by Sarah Dafner
"Let me tell you about a small organization whose people are larger than life..."
Thus Nesia Schwartz, a 23-year-old with cerebral palsy, begins her description of the summer camp run by Kav LaChaim (literally Path to Life).
Kav LaChaim, whose American affiliate is called "United Lifeline," is an organization founded by observant Jews in 1989 whose purpose is to provide medical and psychological assistance to gravely ill children and their families. Its founder, Tovia Levenstein, thought of the idea after his own daughter's successful struggle with cancer; his experiences in dealing with the Israeli medical bureaucracy convinced him of the need for a central organization to which families could turn. Unfortunately, Levinstein was right, and Kav LaChaim quickly grew to an international network with 12 branches in Israel and four more worldwide. Its purpose grew as well, and today Kav LaChaim serves children with cancer, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, and provides a variety of services for people of all ages, regardless of religious or political affiliation.
"Kav LaChaim's services can be divided into three major categories," explains Mr. Yechiel Landman, who denies having a title. ("Tovia is the chairman," he says. "I just help him out."). "There are the youth programs, the medical referrals, and the hostel." The youth programs include activities ranging from field trips to performances. There have even been field maneuvers with combat troops and most anything else that can possibly bring some happiness and excitement to these children's lives."
"The crown jewel of the children's activities is our summer camp," Landman continues. Kav LaChaim actually runs three summer camps, one in Israel and two more abroad. "Each child is assigned a counselor - sometimes more than one - and there is a full-time medical staff. Between campers and staff members, there are about 750 people attending the camp here in Israel." The camp lasts for eight days, and within those eight days, "we give the children...everything...that can possibly be done for a child."
Nesia Schwartz explains about "everything":
"...we did things we never thought we'd do in our lives...on the first day...the staff members greeted us with songs, refreshments, balloons...on the second day...we went to an amusement park...the guys didn't pass up a single handicapped [child] and put all of us on the rides...on the third day...the younger children took rides in limousines and the older ones on helicopters...on the fourth day we went 'jeeping'...the fifth day...parachuting..." and the list goes on and on. A veteran of many a sleep away camp for disabled youths, Nesia ends by saying, "The camp was an unbelievable operation run by all kinds of volunteers...who gave no thought to the difficulties [involved]...everything was possible, everything could be accomplished."
When a young participant named Lior came home, his parents asked him about the camp.
"Where did you go?" they asked.
And where did you stay?"
"In seventh heaven."
How much does "paradise" cost? The children? nothing. The camp is free of charge. Kav LaChaim? A quarter of a million dollars for the eight-day program.
How does Kav LaChaim pay for all of their services?
Landman answers with a wry smile. "Five percent of our budget comes from government funding. We try our best to use it for salaries. The rest comes from donations. That way people who want to give know that at least 95% of their donation goes to whichever program they've given. They know that their money is going directly to the cause of their choice."
But although the children's programs account for a large portion of the organization's budget, they only represent about 30% of its services. The other 70% is taken up by the hostel and the medical referral center.
The hostel's purpose is to provide cancer victims living outside of the big cities with a warm, comfortable place to stay while they are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, and is especially geared to child victims and their parents. The new, soon-to-be populated hostel has 36 apartments, in addition to offices and recreation centers, with a separate wing for families whose children have not recovered and need time and support in dealing with their tragedies. While the apartments are homey and inviting, intended to be as un-hospital like as possible, they are also outfitted with advanced technological features that provide 'round-the-clock contact with the on-grounds medical team, as well as a computer connection to a 24-hour emergency hotline. The hostel provides meals for the children, offering them a chance to socialize, but the parents cook for themselves. Kav LaChaim's only request is that dairy or non-meat foodstuffs be used, in order to maintain the hostel's strict standards of kashrut.
But "we help everyone," Landman stresses proudly. "Our services are extended regardless of race or religious-political convictions." Indeed, 60%-70% of those assisted by Kav LaChaim are not religiously affiliated. The organization treats Arabs as well, doing its utmost to help anyone and everyone who might need them.
A case in point is that of Ornan Yekutieli, a member of Jerusalem's City Council who, due to a lifelong heart defect, recently found himself in need of Kav LaChaim's medical referral center.
Yekutieli had already undergone numerous operations and has now flown to the United States for a heart transplant with the help of Kav LaChaim. There would be nothing remarkable about Yekutieli's case, but for the fact that the councilman is a proudly militant leader in the battle against the hareidim (ultra-Orthodox) in Jerusalem; his entire political career has been built upon that stance.
So how did he reach Kav LaChaim?
Rabbis Uri Lopoliansky, Chaim Miller and Mordechai Maklev - Yekutieli's fellow City Council members - directed him to Kav LaChaim, whose medical referral center networks potential hospitals worldwide and referred Yekutieli to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. The center also helped finance the trip and the operation, arranging for bank loans and insurance coverage as well as turning to Yekutieli's friends for contributions. In addition, Kav LaChaim arranged an apartment in New Jersey for Yekutieli and his family to stay in, a half hour's drive from Columbia-Presbyterian.
"The way the organization treated my case deserves the utmost respect," said Yekutieli in an interview with one of Israel's daily newspapers. "Tovia Levinstein and Yechiel Landman are doing everything they can for me...they are all people who spend their lives helping and saving other people."
In the words of young Lior's parents:
"Kav LaChaim has given us a lifeline of happiness and encouragement with love... hearts there are filled with goodness and love."
Further information about Kav LaChaim can be obtained from United Lifeline's American representative, Hillel Weiner, at (718) 758-1336.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Mrs. Sarah Dafner is a freelance writer living in Beitar, Israel