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Camp Offers Sick Jewish Children—and Their Families—a Vacation From Illness

For two weeks at Camp Simcha every summer, campers aren’t kids with cancer or kids with cerebral palsy. They’re just kids.

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Adam Wolf is hoisted in the air in his wheelchair during mealtime. (All photos courtesy of Camp Simcha)
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“I love summer camp because it’s like a two-week sleepover party where I’m the most important person in the world,” said Cara Lopatin, the 11-year-old daughter of Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the newly installed president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, N.Y.

Cara’s sentiment might not sound unusual at first; plenty of kids love summer camp. But Cara isn’t an ordinary camper—she was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago—and her camp is no ordinary camp. Every summer, on a rustic 125-acre campus in Glen Spey, N.Y., Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special host more than 400 Jewish boys and girls with cancer and other chronic medical conditions. Campers age 4 through 20 attend one of the four two-week sessions at Camp Simcha (for children with cancer) and Camp Simcha Special (for children with chronic conditions like cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, and rare genetic diseases) run under the auspices of Chai Lifeline, a nonprofit organization for Jewish families affected by serious childhood illness.

For Cara and others like her who spend countless lonely days in hospitals and at doctors’ offices during the year, the two weeks they spend at camp are often the only time they find a sense of normalcy in their lives. The kids’ medical infirmities are often apparent: Some have lost their hair, while others use prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs. But the camp administration’s goal is to provide not only normalcy for a couple of weeks, but also the positive spirit and camaraderie that any typical summer camp hopes to provide.

“We have all the normal concerns of a regular camp, like the programming, the staffing, and maintenance, and then we have an entire medical and social work team always on call,” said camp Director Rabbi Avraham Kunstlinger. “You could suggest that we’re a hospital disguised as a normal summer camp.”

Aside from a medical team of oncologists, E.R. doctors, nurses, and physical therapists led by Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Dr. Peter Steinherz, the camps have on-site emergency medical technicians and a transport ambulance, a Medevac helicopter on call that can be at camp within five minutes, and a van that takes campers to receive regular treatment at New York-area hospitals up to three times per week. A social-work team led by Rivka Reichman, associate director of Camp Simcha Special, accompanies the doctors on their daily rounds at the camp infirmary to assess the children’s emotional status. “Our entire goal is to make sure each minute here at camp is as fun, fulfilling, and medically safe as possible,” Kunstlinger said. “Our campers draw strength from one another that carries them through the year until next summer.”

Jordan “JP” Pomerantz, a 12-year-old Los Angeles native who just finished her fourth summer at Camp Simcha, has a large network of friends at home—but it’s her camp friends who really get what she’s been through. “I don’t like talking about the cancer, chemo, and the past,” said Pomerantz, “but I’m definitely more sensitive to certain things than my friends at home. My friends here understand, and camp helps me be more positive the rest of the year.”

Though campers’ medical needs are always on the forefront of the staff’s minds, there’s an equal, if not greater, focus on the normal fun campers can have. There are workshops led by staff “specialists” for candle-making and woodworking; a ropes course; and a “Sweet Shoppe” where intricate culinary arts occur—during my recent visit to camp, campers decorated magic-carpet cookies complete with fondant tassels, in keeping with the day’s Aladdin theme (each day is assigned a specific theme around which some of the daily activities are organized). There’s also a recording studio where campers can sing to pre-recorded tracks and take home their own CDs. (Frozen’s “Let It Go,” close to fulfilling its world domination, is the most-requested song of the summer.)

“You can be anyone you want to be here,” said Anny Safier, a third-year camper at Camp Simcha who is blind and battling multiple brain tumors. Safier wrote and recorded her own song called “Warrior” at the studio and sold a CD that included the song for her bat mitzvah project. The $6,000 she raised went right back to Chai Lifeline.

“As a sick child you often feel like you don’t have control over your illness, but at camp we feel more in control because we get to choose which activities to do and which food to eat,” explained Eli Blau, a former cancer patient in remission and currently a fourth-year camper at Camp Simcha. “We also get to sleep a lot later each morning and can call home whenever we want to—but we’re usually too busy to do that.”

Ari Dembitzer, the head counselor of the boys’ division, summed up why the camp is so important to the kids who attend. “A lot of our campers are regularly told what they can’t do,” he told me, “but camp says, here’s a lot of things you can do.”

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Perhaps more than any other contingent of the staff, the counselors are integral to the camp’s success. There’s a one-to-one counselor-to-camper ratio, and each counselor goes everywhere with his or her camper—including sleeping in side-by-side beds in the bunkhouse. When counselors need breaks, they call on rotators to assume duties that include bathing their campers, helping them in the restroom, and re-infusing their gastric tubes and IV bags with medication and nutrients.

It’s not your typical summer job for mostly 19- and 20-year-olds, who work as volunteers. But there are other reasons the job appeals to them. “Working with kids with cancer and chronic disabilities changes the way you see typical challenges, like struggling with chemistry class, but it also changes how you actively approach life,” said 24-year-old Tzvi Haber, a veteran Camp Simcha counselor. “One Shabbos afternoon, there was a basketball game going on among some campers, but one boy, who was blind, couldn’t join in. In a single, mutual moment, my fellow counselor and I noticed a stage prop in the gym, a magnificent spiral staircase donated to camp from a Broadway show, and we led the boy up the staircase. I’ll never forget his joy as he touched the backboard and heard the swoosh of the ball going through the net. There are opportunities all around us to enable others to be joyful, and as counselors, we learn to really look for and seize those opportunities.”

From each session’s opening day, when every child is met with boisterous cheering by waiting staffers who line the country road to camp, there’s a focus on joy. Free soda machines are placed throughout the campus. Every meal has a DJ playing music while campers dance. A “creative team” of artistic staff members works through the night to decorate the dining hall in keeping with each day’s theme, and the counselors, as well as official camp mascot Abby Meyer, dress accordingly.

Antonio with his counselor Shlomo at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The intense camper/counselor relationships formed don’t end with summer. Most counselors—and other staff members—keep in touch with their campers throughout the year. Many meet up with their campers at Chai Lifeline-sponsored charity events during the year, including a half-marathon in Miami where some staff members push their campers in wheelchairs across the finish line.

“Nobody does what these counselors do,” said Joy Dworkin Santos, mom to 17-year-old Antonio, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in 2012 and was a camper at Camp Simcha last summer. “When Antonio was sent to the hospital during camp because he had a low blood count, his counselor, Shlomo Platschek, drove hours to the hospital and then, when Antonio was sent home to New Jersey and given the all-clear a few days later, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to return to camp. Shlomo assured me and my husband he’d pay extra careful attention to our son, and then drove hours to pick up Antonio and drive him back to camp. Who does that?”

Each year, Dembitzer and girls’ head counselor Rivky Schwartz hand-pick the staff, many of whom have been at camp before—in other capacities. Former campers sometimes return as staff, eager to give back to a place that’s given them so much and because they just can’t let go of the “high” they get at camp. “I loved Simcha when I was a camper, and partially I wanted to work there just so I could extend my stay,” said Daniel Sultan, 27, of Manhattan.

Former counselor Dr. Scott Moerdler returned to camp as medical staff. “Camp helped put me on my path toward becoming a pediatric oncologist, and the kids and families I’ve met there have been my constant inspiration during medical school and residency, where it’s easy to get caught up in the science or medicine and forget about the patients,” said Moerdler, a current pediatric resident at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. “Camp taught me and continues to remind me that our ‘patients’ are actually kids, and how important it is to treat them as such.”

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Campers’ parents and families also derive substantial benefits from the camp experience. “I’m a single mother with three children, and when Eli was diagnosed in 2011, I was overwhelmed with the onslaught of hospital overnights and appointments, not to mention the emotional impact of mothering a child with cancer,” said Raizy Blau, of Brooklyn. “When Eli went to camp, I was able to not only get a break but also able to focus on my two other kids.”

Everything at camp is free, including the transportation to and from the grounds—a huge boon to families that are often financially beleaguered by medical bills. Almost everything is funded by a vast network of donors and charitable appeals. Although the camps are run under Orthodox auspices—the staff is mostly Orthodox, the food is kosher, and campers are asked to be respectful of Shabbat—campers run the gamut of Jewish affiliation from Hasidic to completely secular. “When your child is diagnosed with cancer, you can lose your faith a little bit,” said Dworkin Santos, who is a non-practicing Jew with a Catholic husband. “Antonio isn’t a typically Jewish name, and we’re not Orthodox at all, but seeing how welcome and loved he is at camp has really helped restore my own spiritual beliefs.”

Just as the campers have formed enduring bonds, their parents have formed their own alliance. “Nobody gets the fragility of our lives, the challenges and triumphs that we face each day,” said Ali Wolf, whose 14-year-old son Adam is a camper with cerebral palsy at Camp Simcha Special. “To know we have each other for emotional support and people who just get it is enormous. I wouldn’t wish for any woman to join our sisterhood, but we’re so grateful for it.”

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Wolf said that Adam was nervous when he first arrived at camp five years ago, virtually friendless and confined to a wheelchair. But two weeks later, she said, Adam left with greater confidence and a group of friends to call his own, many of whom face similar social and health issues. “Adam is devastated on his last day of camp because he knows he won’t see his friends, most of whom live on the East Coast, for another year,” said Wolf, who lives in Irvine, Calif. “They keep in touch through Skype and texting, but sometimes I contemplate moving to New York just so his friends can be nearby. They are, as is Camp Simcha, a huge part of his life.”

Girls’ head counselor Rivky Schwartz with a camper.

The last day of camp is hard for everyone. There is an emotional graduation ceremony for campers who “age out” of the system—most of them at 18, barring special circumstances—or for many Simcha campers, because they are in remission. No one among the staff is eager to leave behind the powerful relationships they’ve formed with campers and the sense of meaningful purpose to their summer. But for the campers, leaving Simcha often means, quite literally, leaving real joy behind as they anticipate returning to days of doctor appointments, hospital stays, and family and friends whom they love, but who can’t understand camp’s emotional impact for the children who wait all year long for just two short weeks.

“At Camp Simcha, Antonio is not a kid with cancer,” said Dworkin Santos. “He’s just a kid.”

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Camp Offers Sick Jewish Children—and Their Families—a Vacation From Illness

For two weeks at Camp Simcha every summer, campers aren’t kids with cancer or kids with cerebral palsy. They’re just kids.