‘We have needs too’

Zichron Menachem recognizes that parents of children suffering from cancer also require some self-indulgence – and whisks them to Europe for a fun getaway.

Parents of children with cancer in France 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Zichron Menachem)
Parents of children with cancer in France 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Zichron Menachem)
The group of Israeli tourists standing in the center of Strasbourg, France, is a strange sight indeed. Secular Jews are side-by-side with hassidim, as they listen to the tour guide explaining their surroundings.
Naturally, it causes any onlooker to wonder how this unusual situation came to be.
And it all begins in Israel.
For S., the dreaded phone call came while she was at work. The doctor called to say he had received the test results for her daughter, and wanted to meet with them right away. Her daughter had cancer.
The following weeks became a nightmare.
Day became night and night became day.
Hospital time always seems slower, and the days became endless.
Running on little food and insufficient sleep, parents of children with cancer are often left with no choice but to abandon their jobs, as they struggle to balance home life with hospital life.
The emotional, psychological and financial strain becomes overwhelming.
Few people understand that families with a sick child are affected in many ways. The National Insurance Institute may pay for certain treatments and doctors may assist with medical advice, but for years there was a lack of emotional, physical and psychological support for families undergoing the traumatic experience of dealing with a sick child in the hospital.
Imagine for a moment the sheer terror and utter despair a parent experiences upon hearing his or her child has cancer.
Imagine that you are that parent.
How absolutely stricken you must be with sadness, fear and helplessness.
But you can also have faith in the ability of your child to recover. You can harbor deep hope and great enthusiasm that one day he or she will bounce back and regain the health they lost.
Still elusive though, is the strength to cope. You need physical strength to shuttle between home and the hospital. You need emotional strength to deal with the extreme feelings of sadness, fear and hope that you experience every day. You require mental strength to stay healthy and maintain composure.
But all of this is taxing on the average human being and one cannot generally accomplish this alone.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, it took a tragedy to kickstart the support families need.
Menachem Ehrental was the eldest child of Chaim and Miri Ehrental.
When he was only 18 months old, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Throughout the course of the next 14 years, young Menachem battled malignant illness heroically, until he died in 1990 at the tender age of 15.
Shortly before the end, Menachem expressed his frustration and despair with his lifelong battle, admitting he no longer harbored the energy or will to continue fighting. His parents took this statement as proof that, above all, it is willpower and determination that keep a person alive and fighting until the end, and that loss of willpower is the prelude to death.
As a tribute to their son, they undertook to infuse joy and vitality into the lives of pediatric cancer patients in Israel and, soon after Menachem’s death, launched Zichron Menachem, the Israeli association for the support of children with cancer and their families The Ehrentals realized that families of children stricken with cancer need more assistance than the state provides. Their traumatic experience moved them to provide for others what they themselves had lacked during their tragic ordeal.
Since then the facility has grown to include a day center, within which numerous programs operate. There are parent and sibling support programs.
There is an educational program with special tutors to assist children and help them keep up with their lessons. This allows young cancer patients – who miss an average of a full school year – to return to school after recovering from illness without suffering the shame of having to stay back a year.
Children with cancer waste hours upon hours in waiting rooms and hospital beds, bored to tears. For this reason, Zichron Menachem aims to counter this by offering various activities at the day center including music; art such as painting, woodworking, sculpting and photography; sports such as martial arts and aerobics; cooking; and theater, including drama, dance and ballet; along with many other activity choices.
Zichron Menachem also operates a guest house for families of pediatric cancer patients who live out of town and are undergoing treatment in Jerusalem.
Children hospitalized in medical institutions throughout Israel benefit from Zichron Menachem’s broad-based activities and services.
The organization operates branches in Soroka University Medical Center (Beersheba); Sheba Medical Center (Tel Hashomer); Sourasky Medical Center’s Dana-Dwek Children’s Hospital (Tel Aviv); Schneider Children’s Medical Center for Israel (Petah Tikva); Wolfson Medical Center (Holon); Rambam Medical Center (Haifa); Hadassah University Medical Center (Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem); Shaare Zedek Medical Center (Jerusalem); Emek Medical Center (Afula); Kaplan Medical Center (Rehovot); and Bnai Zion Hospital (Haifa).
In recent years, Zichron Menachem has also expanded its activities to benefit children with cancer-stricken parents.
Each year, the organization runs camps during the winter, spring and summer for children with cancer.
During the winter they go south to Eilat, during the spring they go north, and in summer they go abroad.
WHILE PEOPLE tend to forget that a child suffering from cancer has a family working around the clock to tend to their needs, Zichron Menachem realizes that the parents’ health is equally important.
While the center offers parental support groups, which focus on topics such as the conflict between the patient’s needs and household needs; marital friction that results from the child’s illness; methods of dealing with the sick child, his siblings, extended family members and medical staff; and coping with pressure, anxiety and marital relationships, the organization recognizes the necessity for parents to get a break from their exhausting routine.
Their discovery of the Jewish community in Strasbourg a few years ago was a blessing from the start. Community activist Dr. Maurice Dahan took upon himself the extraordinary task of assisting Zichron Menachem every step of the way, arranging for his community to accommodate 200 children, counselors and medical and logistical staff in 2012.
So when the Ehrentals began searching for locations in Europe to which they could bring groups of parents as a getaway from the draining reality that is their life, Strasbourg was a natural choice.
The whirlwind trip last week took the parents over the borders of Switzerland, Germany and France, with nights spent in Strasbourg. The group visited the Rhine Falls, located on the Upper Rhine near the town of Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland. They drove through Germany’s Black Forest and visited Worms, where the great and revered medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, widely known as Rashi, once lived.
They passed through the stunning Route des Vins d’Alsace (Alsatian Wine Route), an approximately 170-km.-long road crossing the main wine producing areas of the Alsace region of France, and walked through the beautiful and quaint towns of Riquewihr and Colmar.
They strapped into harnesses and flew by zip-line through a valley, though not without its mishaps – five parents got stuck in the middle, and were left hanging a good many meters above ground until help arrived. Surely they now have a tale to tell back home.
The group also went alpine sledding down a mountain in Todtnau, Germany, and visited the town of Freiburg, where they converged upon a store selling Playmobil and Lego at a reduced price. A shopping frenzy ensued and without a doubt, more than one local raised an eyebrow. They may have seemed like crazy Israeli consumers, thirsty for a good deal, but I am convinced these parents were looking for a way to pamper their children – to counter, at least to a small extent, the stress and difficulty they continue to endure back home.
One night, the group went bowling.
For some, this was the first time they had ever lifted a bowling ball and, by the look on their faces as they achieved a strike or a spare or even knocked down a few pins, it was an exhilarating experience.
Through such outings, Zichron Menachem offers the parents a level of fun they would not normally experience under typical circumstances. For some of the haredi couples, this was the first time they had left their insular world to enjoy such pastimes.
OBSERVING THESE parents, one would never guess they each had a child back home suffering from cancer – some with a worse prognosis than others.
Though the trip was about having fun, a dark cloud hung above the participants throughout, as each parent clearly worried about the health of their child and family.
One participant admitted that she had become a hermit after learning her child had cancer. She withdrew from her friends and usual daily life, as she pondered how to get through her difficult situation. No one she knew had a child with cancer, and she found herself with no one to talk to about her crushing experience.
Until, that is, she heard of Zichron Menachem.
One young haredi couple explained that it is their religious custom to avoid leaving Israel for any reason other than for health purposes. Given their circumstances, when they were offered the opportunity to travel abroad with Zichron Menachem for the sake of their own health, they agreed to join.
The participants expressed relief in being able to escape the pressure back home. They seemed to appreciate the chance to get a breath of fresh air and focus on something else with others who understand their situation.
Clearly, when it comes to dealing with cancer, there is strength in numbers.
Another participant voiced his thanks that the trip organizers had succeeded in removing everyone from the usual unfortunate issues they deal with on a daily basis, and instead of worrying constantly only about their children, they were now able to focus on themselves as well.
On the morning of the last day of the trip, the rabbi of Strasbourg, Rabbi Shmuel Akiva Schlesinger, another individual instrumental to the success of Zichron Menachem’s activities in France, came to speak to the group and bestow support.
After he finished speaking, many of the parents approached him to receive a blessing. During the course of the week, with hours of traveling, jokes and laughter, sad emotions were held at bay, but as the rabbi spoke with each parent, offering his blessing and encouragement, tears began to flow.
In summing up the trip, one of the parents explained how thankful he was not just for the opportunity, but also the work that Zichron Menachem does throughout the year.
“Thankfully we are here together with other families and we are able to learn from each other how to cope with our troubles. I saw here the blending of souls and minds. I hope that together, we all manage to find the strength to get through this and that our children will overcome their sickness and become healthy once again.”
His words unquestionably echoed the thoughts of everyone present.