Seeing twenty terminally ill kids enjoy life to the fullest on the Hope Tour is like watching life, unfiltered. And it’s catching.
By Chandrea Serebro
The sound of Benny Friedman’s Toda!, the title track off his hit album, reverberates around Waverly. It’s around ten in the morning and looking around you’ll see a bunch of guys dancing and singing with the tune at a decadent breakfast hosted by a gracious member of the South African community who has gone all out, as is done here in South Africa, for this lively crowd. The energy is electric, the joy and happiness palpable. These boys are celebrating life, with a sense of gratitude to match the song.
At a glance, you might think it was a bunch of pals getting together for a birthday, or a siyum, or a bar mitzvah. But, if you look closely, you’ll see there is a Hatzolah crew dancing with them, eyes peeled for anything out of tune. You’ll see a young boy in the wings clapping from his wheelchair; a vivacious twenty-something swinging around on his prosthetic leg; and you’ll note that there isn’t a face not smiling, a heart not soaring, not a dry eye in the room. This is just one of the string of events that the kids of the Chaiyanu Hope Tour in South Africa will enjoy over their two-week stint here in South Africa.
Rabbi Yaakov Pinsky started Chaiyanu in 1999 when he was asked to find funding to send 50 Israeli children with Cancer to Camp Simcha in New York for two weeks. These children had been given the frightening diagnoses of cancer and Camp Simcha would provide them with the summer fun and excitement they desperately needed, while tending to all the details of their medical needs. Rabbi Pinsky established Chaiyanu to provide holistic support for these kids and their families going forward, giving them a safe place from which to navigate the illness, and to help them live as normal a life as possible in the process.
Rabbi Pinsky welcomes me at the breakfast, maybe seeing the wonder in my eyes, with a flourish. “Welcome to the magical world of Chaiyanu, where only magic happens,” he says, and I almost expect a flight of white doves to come flapping from his hat. “It’s some kind of magic here, because here, on the Hope Tour, spectacular things happen every moment.” The Hope Tour is an annual event where 20 youths with cancer get to experience a trip so unforgettable that it has become renowned in the Chaiyanu world. These “spectacular” outings include a world-renowned game reserve, Cape Town in all its splendour, the Vaal Dam, and Zwartkops Motor Raceway where they are driven in real Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and other thrilling race cars.
To start and end each exciting day, the children are treated like royalty at a lavish breakfast or dinner party at a host family with music and a variety of entertainment. And indeed, the tour has become renowned over here as well – the organisers admit to a waiting list of people to host events, a sheer generosity of giving that makes nothing they conceive to do out here in South Africa impossible.
“This annual tour has become a much-anticipated event which fills the children’s lives with hope, excitement, and a real escape from their lives in hospital wards,” says Elad Maimon, Director of Chaiyanu. “The tour is funded entirely by the generosity of the South African community and nothing is too much to do for these children. For the ten days they spend in our beautiful country they are able to have fun, feel normal, and are embraced by the outstanding volunteers and families who open their homes and hearts to these children.”
“Why South Africa?” I ask Rabbi Pinsky, imagining a host of exotic places around the world these kids could enjoy. “I’ve been all over the world myself,” he replies – but Jewish South Africa is “the warmest, most caring, generous, and giving community I have ever experienced in my life.” This is the seventh year of the South African trip; a trip which Rabbi Pinsky firmly believes has the power to do more than rejuvenate these kids. He says it actually “brings these kids back to life”, recalling one boy who had eight tumours disappear after his time here, an impossibility in the medical world.
Seventeen-year-old Noam Mazouz, who suffers from so rare a cancer that he is only one of fifty people in the world with the same type, has spent the two weeks on the Hope Tour “forgetting about my sickness”, because he says, here, life has been “different” – “not about the pain, the medication, and the hospital. It has been about hope, about being welcomed by the people here for who you are, without wanting to change you”, which he says has given him and his fellow tour mates “the hope and power to fight this illness”. For him, Table Mountain “amazed”, the chance to be in Cape Town was something rare and cherished by him. “If I could take South Africa home with me, I would.”
For 20-year-old Benny Shimshilashvili, this is not the first time he has had the “joy” of being on the Hope Tour, having been here two years ago. But, he says, nothing has been the same except “all of the partying, the happiness, the dancing, and the singing”. On both trips, Benny did “things I’d never thought I would do in a lifetime” – he particularly loved racing Porsches and Ferraris. Benny is a joker – he relishes the shock on the face of anyone he regales with his pranks. On Table Mountain, he asked an innocent, helpful lady to tie his shoelace only to step out of his prosthesis to watch her rise to be greeted by a lone leg with a neatly tied lace. Everything started for Benny when he was seven years old, a childhood spent in and out of hospital without firm diagnosis until only three years ago when he was diagnosed with a gene mutation which 95% of people who carry it are already dead. “It makes me feel positive to remind myself of this,” says Benny, “it gives me hope” – and he has built a successful career as a motivational speaker travelling to Canada, America, and Israel telling his story, and even doing a few talks while on the tour this year as well.
Speaking from experience, Benny knows that “if you ask these kids two weeks from now if they took their illness with them on vacation, they will all tell you that they feel no pain, no suffering, no thought about their challenges.” I have a feeling this is the magic that Rabbi Pinksy was telling me about, and when I speak to Shulamit Amar, the resident Chaiyanu nurse on the tour, she’ll agree. She’s been to South Africa on all seven Hope Tours, and she too is constantly astonished at the simcha that resounds on the tour, all the while knowing that, like herself – who had to join Chaiyanu “all or nothing” because once you take the first step to get to know these kids, she says, you just cannot stop – “as much as we all give to them, they give to us manifold”.
It’s probably this that makes young South African do-gooders want to get involved so badly. Yishai Gershuni sees these kids as “heroes”, kids who come here, sicker than all of the candidates for the trip, “embracing life with clenched fists and a gritty smile”, and wondered, “If they could do it, how could I not?” So he got involved, not realising “how much these heroes would give me”. “I watched, as this trip to South Africa breathed a fresh air of life into a group of kids, each fighting his own battle, and gave them two weeks of complete worry-free, exhilarating fun. Even a couple of days in, I could see their faces shine a bit brighter and their smiles stretch a bit wider and feel their fighting spirit become renewed. For this short period of time, no illness in the world could get them down, no matter how severe. To see another person, who you would assume has very little faith or energy, live their life with such hope and determination has left me totally uplifted and with more energy after two physically tiring weeks.”
Everyone who comes into contact with the group is “indelibly touched by the courage of the children”, says Elad, but also by the “enormous selfless dedication of the young volunteers who take care of their every need”. Dan Bacher, who works fulltime for Hatzolah, is another volunteer who chose to dedicate himself to Chaiyanu because “of life”. “Losing a father at six years old, I got to see very clearly that people don’t live forever. Everyone dies. But not everyone truly lives.” And here at Chaiyanu, he says, “We celebrate that.” Some people don’t live for very long. Others live longer. But on the tour, these kids, though terminally ill, get to “feel, live honestly and truly, laugh, sing, and dance wholeheartedly”, and for them and Dan himself, he says, it has been “very special”. “They are normal kids; they have such courage and so strong a will to be alive.” Seeing them fighting for their lives inspired Dan to fight for his, even though he is so much luckier than they are. “I have my legs, I have my fingers, I am lucky, and I am blessed, and yet here I have been given a chance – a chance to be real with life. If I’m happy, I dance; if I’m sad, I cry. That is truly living life.”
It isn’t easy to see these kids struggling, getting sick, going through pain and endless medication and hospital visits, says Chezki Botwinick from Ramat Beit Shemesh. But he thanks Hashem every day that he got involved, because every day spent with the Chaiyanu kids has made him happier and fulfilled. “The children themselves inspire hope in everyone they meet to face adversity in life with positivity,” says Elad. But the real essence of the tour is that the children are infused with a renewed vigour to return to Israel ready to put extra effort into fighting their life-threatening diseases.
“I feel privileged and honoured to be able to give these children a real injection of hope and belief in the ability to go back and fight.” Hence the name of the tour to South Africa, the Hope Tour. “Each trip inspires me even more – especially when I see the light once again shining in the children’s eyes, a light sparked by the unbridled giving and dedication of everyone involved – from the volunteers to each and every one who hosts us or sponsors us.” When I asked the woman who hosted the breakfast that I attended why she does it, she didn’t mince her words. “How can you not?”
For more information, visit: chaiyanu.org.il