny, and acting like any healthy child: independent, mature, having fun.”
Maya Scheor, 12, said the best thing about the camp was the freedom from the hospital.
“This is like giving me air to breathe,” she said.
At the beginning of the camp in Amsterdam, one boy, confined to a wheelchair and using a feeding tube, had his baseball camp pulled decidedly over his face and was glued to his mobile phone screen. Over the course of the first few days, the cap slowly began lifting off his face. By the time the group visited an amusement park, on the third day, his face was fully visible – feeding tube and all – and he clutched a big stuffed llama from the computer game Fortnite, which he won at a carnival game as a counselor pushed his wheelchair and new friend Eyal Rubinfeld, 13, who had also won a stuffed llama, walked beside him as they chatted.
Rubinfeld, from kibbutz Deganya Bet, participated in a Zichron Menachem summer camp when he was six and was being treated for a type of lymphoma. Over the spring, he received a bone marrow transplant when the cancer returned. He said that all the walking was helping him get back in shape.
Some of his friends at school understand a bit about how he is dealing with cancer, he said, but at the Zichron Menachem camp it is easier for everyone to relate to him and the activities are more accessible for him physically, as they make sure that everyone is included.
There is a direct connection between mental and physical health, said Dr. Reuven Or, founder of the department of bone marrow transplants at Hadassah Hospital, who has been responsible for the Zichron Menachem medical equipment and mobile medical clinic for the past 28 years.
“There is scientific evidence that the central nervous system controls the immune system and if the brain is happy, people are better able to fight off disease,” he said. “Even during the camp, we have seen that blood counts improve. We have many children and young adults whose lab and clinical parameters improved after the camp.”
It is not always easy to convince the oncologists at the hospitals to allow their patients to travel, but they have even taken young people with end-stage cancer and are equipped with everything from oxygen to antibiotics, said Or, who was responsible for a mobile medical clinic in the army reserves.
“We are able to take the most difficult patients. Our goal is to take those who can’t travel without medical assistance,” he said. “We have had patients who were at the end stage, for whom the camp was the last enjoyable experience, and for them the camp is so significant. I am so pleased we could give them the opportunity to travel.”
Hard hit by COVID and the Ukrainian crisis
This year has been the hardest year to organize the camp, noted Devorah Maarsan, 80, president of the board of directors of Friends of Zichron Menachem in Holland (and grandmother of volunteer organizer Tzali Sunray), as donors have been hard hit following the pandemic and many are donating to help Ukrainian refugees. For a while, they were not sure they would be able to get the camp off the ground this year, she said.
“I spent many sleepless nights,” said Maarsan, who is a Holocaust survivor. After her grandson recovered from a serious illness in Israel 28 years ago, where she met the Ehrentals, she vowed to dedicate the rest of her life to helping sick children. In addition, she said, as a survivor she had always been driven to help other people. “I couldn’t even think about disappointing the children who were already unable to come for two years because of corona. People ask me at my age why don’t I stop and just enjoy my grandchildren, but it gives me such satisfaction when I see how happy the children are when they get off the plane.”
One long-time Dutch donor, who declined to be named, saying he was not donating for recognition, said at first, he hadn’t understood why the camp could not just be held in Israel. But then he saw the children touring in Holland and celebrating Shabbat outside of their normal routine, and he realized the significance the trip abroad had for them.
Providing context to support one another
Each child has different needs and are at different stages emotionally, noted Dr. Carl Hochhauser, the staff psychologist for Zichron Menachem. The two older groups have conversation circles a few times during the camp, which allows them to approach topics with other young friends who have cancer, which they otherwise may not allow a space for, he said.
“Each age group finds their support at camp. For the older kids, we talk about what point in their life cancer caught them,” he said. “For them, it stopped them in the middle of their life, at the point when they were becoming independent. After treatment, they are not getting back on at the same exit, and they have to build a new routine. Their friends have continued with their lives, are in the army, traveling or studying.”
Because speaking to a psychologist is not so stigmatized at camp, some of the young people find it easier to talk about issues which they all share, he said.
“The context here helps create the right environment to help them support one another,” he said.
“We all have cancer,” said Awaj Seh, 17, from the village of Araabi. “When I speak to someone here, they are with me, they know what I am going through. When I speak to my friends at home, they don’t understand me. This is giving me the strength to complete my treatment.”
Zvi David, 21, of Beit Shemesh, was diagnosed with leukemia while he was doing his mandatory army service. July 23 marked one year since he was declared cancer-free.
“It is as if I got back my life as a gift, as if I am really a different person, ” he said.
Because they have gone through the same thing, they can even get down and dark with their humor, without worrying about offending anyone or getting looks of pity, he said. So if they start spraying each other with water, somebody can call out “Hey! Why are you throwing water on a sick kid with cancer,” and everybody gets it, he said.
Now he would like to study nursing, he said.
One of the strong friendships that formed through Zichron Menachem is that of Noam Harush, 21, of Gan Yavneh, who was diagnosed with cancer while in the army in 2019, and volunteer Adi Matiash, 21, from Petah Tikvah.
Still struggling with her cancer, which has not responded well to treatment and has left her wheelchair-bound, Harush, at first, had been reluctant to come on this, her third Zichron Menachem camp, and had spent much of her time at home in bed. It took some cajoling and convincing to get her to agree to come, noted Matiash.
“Before the camp, I did not really want to go out anywhere, but here you have nurses and doctors and everyone is supporting you, and everyone is in the same situation. There is nothing to worry about. I feel safe and hugged,” Harush explained.
“There are kids of all ages here and I really connected with the youngest ones,” said Harush, who had started to study to be a kindergarten teacher until it became impossible for her to travel. “We will have a pajama and make-up party for them.”
Parts of the camp have been physically difficult for Harush, noted Matiash, who is studying psychology and has volunteered with Zichron Menachem for three years. Several of the friends she has made during that time have succumbed to their cancer, she said, which has not been easy, but she sees it as a privilege to be able to be with them and accompany them during that difficult time.
“Noam is my friend in every way... [and] I see small moments when it has been good for her here, and I see her smile,” said Matiash.
“If she had stayed at home, she would not have had these moments of enjoyment. I hope these moments have been worth it for her.”
The writer was a guest of Zichron Menachem.