Day camps for sick children, special-needs young adults, and special-needs girls, a sleep-over camp for teens – and that’s just a partial list * Last summer, Ezer Mizion ran no fewer than thirteen different day-camps and retreats for 2347 children and patients and their families * “For us, it’s not just a vacation – it’s fuel for the whole year,” sums up one of the mothers * On the threshold of the 2014 summer programs, we went out to hear about it first-hand from both sides – both from the organizers and volunteers, and from the parents of sick children who went out to charge their batteries.
From time immemorial, “summer” and “camp” have gone hand in hand. “Kayta,” the root of the word “kaytana” (the Hebrew word for camp) means “summer” in Aramaic. When we hear the word “camp,” we immediately think of frolicking children, attractions and trips, counselors hoarse from singing, and the characteristic scent of water parks.
But when you say “Ezer Mizion camps,” an important component is tacked on to this association: Participants in these camps belong to one of the special population groups for whom camp is not just a way to pass the long summer vacation, but rather – and primarily – a “gas station” where they can refill their tank with physical and emotional energies. These are people whom life has presented with complex struggles, and the major contribution that the summer programs grants them is expressed throughout the year that follows, until… the next summer camp.
We went out to survey five out of the thirteen summer retreats and day camps operated by Ezer Mizion in the summer of 2013 from up close, and we returned absolutely awestruck.
Gift for Cancer Patients
Rabbi Zev Freund, director of the retreat for cancer patients and their families, relates: “2003 was the fifth year that we ran this retreat. Its primary objective is to give families a much needed break, to sit the entire family down together around one table – something which may not have taken place over the entire past year – and give them a chance to try and forget about the illness. We know that when one member of the family is sick, the entire family is affected, and especially its “togetherness.” The retreat gives families the chance to come together again, and even more importantly – to relax and be happy together.
“The retreat takes place in a pastoral, tranquil, vacation resort, and all the programs we run include humor and good cheer. In this retreat, there is no room for sadness, and we often see patients who haven’t smiled for many long months walking around here with a broad smile lighting up their faces. Of course, from the medical standpoint, all measures are taken to accommodate the illness and the needs it presents. But it is as if the illness itself doesn’t exist here.
“Another important benefit that the retreat offers families is the sense of support, empathy, and joint struggle, along the lines of ‘Sorrow shared is sorrow halved.’”
What does the retreat include?
“First of all, sumptuous meals, with an abundance of excellent food and nosh throughout the day. It is thrilling to see the whole family finally sit down to one table, in a calm and pleasant atmosphere, with family camaraderie, all smiles.
“Usually, on the first day of the retreat, the activity takes place on the campus and includes enjoyable programs, lectures for the parents, swimming in the pool on site, and more. On the other days, we go out to some kind of park, trip, jeep trail, or such.
“Last year, in order to enable the parents to sleep an hour later in the morning and not have to wake up early with their young children, the volunteers ran a Gymboree room from seven to nine in the morning to keep the little early risers busy.
“The days of the retreat are days when you don’t get too much rest. We try to fill every minute of the day with activity and happiness, and the families report to us that even half a year later, they still sit around and share fond memories. That is what gives them the strength to keep up their battle.
“At the conclusion of the retreat, the families all assemble and each of the children gets a huge helium balloon and a marker. The children write their wish out on the balloon and then let it soar upwards, along with fireworks and songs of prayer. This moment is engraved in the heart of everyone as a very special moment.
A volunteer at the retreat, Shlomo Adani: “There is nothing more thrilling than seeing these sick children having a good time outside the hospital walls, with a wide grin on their face and the happiness bursting from their heart in gales of uninhibited laughter. Every family solidifies its own inner circle and also forms special bonds with the others. They all become like one big, supportive family. For a long time after the retreat, we keep hearing experiences and warm recollections, because this retreat really gives them energy for their journey.
“Beyond the privilege and the mission of volunteering, I am grateful and happy each year anew to be on the giving end. I feel that this retreat gives me energy, too – to continue accompanying these children on their journey, even in difficult situations, within the confines of the dreaded oncology ward.”
Leah, mother of a sick child, who participated in the retreat with her family: “It is hard to describe the sheer joy my child feels at the retreat. For many long months, we did not see him like this. He did not have a single minute of inactivity. The entire day was packed to the gills with fascinating and fun programs. Ezer Mizion’s tremendous effort is evident in every single area. Everything is conducted in the most professional way possible, with full control at all times. Every single detail attests to the fact that the staff sat and put in endless thought into producing this retreat. Even the area of food – what abundance, what special treats! Everything they do is with their full heart and soul.
“When we just start speaking about the retreat, obtaining the details and checking if we will be able to participate, my little boy begins awaiting it impatiently. He asks again and again if he will really be able to take part.
“The people at Ezer Mizion are our angels – ours and every child’s. They think about every one of the dozens of children and give and give and give – and not only at the retreat
Day Camp for Special-Needs Children
Rabbi Amikam Tanami, director of the day camp for special-needs girls, relates: “Looking back at the seventeen years that this day camp is in existence,” says Rabbi Tanami, “you can see a consistent trend to move forward, improve, and do whatever possible for the children’s comfort, happiness, and optimum enjoyment. All along the way, we try to draw lessons from the past, and enhance and upgrade for the future.
What is the daily schedule at the day camp?
“The children and volunteers arrive in the morning. Each volunteer approaches “her” child and together they go over to the breakfast corner to pick up their roll and chocolate milk. Afterwards they gather in the group rooms, where they eat, daven, and sing, and on Fridays, they also celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat. Later, the groups all come together for a joint assembly, where they sing the unifying camp songs, hear relevant announcements, and more.
“After the assembly, the children scatter. Some head for the diverse craft activity rooms – gluing, painting, stringing pretzel necklaces, and such. The others are directed to activity in the pool, music room, or Gymboree.
“At the end of the action-packed morning, the children are served lunch. Right afterwards, while enjoying their ice pop for dessert, they gather in the air-conditioned giant tent and watch the central performance of the day.
“At the close of each special, rich day, the children go home tired but satisfied, eagerly looking forward to the next day, with all the exciting experiences it has in store. An especially important aspect is the fact that they come back to a calm, happy home, where the other children in the family also had a chance to enjoy their vacation and recharge their batteries, without having to care for their special sibling all hours of the day.
Mrs. Yaakovson, mother of Yehuda, one of the day camp participants: “Last year, we had an especially long vacation with Yehuda, because he was in transition from the day nursery, where the term concluded a week before the official school-year end, to a preschool where the school year was to begin a week later than other places. Altogether, he was out of school for almost five weeks. He is an adorable, marvelous child, but he cannot sit still for a second. Right after his morning kiss, he starts
running. The expanses in the house are not big enough for him; he wants to get out, to run free. His typical position,” she says with a smile, “looks like this: standing next to the front door, knocking, and waiting for it to open. And the minute someone opens it, he is out the door…”
“The Ezer Mizion day camp literally saved him – and us. He went happily and returned calm. Light filled his eyes and you could see that he was charged with positive energy that was really good for him and that he had expended all his vim and vigor to the last drop – and he has quite a lot…
“The other children in the family also enjoyed the day camp – first of all, because it enabled them to do things that would not have been possible if Yehuda was around, and second of all, because we all felt involved in Yehuda’s experience. We accompanied him to the pickup in the morning and waited for the van to drop him off in the afternoon. At home, we read the daily program, and every time he came home, the children curiously rummaged through his carry bag to see what he did that day in camp. One day, my six-year-old daughter came to me and innocently asked: ‘Ima, it’s not my fault that I’m not a special child…’”
Devori Rind, a volunteer at the day camp: “All year long I wait for this day camp. It’s a special time, when you see and experience one of the most wonderful qualities of the Jewish people – the tremendous giving. Friends ask me how I find the strength to wake up every morning to another day of volunteering and even to smile. But the truth is that when you come to Ezer Mizion and see everyone smiling, your smile breaks out spontaneously, and that is how another beautiful day of giving begins.”
Sleep-away Retreat for Special-needs Teens
Rabbi Zev Schechter, director of the teen sleep-away camp, shares with us: “Way back, 21 years ago, all our summer program consisted of was a day camp for seventeen special-needs children. The goal of the day camp was to provide the children with enjoyable experiences and at the same time, to enable their families to get a bit of a break from their constant care. From then till now, the goals remain the same, but the program itself does not resemble its original form in a single detail.
“Today, we are speaking of an entire week when we take these boys, who always find themselves on the fringe of life, and provide them with experiences that are stupendous by any standard, so as to give them a feeling of importance. For example, on the day that the camp travels to Jerusalem to pray at the Kotel, police patrol cars are there waiting for us at the entrance to the city. They clear lanes for us and escort us like they do for VIP’s. ‘Why is it so important?’ someone once asked me. Rather than telling him, I invited him to board one of the buses and see the lights flashing in these boys’ eyes, which are usually dim and dark.”
Where do your volunteers come from?
“The volunteers at the camp are the best bachurim from the finest yeshivas – and not for naught. Working at the camp is tough and arduous, both from the physical and the emotional standpoint. Only someone who does the volunteering for its own sake, not for applause or a pat on the back, is capable of meeting this challenge – giving and giving his entire self, without expecting any recompense. In spite of these objective difficulties, hundreds of bachurim knock at our doors asking to volunteer every year. They are screened and checked out from all aspects. It is amazing to see them, after a long, grueling day of volunteering, sitting down to an in-depth learning session, unwilling to give up on their most precious love, in the knowledge that the world stands on loving kindness, but first and foremost – it stands on Torah.
“One of the great Rosh Yeshivas who visited the retreat last year approached me, overcome by emotion, and said: ‘I think every bachur should volunteer here before he gets married. Because the absolute devotion demanded here is true preparation for life, more than a hundred lectures and talks’…
Moishy M, volunteer at the retreat: “2014 was the seventh year I volunteered at the retreat. Every year I get a camper with a different handicap, but the feeling this volunteer work gives me is always the same: deep satisfaction. It is a lofty feeling and a tremendous sense of fulfillment that anyone who volunteers surely understands, and whoever doesn’t – couldn’t possibly understand.
“A full week of absolute dedication and work on behalf of these special boys etches its impression and leaves a person with unique spiritual acquisitions.”
Chana Segal, mother of Yossie: “The experiences that the Ezer Mizion retreat gives my son – I could never give him myself, even though they are indescribably important to him. You have to see his anticipation to understand that for him, this is an experience that cannot be broken down into mere words. On the one hand, the retreat is full of activity with true Torah values, and on the other hand, there are all the exciting attractions. There is also the aspect of meeting up with friends and beloved staff, and above all – the feeling of being equal among equals, and altogether – feeling he is of real value.
“Beyond all this, there is the aspect of the family. The week that Yossie is at the retreat, we can rest and go out on trips with the other children like any family, something that is impossible when we have to take along our handicapped son.”
Camp for Special-Needs Young Adults
Rabbi Moshe Yisraeli, Director of Matan activities: “Matan is a project that is active all year round. When it started, about fifteen years ago, Matan was geared for children with CP (cerebral palsy), in the goal of providing them with a supportive social framework and primarily – Torah studies. With time, the children grew, and the framework grew with them. Today, it is geared for young adults, aged twenty and up, who thirst for social interaction and for activity to fill their day. All of them are mobility impaired – some extremely handicapped, with both legs and arms paralyzed. Many of them cannot speak clearly or do not speak at all.
“At the beginning of the summer vacation, the groups go out together for an exciting retreat. Last year, at the beginning of the week, the girls went out for three days of fun, and the boys went out at the end of the week and stayed until after Shabbat. The excitement and attractions, together with the joint Shabbat experience, stay with them and give them strength to continue the considerable challenges they face in life.
What experiences are suitable for such handicapped youths?
“We at Ezer Mizion are not deterred by difficulties. We try to provide the boys with every possible experience, to the point that to an onlooker, we might appear to be out of our minds. This year, for example, the retreat took place in the Golan. We took the boys for a jeep trip, on mountain slides at the Menara cliff, to the beach and the pool – and all the boys participated, without exception. They all went on amazing nature trails, all participated in the dancing, and enjoyed every experience you can imagine.
“Any experience a healthy person could think of, even if it is hard to implement, we see as our challenge. Last year, we took the group yacht boating in Herzliya, something that is not simple even for healthy people. Because in cases like that, we are out of our minds,” emphasizes Rabbi Yisraeli, and it appears that in order to make these projects a success, there is nothing better than being a bit “out of your mind…”
“An especially moving point is the moment when the handicapped boys are called up to the Torah on Shabbat. Many of these boys never opened up their mouth in public. A good number of them have to put in real effort to get even one sound out of their mouth, and they say the blessings in halted syllables – but they do it.”
Mrs. Shoshana Weiss, mother of Menachem Weiss: “This retreat is one of the most amazing things that exist in our life. Ezer Mizion, with its dedicated volunteers, takes these boys for four days of fun and attractions and gives us the break we need to rest up and store up energy.
“We’re not talking about little children,” Mrs. Weiss points out. “These are handicapped young adults, and making this experience a reality for them demands tremendous devotion on the part of the volunteers. Last year, for example, they went down to the Kinneret, and that experience is remembered by Menachem as the high point of the retreat. They also went up the Manara cliff by cable railway – and that is just a drop in the ocean. We, the parents, never would have imagined in our wildest dreams that our children would be capable of enjoying experiences of this dimension.
Shmulik Langberg is a steady volunteer at the Matan retreat. When we ask Shmulik what this volunteer work does for him, he has trouble understanding the question: “First of all, it’s fun,” he insists. “The giving, the opportunity to help the handicapped, the special atmosphere at the retreat, all these make me eagerly await the next time. I love these kids. I enjoy giving them opportunities they would never be able to provide for themselves, I like having a good time with them and seeing how much they enjoy it.”
For further info: www.ezermizion.org