Thirty-one years have passed since Chai Lifeline was founded to provide a summer camp experience for seriously ill children. It has now evolved into the largest organization of its kind in the Jewish world, with 14 regional offices providing daily services at no cost to approximately 5,500 families worldwide.
The scope of Chai Lifeline’s activities has evolved dramatically over the years, with summer camp programming broadening into separate two-week sessions for boys and girls, Camp Simcha running programs for pediatric cancer patients, and Camp Simcha Special catering to children with chronic illnesses.
Project C.H.A.I. – Chai Lifeline’s crisis intervention and bereavement program – was a natural outgrowth of Chai Lifeline’s work with life-threatening illnesses and has been called in after such tragedies as the Boston Marathon bombing and, most recently, the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
“We added a dimension to the Jewish world that didn’t exist before,” said Rabbi Simcha Scholar, CEO of Chai Lifeline. “[O]ur volunteers can swoop in at the most delicate time and give people the help and the tools they need to deal with their situation.”
Chai Lifeline also provides insurance advocacy, meals, transportation, big brother and big sister programs, and, what Rabbi Scholar calls one of the organization’s best kept secrets, i-Shine, an after-school program for children dealing with serious loss or the illness of a parent or sibling.
Several hundred children take part in this twice-weekly program that currently runs in the Five Towns, Teaneck, Williamsburg, Monsey, Monroe, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Antwerp and has high school seniors pairing up with younger children for homework assistance, a fun activity, and a wholesome meal.
“The kids come and they get a sense of caring, community and fun, something that is very important in their turbulent lives,” said Rabbi Scholar.
Rabbi Scholar firmly believes Camp Simcha sparked a revolution in the Jewish world by normalizing obstacles and illness and inspiring individuals to volunteer and make a difference in the lives of others. He considers Camp Simcha alumni the pride and joy of Chai Lifeline.
“After they graduate and get married, they are the ones making a difference in their communities,” said Rabbi Scholar. “I travel the world and it is our former counselors who are involved in their shuls, schools, and communal projects. Over the years, our alumni have made a huge difference in the Jewish world.”
Ten years ago Ruchie Pollak’s daughter was first diagnosed with leukemia. Pollak, a Brooklyn resident, said one of the first phone calls she made was to Chai Lifeline.
“They really helped me, making me believe that we would pull through and were always there for me,” recalled Pollak. “I knew that any question or concern, I always had who to call.”
Pollak said Chai Lifeline took care of every detail, customizing its services to her family’s needs.
“It wasn’t one package, this is what we do and that’s it,” said Pollak. “They catered to my family and my daughter’s case, which wasn’t typical. They helped me deal with whatever came up and all of the medical scares and, Baruch Hashem, she pulled through.”
Pollak is currently a Chai Lifeline volunteer, paying weekly visits to hospitalized pediatric patients. Having been on the receiving end of Chai Lifeline’s services, she hopes to provide hope to parents by telling them she has been in their shoes.
“I remember the fear, having my other kids at home and wondering what they will remember when they grow up,” said Pollak. “I tell parents that my kids did great. They remember the volunteers and the parties, not the horror, because Chai Lifeline anticipated that need and created positive memories for them.”
Robert Spitz of Queens has been volunteering in hospitals with his wife Dinah for well over a decade and has seen firsthand how Chai Lifeline makes difficult situations infinitely more bearable.
“When your child is diagnosed with cancer, you enter a world that you know nothing about,” said Spitz. “I remember one chassidishe father who showed up on Erev Pesach straight out of Meah Shearim and here he was landing at 6:30 a.m. in New York, and he doesn’t even speak English. The Chai Lifeline system kicked in and suddenly he had a place to live, his Pesach seder was arranged, there was food coming to the house, doctors, interpreters, and insurance. You don’t realize how many aspects of life are affected when something like this happens.”
Even when families have strong support systems, a cancer diagnosis can mean a long haul, and while friends and relatives slowly drift back to their regular lives, countless little details remain to be managed by the family, said Spitz.
“Parents may need to meet with a doctor and someone has to stay with the child and there are other kids at home who need attention,” noted Spitz. “And somehow Chai Lifeline is there, with food going to the home and the hospital, volunteers coming to the hospital to play with the kids, and iPads showing up out of nowhere to keep them busy.”
Less than two weeks remain until Chai Lifeline’s gala dinner, taking place this year at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown on November 19. This year’s event will honor Lakewood residents Mayer and Chaya Rivka Fischl who custom-built their home so that they could provide respite to Chai Lifeline children.
“Usually Shabbos is a time when most people want to indulge in a little down time, but the Fischls take things up, going all out for these kids, which is truly unique,” said Rabbi Scholar. “There are so many people who support organizations, but most don’t get personally involved in this kind of way.”
To learn more, visit www.chailifeline.org/events/dinner/tribute.