Avid Tsesis tattooed the words “this is my curse” on his back one month after being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. In the coming months he would undergo the searing effects of chemotherapy, forcing him to relearn how to walk and move his hands. Yet, two years later, he changed his mind about the tattoo.
“My cancer is not a curse,” said Tsesis, 23. “It is a gift.”
He attributes his change in perspective to the time he has spent with Zichron Menachem, an organization devoted to working with children and young adults battling cancer, which he says gave him a life-changing sense of community and support. Once a year, the organization hosts a twelve-day long trip to another country. This week, 150 kids are taking part in an all-expenses-paid vacation to London, a rare break in schedules full of doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy treatments.
“It’s surviving, not living,” he said. “But the camp makes you feel like you’re living for twelve days.”
The first night of camp, two days before the 6:00 a.m. flight to London, the campers gathered in the basement of the Jerusalem Gardens Hotel for the kick-off event – a concert with live music from the band Lehava. For the next hour and a half, the campers – clad in green shirts that read “together we shall overcome” – let themselves go entirely in a flurry of Konga lines, karaoke, and every type of dance move imaginable. A little bald-headed girl a with tube taped to her cheek and surgery scars on her neck waved her hands in the air, sitting atop the swaying shoulders of a counselor, all smiles, while a boy in a wheelchair was hoisted up into the air by the campers, giggling wildly. The lead singer of Lehava beckoned a teenaged girl to the stage, and she took over the vocals for a song, to the cheers of the others.
“We try to envelope all the kids in this freeing kind of joy,” said Ben Zion Kosovosky, a volunteer at Zichron Menachem. “And to bring as many people into the fold as possible, to get them to feel the energy and this awesome emotion in the room. It’s a very huge task for them to be able to let go of all the stress.”
Many of the children spend the majority of their days in isolation wards and hospital waiting rooms with their parents. The camp challenges them to go outside their comfort zones. To do this, Zichron Menachem brings a fully equipped field hospital on all of its trips, allowing the kids to take their medications and receive their treatments without having to leave the trip.
On the second day of camp, the day before leaving for London, Lihai Cohen, 24, got his face painted with the Israeli flag at a party hosted by the IDF for the Zichron Menachem campers. A brain tumor has left Cohen confined to a wheelchair, blind and deaf in one ear, making traveling quite difficult. Nevertheless, he says he is looking forward to the chance for renewed independence.
“I’m waiting to see if I will be able to do something without the family that was always around me from the moment I was sick,” Cohen said. “But now I won’t have the opportunity to go back to the family every time I feel a little bit bad.”
In addition to providing a release for the campers, Zichron Menachem has also set up a week-long camp for the siblings of the sick children, allowing their parents to have a much-needed break. Chaim Ehrental, who founded the organization 25 years ago with his wife Miri, understands firsthand what it’s like to raise a child with cancer.
Forty-one years ago, their son Menachem was diagnosed with leukemia at eighteen months, and every moment of the next fourteen years would be a struggle for him to survive. Chaim and Miri say that there were no organizations like Zichron Menachem in place to help deal with their son’s illness. Instead, they had to take the initiative themselves to make their son’s life more tolerable, in addition to raising five other children.
During the periods where Menachem was kept in isolation, Chaim and Miri brought in musicians to play outside their son’s door from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Despite the best efforts of his parents to keep him happy, one day Menachem understood with a deep finality that he would never be healthy. He made the decision to go off his medication. Six days later, he died.
“There were hard times when our son was sick, when the doctors threw their hands up and said ‘there is nothing we can do anymore,’ but he was like a leopard and would somehow bounce back every time,” Ehrental said. “But when he decided to stop fighting, it took less than a week and he was gone. It drove home to us the message of how important the effect of the mind is on the body.”
With no more music filling the halls after Menachem’s death, the Ehrental house fell silent. Chaim and his wife realized they had to do something before they became too depressed, so they made the decision to create the program they wished had been available for Menachem, a program that would give sick kids something to live for.
In the car ride back from the second day of camp, which featured another concert at an IDF base, Ehrental reflects on a letter he recently received from a mother of a camper.
“For the past year this child underwent very intensive heart treatments, causing unbelievable suffering and pain. Three months ago he was in a terrible depression and wouldn’t talk to anybody,” Ehrental said. “So just this Saturday night at 2 a.m., his mom told me he said, ‘remember when I was depressed? The only thing that took me out of my depression was the knowledge that I would soon be getting to go to camp. That was the one thing that gave me the strength to be able to overcome my depression.’”
Ehrental looks toward the back seat of his van, full of campers flushed from a long evening of excitement and festivities. A nurse helps one girl, who on any other day would be stuck at the hospital, take her chemotherapy medication with some chocolate milk.
“In other words,” Ehrental concludes, “we know that if there’s something the kids are able to look forward to and wait for, that’s no less powerful than the camp itself.”