Danny Lundner, on right, with his Chai Lifeline counselor Shlomo Platschek.
Danny had already been in the hospital — and away from his sister and me — for four weeks. He was in the midst of his fifth round of chemotherapy and on day 23 of radiation treatments. Danny, who was 8 at the time, felt lonely, depressed, sad and hopeless.
He will never forget what it felt like when five of his Chai Lifeline friends, wearing special masks and gowns, barged into his isolation room singing and dancing.
At first Danny didn’t want them in there, but there is no stopping Chai Lifeline counselors. They sang, danced and decorated his empty, dark walls with Yankee paraphernalia and photos of him and his family. Within minutes his dreary hospital room turned into a colorful, fun and happy place. Danny remembers smiling for the first time in days.
“It was the happiest I had been in a long while,” said Danny, now 11 years old and in remission. This is what Chai Lifeline is all about!
My eyes widened with excitement when I was told my synagogue, Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, N.J., would be hosting Chai Lifeline’s annual Shabbaton. I was eager to witness the wonders first-hand because of the amazing experiences my brother had with the group.
Chai Lifeline is an organization that provides children with cancer or other life-threatening diseases support, services, encouragement, hope, compassion and love. One goal of this amazing association is to make the children forget their illness and help them feel like regular boys and girls.
My brother was fortunate to experience the magic of this incredible group. Extraordinary men and women were by Danny’s side, aiding him day and night, throughout his difficult years of medical treatment. Those remarkable people, found once in a lifetime, did all they could to brighten his and hundreds of other children’s lives.
During the boys-only Shabbaton, which took place in April, I had the privilege of observing one of the most crucial aspects of the group: the interaction between children and counselors. The way the advisors completely dedicated themselves to cheering up the kids was truly inspiring. Any ordinary person can make a child grin, but it takes a special individual to make a genuine smile.
The volunteer counselors accomplish this goal in creative ways. They block out their surroundings and do silly things to make the kids happy. For example, during Friday-night services more than 40 advisors got up and started gleefully dancing; they pulled the boys into the circles and joyfully sang and danced their hearts out. The congregation joined in to add to the celebration.
The counselors’ enthusiasm was apparent when the group first arrived in the neighborhood. As the vans approached a West Orange home, about 50 boys poured out and impatiently ran inside to find tables full of goodies and food. The Chai Lifeline children and their counselors played Ping-Pong, basketball, and soccer; made duct-tape wallets; and posed for photos with friends.
I saw counselors playing with their buddies, cracking jokes, singing songs and telling funny stories. The fact that each child walked around with an ear-to-ear grin was a powerful and motivating sight. I felt that the way these incredible people illuminated the lives of sick boys in such a brilliant manner was truly inspiring.
The only thing more moving than the counselor-child relationship was the community-child interaction. Because the boys were partaking in a Shabbaton for people with illnesses, one might assume that congregants viewed the kids as different than healthy children. Boy was I wrong. In fact, it was the complete opposite.
West Orange families welcomed the Chai Lifeline boys with smiling faces and open arms. The kids were not only warmly welcomed, but also included in various games on Shabbat afternoon. Neighborhood children gathered with Shabbaton participants at three houses and played sports and board games. The part I found remarkable was the fact that the children from the area did not even think twice about incorporating the guests into their activities. Some of these guests were in wheelchairs, some on ventilators and some were bald. However, the West Orange children saw them as normal boys and treated them as if they were their good friends.
This hospitality continued after Shabbat. The group was drawn to a huge Havdalah candle and a DJ who created a warm and inviting atmosphere in the synagogue’s social hall. Members of the community saw the sea of people surrounding the flame and joined the crowd. When the fire of the candle was extinguished, the speakers exploded with upbeat melodies and the counselors, kids and neighborhood friends erupted into joyful dance.
By the end of the night, the grins on the faces of the boys and counselors from Chai Lifeline, and the adults and children from the neighborhood, were so big that their cheeks felt numb; everyone had a fantastic time.
The Shabbaton was a moving experience. From the activities to the beautifully sung prayers, it was nearly perfect. Although the programming was wonderful and the food delicious, that wasn’t what the event was all about. What mattered was what each person took away from the experience. Whether long-lasting friendships were created, special and pleasant memories were made, awesome new gifts and toys were received or a burst of optimism and happiness was released, each individual left with something meaningful.
I came away with a new perspective on people. Seeing how lively and energetic the advisors were with the Chai Lifeline kids and how appropriately the neighborhood treated and played with our guests, really inspired me and taught me an important lesson. It showed me that despite how one may appear on the outside, he or she is still a friendly and fun person on the inside. I hope that those who have never seen this amazing organization in action can learn from and be inspired by the incredible experience I had.