Zamzam style!

Zichron Menachem offers a light at the end of the tunnel for cancer patients in a unique way, but it is the hard-working volunteers who truly provide the energy boost.

Zichron Menachem  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zichron Menachem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first thing I notice about the group of campers and counselors at Zichron Menachem’s winter camp at the Magic Palace Hotel in Eilat is the noise. Standing on chairs, they sing, shout chants and tease each other good-naturedly over whose group is “better,” as a counselor bangs away on a bongo drum.
The idea behind the noise lies in the fact that for most campers, much of their time is spent in lonely hospital rooms or at home while their parents work. They are used to being surrounded by beeping machines and general silence.
In Eilat they are confronted with deafening spirit and enthusiasm – a way to counter the long stretches of boredom and silence they are forced to endure as they wait for their bodies to fight off cancer.
And if they stand out among friends back at home due to physical differences, such as hair loss caused by chemotherapy, here they blend in with the other children, many of whom suffer from the same type of side-effects.
With differences among the campers largely erased, the children are able to focus on having fun. And fun they have! In the week they spent in Eilat, the campers visited the Oceanarium and the IMAX theater, where they were treated to their own version of “Gangnam Style” – “Zamzam style.”
They went speed-boating, banana boating, jet skiing and parasailing. They bowled, rode camels, biked, drove in off-road jeeps and rode ATVs.
With 130 campers and 80 staff members – all wearing green T-shirts with the organization’s name emblazoned on the front – Zichron Menachem appeared to have conquered Eilat.
THE STORY of Zichron Menachem is well-known.
In the mid-1990s, 15-year-old Menachem Ehrental died after a life-long battle against cancer. His parents, Chaim and Miri, had spent a decade and a half helping their child while lending assistance and encouragement to other parents enduring similar experiences.
Throughout Menachem’s illness, the Ehrentals learned first-hand the agony that families go through when they have a sick child and the wealth of support they need to surmount this challenge. When a child is stricken with cancer, the whole family suffers and they all need individual support and encouragement. More importantly, they discovered what it is that the child – who spends every moment fighting for life – requires in order to overcome the illness.
Shortly after Menachem’s death, the Ehrentals founded Zichron Menachem with the goal of helping those enduring an experience similar to their own.
Throughout two decades of intensive effort, Zichron Menachem’s staff has garnered invaluable experience and knowledge about the world of cancer. The organization operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and provides services and assistance equally to all Israeli citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
Children hospitalized in medical institutions throughout Israel benefit from Zichron Menachem’s broad-based activities and services. The organization operates numerous branches in hospitals around the country.
In recent years, Zichron Menachem has also expanded its activities to encompass children with cancerstricken parents.
The organization believes that support for a child with cancer is support for the entire family.
Founder Miri Ehrental gestures toward a group of kids lining up for turns on the jet ski. “Everyone here understands each other. By the second day, kids with wigs feel comfortable enough to remove them.”
Asked what it takes to ensure the organization provides for all the children’s needs, she says, “Today, I am a lot smarter. After years of experience and contact with thousands of families, I understand a lot better what the needs are. Actor Dvir Benedek helps and has already participated in two videos to encourage others to donate hair.
“The counselors here are with the campers around the clock.
“You can see that we have young children here, age six,” Ehrental continues. “The fact that they are here alone is a demonstration of the level of trust the parents have in us. The camp gives them something to look forward to. For them, we are the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The activities we offer are geared for everyone,” she says. “Younger and older campers can participate in the same activities. At night we split the groups and offer different activities for the different age groups.”
Asked what the organization lacks, Ehrental says, “unfortunately, we do not have enough support from the government. We have some help from the Health Ministry, a bit from the Welfare Ministry, the Education Ministry, but not enough. For example, many children do not go to school. Instead, they come to us. They still require an education! And we provide all types of activities, tutors and extracurricular classes. Why doesn’t the government concern itself with filling this need? “Ultimately, you can see that the children here are very happy and we try to give them these types of opportunities as well as providing year-round assistance,” she says.
Her husband, co-founder Chaim Ehrental, says, “the idea in the beginning was to come and offer a solution to the problems we had faced. We spoke often of the idea that cancer is not more of a burden than other illnesses.
We also tried to break the prevalent mind-set that talking about cancer was an evil thing. There are those who rely on the teachings of various sages who taught that if one has a disease for which there is no known cure, it is better not to say he has the disease since then he will need a great miracle to cure him. But if it is a regular illness, for which there is a cure, that’s OK?
“I approached a number of rabbis about this issue. I said to them, ‘Most children who suffer from cancer get better! Seventy percent of cancer patients get better! You don’t need a miracle to heal them. So why not confront it?’
“We didn’t come with specific goals – [that] we’re going to do this and this. We did recognize that we needed to provide care on a daily basis. Other organizations were doing a few events during the year, but that was it. The connection didn’t last year-round,” he says.
“Another solution we came up with based on our experience was to provide care for the rest of the family – not just the cancer patient. The family ends up becoming overwhelmed by the patient’s medical needs.”
Zichron Menachem offers “parents of children with cancer the chance to get away,” says Miri. “We take them to restaurants, museums and walking tours,” she continues. “We take parents on weekend getaways and offer informal support groups. It is incredible to see how haredi, religious-Zionist and secular parents mix together and are friends with each other. All the mehitzot [barriers] come down. There is no difference between anyone.”
“We also initiated a few other ideas,” Chaim adds. “For instance, we have a blood bank. We have a group of volunteers with varying blood types who are ready at any moment to donate blood. We started with volunteers and small events and we have grown to what you see today.”
ZICHRON MENACHEM runs year-round programs with volunteer groups and young women in National Service who undergo special pediatric medical training and escort families of cancer patients throughout their ordeal.
Volunteers offer their assistance in hospitals, spending their days in the children’s ward, keeping patients occupied, entertaining them and relieving exhausted parents.
They also manage the on-site recreational center and lend special equipment, including board games and electronic toys, videos and arts-and-crafts supplies to entertain young cancer patients during their long hospital stays and periods in isolation.
The volunteers visit cancer patients in their homes, where they entertain them, talk and play games with them and their siblings and lend a hand with light household chores.
Ori, 24, has worked with Zichron Menachem for seven years.
He says that “from a psychological perspective, the kids here receive a boost of strength that helps them endure the next few months of treatment. The organization offers sick children the chance to leave the hospital and experience the type of activities you see here. There’s no way to describe the level of hope it gives them.”
Helping sick children is hard work – physically demanding and emotionally taxing.
Zichron Menachem’s volunteers are clearly dedicated to their mission and work long hours to ensure their campers are getting the best experience possible.
Zichron Menachem encourages parents and families of young cancer patients to take advantage of the time that their child is away to reinforce the bonds of their own relationships and to devote extra attention to their other children. Although their pain and grief is often disregarded, siblings of children with cancer suffer as well. Worry for the sick sibling is compounded by feelings of neglect and despair. These five days allow time to devote to and spoil the other children, to take a family trip or vacation that is usually impossible due to the constant medical attention the patient requires.
Zohar Chalah, the camp coordinator for Zichron Menachem, says, “the children come here and recharge their batteries.
They learn from each other how to cope with their illness. They discuss their situation among themselves and learn from one another. Here, they can take off their wigs and feel comfortable together. They feel normal here. Everyone here is wearing the same t-shirt. Often, it is difficult to know who is who – it is difficult sometimes to differentiate between campers and counselors.
“The organization hopes to reach every sick child in the country. Here, there are approximately 130 children. Of course we hope that we can host a camp of healthy children, but until then, we try to create a fun atmosphere for as many sick children as possible.”
In an effort to bring more smiles to the children’s faces, Dvir Benedek, an Israeli actor, was invited to join the organization at their winter camp.
He says, “Zichron Menachem contacted me and asked me to join their organization in its efforts to bring joy to the children here. My mother died recently of cancer and that has helped me understand a bit better what these children are going through. “Besides, I have no hair,” he says smiling, pointing to his bald head, “so the children probably feel more comfortable with me.”
The counselor-child ratio is approximately 1:2. This, in addition to a technical faculty that arranges the logistics of the trip; a mental health faculty and an oncology faculty that is present at all times to guarantee the safety and health of the campers.
The hotel designated a special room for a clinic and fully equipped field hospital, providing extra blankets, water coolers and refrigerators, among other equipment.
Campers visit the clinic every morning and evening for routine checkups. All medical equipment and a complete medical faculty accompany the children wherever they go – 24 hours a day – to guarantee that every child can and will receive immediate, quality care should any medical problem arise. Registration for camp is contingent upon a medical form signed by the child’s oncologist, which includes complete medical instructions.
Dr. Matti Erlichman, head of the pediatric emergency medicine department at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, says, “There are volunteers who were here before they went into the army and then returned after their service. That demonstrates how connected they are to this cause.”
“There may be lots of children here who are dancing and singing, but the fact is that they are very sick. Because of this, we need to have an entire emergency department here,” he says. “We need to have the right equipment and have a full stock of medicines.
Twice a day, we open the clinic to give the children their medicines. We keep track of who needs what – each child has a file – and we have nurses who administer the proper treatments. I’m happy to be here. I try as much as possible to help out, and sometimes it is necessary to calm anxious parents. When I come here, I feel like I am doing something. I feel like I am contributing to their cause.”
Lena, the manager of the Magic Palace Hotel, says, “Zichron Menachem has been coming here for eight years and we are very pleased that they continue to return. We consider ourselves to be a family-friendly hotel and we enjoy hosting them.
“A month and a half beforehand, the Zichron Menachem staff comes here to make arrangements and iron out details. We prep our staff to understand the type of organization Zichron Menachem is and to prepare them for the unique needs the group has. Many of our other guests have been here in previous years when Zichron Menachem was also here, yet they insist on returning. They enjoy seeing the counselors and the work they do with the campers.”
WITH OVER 200 known types of cancer, the disease is a major threat on a global scale.
According to the American Cancer Society, “cancer accounts for one in every eight deaths worldwide – more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. In 2008, there were an estimated 12.7 million cases of cancer diagnosed and 7.6 million deaths from cancer around the world. Moreover, the global cancer burden is growing at an alarming pace; in 2030 alone, about 21.4 million new cancer cases and 13.2 million cancer deaths are expected to occur, simply due to the growth and aging of the population.”
Each year, thousands of children are diagnosed with cancer and each year, unfortunately, many die of the disease.
Approximately 70% of cancer patients in Israel are cured – the second-highest rate in the world.
Today, given medical and scientific knowledge and the possibility of early diagnosis, thousands of cases of cancer that are diagnosed each year can be prevented.
As an outsider, it doesn’t take long to observe the level of effort that the volunteers at Zichron Menachem put into their work and the amount of love they shower upon their wards.
While I don’t wish for anyone to ever need help from Zichron Menachem or its programs, it is comforting to know that there is an organization made up of dedicated volunteers who are totally devoted to the children they care so much about.