In April, Rabbi David Wilfond, a new immigrant who had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, took a vacation to Herzliya with his wife. The preceding fall and winter had not been particularly easy for Wilfond. In November, he underwent a six-hour surgery to remove a tumor and in December began chemotherapy treatment.The vacation was an incredibly welcome respite. As the father of three children under five, it was the first time in two and a half years that Wilfond was able to sleep through the whole night.The view from the room was “heavenly,” looking out on sun, sand and sky. In the mornings, the fresh squeezed orange juice tasted like “true health” and when they left, he said that both he and his wife felt refreshed not only individually but also as a couple.The experience “exceeded all of [the couple’s] hopes and dreams.”What made the vacation even better was that Wilfond’s stay at the boutique hotel was completely paid for, thanks to Refanah Healing Holidays, an organization that provides cancer patients with free holidays in vacation lodges and small hotels throughout the country.The hotel was one of the more than 90 vacation properties that coordinate with Refanah to bring much needed vacation time to those battling cancer.When Refanah founder Robyn Shames heard that a relative in Canada who’d been battling cancer was rejuvenated by a vacation at a lakeside cabin in Ontario, she realized that she wanted to provide something similar for those fighting the disease in Israel.
Shames, who made aliya 45 years ago from Montreal, didn’t bemoan the fact that Israel “doesn’t really have cottages around lakes.” Instead, the self-described “lawyer by profession, social entrepreneur by inclination” realized that Israel offers something unique that can rival woodsy cabins: the tzimmer, the Israeli version of a bed and breakfast, often located in pastoral areas.And so the idea of Refanah Healing Holidays was born.The name Refanah comes from the briefest prayer in the Bible. “El na refana la,” Moses prays, asking God to cure his sister Miriam of leprosy. And, after Miriam went outside of the camp and spent a week by herself, she was healed.Since the non-profit organization was formed one and a half years ago, Refanah has provided free vacations for over 550 cancer patients and the family and friends they chose to travel with. Shames reaches out to nurses and social workers at hospitals and health funds, who in turn let their patients know that the possibility of a free vacation awaits them.Shames began by cold-calling 100 random tzimmers all over the country.The average middle-of-the-week occupancy for tzimmers is between 25 and 50 percent, and Shames asked if they would be willing to donate a handful of these days to her nascent program so that cancer patients could enjoy some time away from the stressful world of work, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.And, to Shames’s “extreme surprise and appreciation,” the responses began quickly rolling in. Thirty places expressed interest in hosting. Mitch Pilcer was one of the tzimmer owners who wanted to be included.
He and his wife have always used their guest houses as a way to give back to the community. They often let hikers on the Israel National Trail stop by for a night on the house, and host special- needs kids for free. Refanah has helped them connect with a new group of people that they can help. Pilcer has only good things to say about the visitors he’s received through Refanah, and has collected a number of “sweet thankyou letters.”Patients who want to go on a vacation can choose from a list of locations, most of which are in the North or the South. Not only do the vacations help individuals; in the long-run, they will also help business in the periphery. Pilcer notes that families who have come to his tzimmer with a sick member have come back for regular family vacations once the cancer was in remission.To date, only tzimmers and small hotels have donated vacations; no large hotel chains have become involved.
Moving forward, Shames is working all the time to increase the number of tzimmer owners associated with the project. Though awareness of Refanah is slowly spreading via word of mouth, she hopes to connect with even more social workers, hospitals and health funds who will in turn connect her with patients who might be interested in going on a vacation.Though her goal is to create unforgettable memories for families, she also realizes that these holidays could be the last that a cancer patient spends with their family.But Shames is optimistic. She says that you “can’t judge what a vacation can do for people.” She operates under the presumption that when one family member has cancer the entire family can go through trauma. “It may seem like a small thing, but it’s much larger than it seems,” she says, a bit like the prayer for which Shames’s organization is named.