JERUSALEM—Summer is in high gear, with a million things for kids to do: people to see, day and overnight camps to attend, sleepovers with friends, family trips and just being able run out to the nearest neighborhood playground to do what kids do best.

But for more than 1,000 children throughout Israel, the only place they expect to see this summer is the inside of a hospital ward.

To bring some real joy and healing into these kids’ lives, Rabbi Mendel Lieberman, director of Chabad of Ashkelon and founder of Chabad’s “Chai Ashkelon” program, has worked hard to bring to fruition a special “hospital camp”—an effort that not only brings the children emotional support and quality activities to participate in, but through its very essence promotes psychological health which is an important component of physical healing.

Lieberman explained why the initiative—now in its 35th year of operation and partnered and underwritten predominantly by Colel Chabad and hosted at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon and Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot—has meant so much to youngsters who spend their summer indoors.

In addition to the unexpected day-to-day admissions and kids undergoing delayed medical/surgical procedures, he says “we have kids suffering from serious, ongoing, life-threatening conditions for which all seasons—and not just summer—means chemotherapy or kidney dialysis, and the like. These procedures are the only summer ‘fun’ the children have to look forward to.”

Dozens of Chabad-Lubavitch schoolgirls answer the call each year to work as volunteer counselors in hospital wards.
Dozens of Chabad-Lubavitch schoolgirls answer the call each year to work as volunteer counselors in hospital wards.

Rivka Gruzman, administrator of the camp program, handles the daily logistics and administrative aspects of what has become an exceptional experience for the children and adults involved. She started as a volunteer in high school, and today—nearly 20 years later—she says she has not lost one iota of enthusiasm or energy when it comes to providing for these kids.

“It’s a lot of work to prepare things, sometimes even months in advance, but when we see the eyes of the children and their parents—and when we hear the ‘thank you’s’ that come from the bottom of their hearts—you realize that there is nothing we wouldn’t do to bring them this joy in the midst of the various challenges they are facing.

“I started as a counselor, moved up to being the coordinator and now administer the program; I cannot imagine not being involved. And in all these years,” emphasizes Gruzman, “I have never become accustomed to or taken for granted as to how positively this affects the children and their families.”

Time for Their Young Charges

Dozens of girls from Chabad-Lubavitch educational and social institutions answer the call each year to come and work on a daily basis as counselors in the wards, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then from 4 to 7 p.m. They also see kids in non-pediatric wards. These counselors offer their time, patience and love during visits, which greatly helps the often-overwhelmed nursing and medical staff as well.

Camp is in session five days a week for eight weeks in July and August.
Camp is in session five days a week for eight weeks in July and August.

One of the local girls, Chaya, started volunteering during high school, and for four years has returned session after session to work with the kids.

“It is immensely gratifying,” she says.

“We have to work hard finding activities to liven up the kids’ existence, and find a way to give personal time to each of the small patients,” she continues. “Every single day, the parents thank us for bringing a degree of normalcy and some excitement into their children’s lives. And the smiling eyes and the laughter of these kids are inspiring to us counselors.”

Chaya says the nurses are also glad to see them: “They know that we give to the children what they cannot, being understaffed and overworked to the point that their shifts don’t leave them the time they would like to be able to talk to and comfort each of their young charges.”

And Lieberman notes that “we also make sure that the children get souvenirs like they would at any camp—T-shirts, caps—and the children just love it.”

The program, which began with a half-skeptical eye from hospital administrators and staff, now serves as a paradigm for several others used in hospital settings. An additional bonus: It is free of charge.

‘Lift in Spirits and Attitudes’

A valuable part of the program are the gifts, games and toys distributed to the children.
A valuable part of the program are the gifts, games and toys distributed to the children.

Lieberman describes how they see kids coming in: sad, anxious, stuck.

“In July and August, we see maybe 1,200 kids; we are there for them five days a week for eight weeks,” he says. “The attitude barometer for these children absolutely skyrockets once they see that they, too, will have day camp. In fact, the program has been so successful that we have been able to expand it to include a similar one during Chanukah vacation.”

“In a letter that the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory] sent to the head of Barzilai 35 years ago,” explains Lieberman, “he brought to their attention that since a hospital is place to hopefully get better, that the terminology was inaccurate. In Hebrew, a hospital is a beit cholim, a ‘house of sickness,’ and the Rebbe—who always emphasized the import and power of words—pointed out that it should be called a beit refuah, a ‘house of healing.’

“The lift in spirits and positive attitudes we see come out of this program is the best testimony there can be to its efficacy,” says Lieberman.

“What this is really about is ahavat yisrael, ‘love of a fellow Jew,’ ” says Lieberman. “If you can help another Jew, materially and/or spiritually, you are expressing this love. And that’s what this is about—helping these kids materially with activities, and spiritually by putting our time and love into them.

“This expression of love for a fellow Jew,” he adds, “helps these children feel self-empowered and encourages them to be partners in their own healing.”