Israeli kids with life-threatening illnesses find respite from war at Catskills camp
CampCamp Simcha

Israeli kids with life-threatening illnesses find respite from war at Catskills camp

“When they’re here they almost don’t think about the war."

Shira Tshuva at Camp Simcha, July 3, 2024. (Photo by Luke Tress)
Shira Tshuva at Camp Simcha, July 3, 2024. (Photo by Luke Tress)

(New York Jewish Week) — GLEN SPEY, New York — Shira Tshuva, 15, was diagnosed with cancer the week of Oct. 7. Following her diagnosis, she had to make a three-hour trip each day from her home in northern Israel to receive treatment at the Tel HaShomer Hospital outside of Tel Aviv.

Rockets fired by Hamas interrupted the commute. Attacks from Gaza continued while Tshuva was at the hospital.

“While I was getting treatments, I found myself running to the safe room with the whole medical department, praying a rocket wouldn’t fall on the hospital,” said Tshuva, who has dysgerminoma, a rare form of ovarian cancer. “It’s not coping with one thing, it’s coping with two things — both the cancer and the war.”

Tshuva was one of 28 Israeli children with serious diseases who got a break this month from the conflict. They decamped from Israel to Camp Simcha, a Jewish summer camp in the Catskills for children with life-threatening or debilitating ailments. This is not the first year the camp is hosting Israeli kids, but this year, amid the war, Simcha hopes it can give the Israeli children a respite that will help in their recovery.

“When they’re here they almost don’t think about the war,” said Shulamit Amar, an urgent care nurse in Israel who has accompanied children, including Tshuva, to the camp during her vacation time. “They don’t even want to see the news because here is the time that they can disconnect.”

The camp is operated by Chai Lifeline, a New York City-based Jewish nonprofit that supports children who are ill or facing trauma, and is located in upstate New York’s rolling, forested hills near the Delaware River and Pennsylvania border. It runs four two-week sessions between June and August, two for boys and two for girls, and will host close to 500 children this summer ranging from elementary school to age 20. Around 120 girls were at the camp for the session attended by Tshuva, said Scott Moerdler, a pediatric oncologist at the camp.

“Not only do they connect as cancer patients, they connect as Jews,” said Rivky Zuckerman, the head counselor for girls.

“This really kind of gives them that jolt, that happiness, that joy to sustain them,” Moerdler said.

The camp has an infirmary that can see to the children’s treatment and is capable of handling everything except for surgery. On a recent weeknight, Moerdler stayed up late with a child undergoing chemotherapy who listened to Israeli pop star Omer Adam and painted Moerdler’s fingernails to pass the time. 

The camp tries to create a tranquil and inviting atmosphere to match the landscape outside. The infirmary — staffed by eight nurses, several doctors, and specialists including a respiratory therapist and pharmacist — is decorated with pastoral murals of silos, hay bales and horses under a blue, clouded sky. A door near the nurses’ desk with a painting of chickens in a pen next to it leads to the camp “farmacy.” Medics are on standby and a helicopter evacuation team collaborates with the camp for emergencies.

Many of the staff are observant Jews, but religious laws restricting work and technology on Shabbat are set aside due to pikuach nefesh, the Jewish imperative to save a life regardless of religious considerations, said Moerdler, who has worked at the camp for 19 years.

The Israeli campers traveled to New York with nurses from Israel last month and are receiving the same type of treatment as other children, albeit with special attention to care for potential PTSD. A song on the camp’s playlist, for example, included a siren sound that was jarring to Israeli children used to running for shelter during “red alert” sirens warning of incoming rockets. The song was promptly taken out of rotation.

Some of the Israelis who arrived at Simcha are traumatized by rockets, while others have parents on the front lines or family who survived the Oct. 7 attack.

Ella Shapira, 19, left for camp while her father, an army paramedic, was inside Gaza and unable to communicate with his family.

“I was really worried something will happen to him,” said Shapira, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer, five years ago. Several days after arriving at camp, her father left Gaza uninjured.

Shapira said she had wanted to attend the camp for five years but could not due to medical issues. She most enjoyed trips to a lake on the campus.

“I go on boat rides and there’s lots of wind and a beautiful landscape that you can’t see in Israel,” Shapira said. “It makes me forget for a minute about the situation in Israel and about my dad fighting in Gaza.”

Amar said the Camp Simcha experience was “undoubtedly” more important for Israelis like herself since Oct. 7.  She lives near a hospital, has treated soldiers wounded in the war, and said she is triggered by the sound of helicopters landing near her home.

“When a helicopter lands in the field, I just cry. Every night when I hear them I think, ‘Oh, there goes another family,’” Amar said. “The quiet, the serenity here, you don’t hear either the explosions or the helicopters.”

The severity of the campers’ conditions varies, from those who have completed cancer treatment to others in hospice care. Some families send their children to the camp in the final weeks of their lives. 

But along with the medical treatment, Simcha aims to give the kids a regular Jewish camp experience. Activities offered include a zipline, rock climbing and swimming. Arts and crafts classes are held in a building made to look like a castle, with parapets and a portcullis at the entrance.

Campers visit a costume room at the start of the day, and amble around the grounds wearing pink cowboy hats, princess dresses and face paint. Some of the costumes one morning last week matched the session’s theme of board games including Candy Land, Monopoly and Scrabble. For an event focused on the board game Battleship, many of the campers wore Israel Defense Forces shirts.

After lunch, the campers held a dance party on the cafeteria floor. Counselors led dance routines from a stage, which was decorated a la the day’s theme with a mock train from the board game Ticket to Ride. Shapira, in her wheelchair, posed for a photo while looking out from the train’s windows while counselors danced with children in train conductor uniforms on their shoulders. Other campers wore placards representing the Rav Kav cards used to access public transportation in Israel.

Nachman Maimon, the camp director, said that some of the children spent much of their time outside of camp with adult health care professionals, and lacked meaningful connections with other children.

“They don’t have friends their age. An 8-year-old needs 8-year-olds,” Maimon said, adding that the children’s fears came up in their conversations with each other, often while lounging in the hammocks that hang in the shade of trees outside the cafeteria.

“They’re scared, their siblings are scared,” he said. “There’s communities that are created here of children that stay for years and years.”

Shapira said she connected with the Americans, who sympathize with her father being in Gaza and want to know more about the conflict. She also forged bonds with other Israelis whom she didn’t know before the trip.

“It’s fun to meet new people that share some of the same experiences you’ve been through because you can talk to them about a lot of stuff and they’ll understand what most people won’t,” she said. 

Tshuva said she drew strength from other campers, and from Amar, whom Tshuva calls nearly every day.

“Shulamit, my nurse, she’s everything to me,” Tshuva said. “I can say ‘Shulamit, come listen to me,’ and she’s always there.”

In Israel, after completing one course of treatment at Tel HaShomer, Tshuva returned to her home in the north. Soon afterward, conflict on the northern border heated up and Hezbollah began bombing Israel with hundreds of rockets and drones. Tshuva was confined to her home’s safe room and had panic attacks. The sounds of explosions and gunfire also resurfaced anxiety from videos she had seen of Oct. 7 atrocities, she said. 

While she was at the camp, her family was preparing to evacuate their home if a full-scale war broke out in the north. 

“They want to evacuate us from the village I live in because there’s so much chaos. Even the safe rooms aren’t enough. I think the camp gets me out of this reality,” she said.

But she also used her time at camp to confront the worries she faced in Israel. Her favorite activity was a visit to a shooting range, where older campers fire at targets.

“There’s no one around me,” she said. “And for a moment I can focus on my fear and try to overcome it.” PJC

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