Chai Lifeline trip brings Israeli cancer patients hope

‘Wish at the Wall’ enables 15 Jewish-American, post-treatment teens to bond with their Israeli counterparts while experiencing the land together.

A PARTICIPANT in Chai Lifeline’s ‘Wish at the Wall’ trip prays at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (photo credit: CHAI LIFELINE)
A PARTICIPANT in Chai Lifeline’s ‘Wish at the Wall’ trip prays at the Kotel in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: CHAI LIFELINE)
 His straight, light-brown hair down near his shoulders, 16-year-old Cole Silverman seems at ease, visiting the bedside of a 17-year-old Israeli cancer patient at the Children’s Oncology Ward of Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.
“Don’t worry,” Silverman tells the patient after he lifted his hat to reveal only short stubble, following rounds of chemotherapy.
“Look at me – it will grow back.”
Silverman knows very well what the other teenager is going through and can empathize, as he himself is a survivor of cancer, and only a few years ago was in the same position as the bedridden Israeli.
This unique hospital gathering was part of a program which brought together 15 Jewish American teenagers who are post-treatment for cancer on a 10-day Israel trip, to celebrate their health while at the same time inspiring Israeli children suffering from this disease.
The annual Israel trip is known as the Chai Lifeline organization’s “Wish at the Wall,” with this particular trip sponsored by the Hartman Family Foundation under the auspices of the organization’s Midwest branch.
Chai Lifeline’s mission, since its establishment in 1987, is to restore normalcy to the lives of children facing life-threatening illnesses while addressing their emotional, social and financial needs, from the time they receive their diagnosis throughout their battle with the illness.
In addition to the visit to Hadassah, the teens – who come from very diverse religious backgrounds (from hassidic to secular to all points in between), and a wide range of communities throughout the US – are granted a fully subsidized whirlwind tour of the country, allowing them to spend time making friends with others who have survived similar ordeals, while experiencing the Land of Israel together.
Each teen is accompanied on the trip by one parent, led by a group of experienced counselors from the organization.
During the hospital visit, the US teens bring gifts for their Israeli counterparts undergoing treatment. Silverman, who lives in Indianapolis and is accompanied by his mother, Anita, gives the Israeli patient an iPod, with a unique add-on. His mother explains that the iPod has a special hook, which can be attached to an IV machine or any other piece of equipment, so that the patient can listen to music while mobile throughout the hospital.
After spending some more time together discussing the hardships of the disease, with the Israeli mother showing Anita how she is passing the time between treatments knitting her son a scarf in the colors of the Barcelona Football Club – her son’s favorite team – the families exchange email and Facebook contact information, so that the boys can keep in touch.
Following the visit, Anita tells the Magazine in the hospital corridor what the experience has meant to her. “This trip has allowed these kids, who have something in common, to breathe again. Seeing our kids laugh together, and just watching our kids being kids – it’s just amazing.”
Cherry Hill, New Jersey, resident Mindy Brooks, accompanying her 18-yearold son Hunter, is visiting Israel for the first time. Hunter was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 14, and is now post-treatment. “What this trip represents,” says Mindy, “is the end [of that period]. What a wonderful gift this is.”
Her son agrees, saying that he feels this trip represents the “opening of a new door.”
Mindy adds, “I’ve made lifelong friends over just the course of the past four days, which is quite amazing.”
Rivky Schwartz, one of the counselors on the trip, who runs the girls’ branches of Camp Simcha, Chai Lifeline’s upstate New York summer camp for children with cancer, and Camp Simcha Special, for children with other debilitating chronic illnesses, enthuses that “it is incredible to see these kids celebrating their lives, after going through such hardships.”
Schwartz says the Israel aspect of the trip adds additional meaning, “seeing how they appreciate their own land,” and that an emotional highlight of the experience for the teens and their parents is the visit to the Western Wall, where they thank God for their health.
Rabbi Shlomo Crandall, who is Chai Lifeline’s Midwest regional director and is running the trip, tells the Magazine that a day before the hospital visit, the group visited Masada and swam in the Dead Sea. He explains howtouched he was when one of the girls on the trip tweeted, “This is the best day of my life.”
Crandall says, “For me, you see, most of these kids have never been to Israel.
What’s special is that I’m seeing Israel through their eyes.” While the group members have such different backgrounds in terms of their religious observance, “it doesn’t matter.”
He continues, “This program allows for teenagers who have spent years of their lives fighting cancer to move on and celebrate their health. It also give parents the opportunity to celebrate and spend quality time with their kids.”
Of the Hadassah visit, he says, “The hospital program allows our teenagers to be on the giving end, and to give to other kids by simply telling them, ‘We were in your shoes, we get it. And you too will pull through.’"