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They Needed a Lifeline

Rabbi Simcha Scholar cobbled together a camp for eight sick kids. Today he commands Chai Lifeline’s chesed empire KIDS.

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PHOTOS Jeff Zorabedian, Chai Lifeline archives


ew events shatter a family as intensely as receiving a life-threatening diagnosis for their child.

Life suddenly turns into a series of appointments and hospital stays, and while regular routine ceases for the child, the parents’ day-to-day demands clamor for attention: other children who need taking care of, laundry that needs washing, meals that have to be prepared. How do you cope when your child needs round-the-clock care? How do you stay afloat physically, financially, emotionally as you ride the roller coaster of the disease’s setbacks and gains? And how do you get back to normal in the aftermath, whether the outcome is happy or tragic?

So many questions, so much pain, all find their way to a single address. Rabbi Simcha Scholar was a pioneer in tuning in to the needs of pediatric patients and their families. When he took on the challenge of a camp for a handful of children with cancer some 32 years ago, little did he dream it would grow into Chai Lifeline, a now-international, all-inclusive conglomeration of services for challenged families coping with devastating illness.

What Responsibility Means

Today, although Rabbi Scholar heads a multimillion dollar international chesed organization, he chooses to define himself as “a product of the Mir Yeshivah.” His unassuming Flatbush home — nice, but not very large or fancy — reflects a yeshivah-style preference for modesty and simplicity.

In fact, you might at first glance take Rabbi Scholar to be any standard-issue, yeshivish-type Flatbush balabos. Yet he was also once the rav of a shul, a yeshivah rebbi, the national advisor to NCSY, and holds an MBA from Long Island University. His true education, of course, has been in the school of life, fueled by his drive to help other Jews.

“I never imagined I would end up in this career path,” Rabbi Scholar says, although he grew up the son of a rav in Westbury, Long Island, and saw his father very involved in assisting people in need. As a boy, Simcha Scholar learned at Tifereth Moshe in Queens, followed by mesivta at Chofetz Chaim, and eventually made his way to the Mir in Flatbush.

“Rav Gavriel Ginsberg was my menahel at Chofetz Chaim, and was a major inspiration to me and a lifelong rebbi,” he says. “From him, I learned what responsibility toward Klal Yisrael means.” Rav Ginsberg, who was the architect of the SEED kiruv program, ignited his talmid’s interest in outreach. And so, while learning at the Mir, Rabbi Scholar became involved with NCSY. “At that time, it was one of the great vehicles of kiruv,” he says. “Rav Shmuel Berenbaum saw my need to get involved in this type of outreach, so with his permission, I used to leave yeshivah on Friday morning, spend Shabbos leading NCSY Shabbatons, and come back Sunday morning. I went all over the US — from New Jersey to Wichita, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Savannah, Georgia; St. Louis, Missouri — exotic places for a yeshivah bochur.”

Back then, the distance between a Brooklyn yeshivah boy and an out-of-town NCSY kid wasn’t as a great as it is today. “We yeshivah bochurim came from more integrated homes,” Rabbi Scholar remembers, “and the NCSY kids weren’t as far away from tradition as their counterparts today. During those Shabbatons, we’d convey the warmth of Yiddishkeit and the power of Torah education. Forty-five years later, we’re still reaping the nachas. Some of those kids became lifelong friends and built Torah-true families.”

Rabbi Scholar remembers one kid in particular, Marvin, who was so inspired by the NCSY programs that he decided to leave his hometown of Omaha and learn Torah full-time in Ohr Somayach.

“One Motzaei Shabbos, I got a knock on my door. It was a guy with a beard, I figured it was a meshulach. He comes in, sits down, looks at me and says, ‘Don’t you remember me? My name is Moshe Steiner.’ I knew a Steiner, but his name was Marvin, not Moshe. ‘Yeah, that’s me,’ he said. After Ohr Somayach, he learned in Gateshead, then Lakewood. And it all started from NCSY.”

After marrying Michele Schultz of Canarsie, Brooklyn, and settling in Brooklyn, Rabbi Scholar taught at HAFTR and Westchester Hebrew High School. “Our original plan was that I’d continue learning together with chinuch and kiruv, probably in an out-of-town community,” he relates. “In fact, 35 years ago an opportunity came up to pursue that sort of position in Savannah, Georgia, but for some reason it fell through. Then I was given the position as the rav of a Young Israel-style shul in Flatbush, and I saw that, as well as teaching, as my life’s trajectory.”

When Rabbi Scholar first took that position, the shul was a strong, viable kehillah with 125 families. With time Brooklyn’s demographics changed and there was no longer the same demand for a Young Israel shul. But there was another, bigger reason why he could no longer continue serving as a shul rav — a calling that he could never have foreseen.

Out of the Blue

In 1987, during his tenure as shul rav, Rabbi Scholar met Rav Pinchas Dovid Horowitz, known as the Chuster Rav, a son of the Bostoner Rebbe who was working in kashrus supervision. Rav Horowitz was giving a hechsher to an establishment near the shul, and he liaised with Rabbi Scholar to resolve a common kashrus issue. It was the first time they were meeting.

As a son of the Bostoner Rebbe, famed for his ROFEH organization offering medical advice and support to patients seeking treatment in Boston, the Chuster Rav was very attuned to the needs of frum patients, and had a natural knack for this type of activism. He picked up on a developing trend at the time in America: the concept of giving sick kids experiences just like other children their age, based on the understanding that kids need to spend time in a normal environment so they can find the courage to fight their diseases.

“So as we wrapped up the kashrus issue,” Rabbi Scholar remembers, “Rav Horowitz just sort of dropped this idea on me — someone should make a camp for frum sick kids. He had no business plan, no organized initiative, none of the things you’d imagine a professional organization would need. But that is really the secret of Chai Lifeline’s success: It was created, quite literally, with the clear Hashgachah pratis of Hashem.”

Not only did Chai Lifeline begin without a clear plan, its architect had no predilection for anything medical. “When I was going through my yeshivah years and planning out my life’s dreams,” Rabbi Scholar says, “I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing. Never. Rav Dovid Feinstein called Chai Lifeline one of the most important movements in Klal Yisrael — but it wasn’t premeditated. It sort of unspooled as it went along, as the pathways were shown by Hashem Himself.”

But in hindsight, Rabbi Scholar acknowledges that his unplanned career really does tap his dearest values. “I always wanted to bring achdus to Klal Yisrael — that’s my personal passion — and there’s no better way than chesed.”

That first year, Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald a”h, the force behind many chesed initiatives, donated the use of his Camp Sternberg facilities for two weeks after the end of the Sternberg sessions. “Thirty years later,” Rabbi Scholar says, “he visited Camp Simcha, and I was finally able to give him the proper thanks, in public, in front of the entire camp. It was close to the end of his life, although we didn’t know it, and it meant so much to him.”

Under Wraps

With a campus in place, Rabbis Scholar and Horowitz scraped together funding for the remaining costs. “The key to making it work was getting a doctor who could supervise the medical part,” Rabbi Scholar relates, although they weren’t thinking much about insurance, permissions, or backups. “We were like those 18-year-olds who parachute out of planes,” he admits. “They’re young and not responsible to anyone, and they don’t think about all the bad things that could happen.”

Their first choice for camp doctor broke his leg and had to cancel, but he was able to recommend eight campers. Rabbi Scholar found a new doctor, a small staff, and ran a successful first season. The second year, his camp welcomed 15 campers, and the year after that, 60. It was fast becoming clear there was an unmet need in the Jewish community. In the late 1980s, Rabbi Scholar explains, pediatric illness was still very much kept under wraps. He used to knock on doors recruiting campers, only to be told, “We have no sick children here.”

“I got the kids in by sticking my foot in the door and not letting people shut it,” he says. “This was a time when schools wouldn’t allow students in wheelchairs to enroll; they’d say it was bad for the school’s image. It took pioneers like Rabbi Yaakov Bender to change that. We realized we had a responsibility to bring illness out of the closet and sensitize the community to the needs of these children and their families.”

A few years after Camp Simcha opened, the camp was able to purchase its own property in Glen Spey, New York, and opened regional offices.

Growing Pains

Camp was an amazing experience for the kids, but it was soon evident they and their families needed support all year long. And so, Camp Simcha eventually expanded into Chai Lifeline, an overarching organization that would provide support on every level a family could be affected: financial aid, counseling for parents and siblings, meals, recreation, bereavement, trauma. Rabbi Scholar rattles a few statistics off the tip of his tongue: 60,000 meals given out yearly, 11,000-plus rides to hospitals and medical appointments, 1,300-plus interventions in families and schools where a child died (reaching 15,000 people), a domestic budget of close to 27 million dollars.

And while demand to attend Camp Simcha is high — the wait list is in the hundreds (“It’s easier to get into Brisk,” Rabbi Scholar jokes) — there’s an equally long line of young people trying to secure spots as volunteers. It’s a badge of honor to be a volunteer, to wear those camp shirts with the tzitzis peeking out, but the main requirement is to be a giving person, and one who can follow directions. The camp’s energy comes largely from these volunteers — girls from all types of seminaries and yeshivah boys during bein hazemanim — and for many of them, a single summer can provide training of a lifetime in sensitivity to the needs of the sick. “You could call it the yeshivah of chesed,” Rabbi Scholar says. “We have thousands of staff alumni who have gone on to become caring, outstanding people in their communities.”

Launched in a small Boro Park office, Chai Lifeline currently occupies a space in midtown Manhattan with a staff of 40, with an equally large staff working from an office in Lakewood, plus 12 satellite offices in the US, Europe, Israel, and South Africa. The organization services more than 5,800 families daily and owns its own winterized, fully outfitted campgrounds.

“It’s a truly professional organization,” Rabbi Scholar says, and he pinpoints the reason for that. “You know, so many chesed initiatives are sparked by a person encountering a relative or friend with a specific need. This was different. When Rav Horowitz suggested that we start a camp, he didn’t even know a single kid who needed it. We didn’t build this with a specific face or person in mind. It was completely altruistic, completely absent of any personal agenda. And because of this, the organization didn’t take on the tone of any one person, need, or case. We’ve always had this ability to study the issue, honestly assess the situation, and put our resources where they’re needed most.”

In the beginning, Rabbi Scholar used to answer the phones himself. Now, with a large, professionally trained staff, he serves in a managerial role, overseeing fundraising, programming, and administration. He straddles the fine balance between delegating — “we have extraordinarily talented people on staff” — while retaining input and a level of control, with senior staff answering directly to him during once-weekly meetings.

When hiring staff, Rabbi Scholar looks for professionalism, ability to learn, ability to follow directions, heart, and commitment. “Our people work very hard,” he says. “We’re careful to try to keep boundaries, but they do answer phone calls at night.” And since they are at the front lines of illness and loss, and will lose patients that they’re close with, he makes sure to provide regular classes and sessions of chizuk and encouragement.

Rabbi Scholar trusts his staff so implicitly that he’ll only deal directly with a patient’s family when it’s a truly unique situation — and even then, only in a supervisory capacity. “I trust my staff,” he repeats. “I trust them with my own family. When my great-nephew was sick, I didn’t even tell my staff that he’s related to me. I let them handle the case, knowing that they wouldn’t treat him any differently from anyone else.”

For Just One Person

At the beginning though, Chai Lifeline was largely a one-man show. Rabbi Scholar spent a lot of time on the road (he remembers traveling the night before their first son’s bar mitzvah), and credits his wife, Michele, for keeping the family running smoothly as he was running around on behalf of sick children.

“Her mesirus nefesh made it all possible,” he says. His children have also been supportive, sometimes accompanying their parents to camp and later serving as counselors themselves. “They’ve seen the power of giving,” he says. “Obviously, there are those coulda-shoulda times when I wished I could have been around more, but what I’m doing takes a family, and baruch Hashem they’ve been behind me.”

Rabbi Scholar made sure from the onset that Chai Lifeline was guided by daas Torah; he would travel to Israel every month to consult with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l, before the Rav’s petirah in 1995. The Spinka Rebbe of Williamsburg also provided initial guidance. (Today Rabbi Scholar consults with Rav Dovid Feinstein and the Boyaner Rebbe when issues arise.) Rav Shlomo Zalman, he says, was the architect of what became his organization’s working philosophy: to service every Jew, and to do it in a highly professional way that doesn’t lose touch with the neshamah element.

“The very last time I met with Rav Shlomo Zalman,” Rabbi Scholar relates, “was in the days before Shaarei Chesed became an upscale neighborhood. He lived in an old house, and the very last words I heard from him were, ‘It’s kedai to create a worldwide organization for just one person.’ I walked down the steps of his house as if I was in a dream, wondering what he was referring to. But later, I realized what he meant — each family has to feel like they’re the ones we exist for.”

Another early inspiration was a meeting with the Klausenberger Rebbe ztz”l, who told him, “Chesed has to be precise. If a choleh wants a Coke, for example, don’t bring a Pepsi.” That, Rabbi Scholar says, became a mantra for him. “Chesed isn’t a sterile, commercial product. It has to be individualized,” he says. “That isn’t easy to do on a global scale — there are so many details involved.”

From Rav Shmuel Berenbaum ztz”l, he learned tenacity, diligence, and hasmadah. He saw the Rosh Yeshivah overcome so many personal tragedies, yet continue to accomplish and move forward until his last breath. He credits his yeshivah training with giving him the right outlook necessary for growing and managing an international enterprise. “I learned to see a problem, understand where the holes and deficiencies are, understand what parts I don’t understand, and seek out the right people who know what to do,” he says.

Environment of Normalcy

Today, Camp Simcha is staffed by eight doctors, 14 nurses, two pharmacists (administering 2,000 meds per day) and a handful of physician assistants, physical therapists, and respiratory therapists. “The key is to create a safe environment for the kids, a circle of safety,” Rabbi Scholar says. “Then you can do whatever you want with the kids to have fun.”

But the complex needs of sick children often lead to complex sh’eilos, especially over Shabbos. “We have books of thousands of sh’eilos that have come up over the years,” Rabbi Scholar says. “For example, many of these kids are on machines that require electricity — respirators, pumps — so you have to know how to handle them on Shabbos. Rabbi Eytan Feiner is the rav of the camp, and he keeps things running smoothly in that area.”

In addition to being uplifting for the children, the weeks at camp provide much-needed respite for families. One family, for example, had a son whose disease required them to administer a shot every hour. In school, a nurse would inject him; at home, his parents did it during the night. When the boy went to Camp Simcha Special — for children with non-cancer life-threatening or chronic illnesses, launched in 2001 — the entire staff held their breaths, hoping there wouldn’t be any complications.

To everyone’s relief, camp went fine. The boy returned home happy and the family began preparations for his bar mitzvah six months later. During the winter, in the middle of a tough day, Rabbi Scholar got a call from the father. “We get a mazel tov, we had a baby girl,” he said, then joked, “We’re going to name her Chaya Lifeline.”

Sadly, the boy passed away just a few weeks before his bar mitzvah. But his parents knew that his final summer had been the realization of a dream.

Family Affair Camp Simcha’s name is a signal to bring a little more happiness and joy to sick children. But Rabbi Scholar says that’s not the only goal of the camp. “People think the ultimate chesed is to make the children happy, but that’s a fallacy,” he says. “It definitely helps, and it fuels the child’s will to fight the disease. But what we began to see is that pediatric illness isn’t just about the child. It’s about the entire family, and even the school, shul, and friends. They’re all affected by the trauma.”

And, says Rabbi Scholar, the family of today is different from the family of 30 years ago. More wives are working and there are more single parents. Grandparents’ roles have also evolved, and they tend to be more impacted than in the past. “Thirty years ago,” Rabbi Scholar explains, “your typical grandparents stayed on the sidelines. They let their kids do what they had to do. Today the grandparents are younger, they’re far more involved with their grandchildren — like a second set of parents — and they’re much more involved when there’s a stressful, difficult situation. That can mean anything from supporting the parents of the sick child, taking shifts in the hospital, or being involved on a day-to-day decision level. These days, when we take a new case, we’ll often be meeting with grandparents, talking to them — they’re part of the family unit.”

As much as we’ve become more aware and accepting of illness and disabilities, a sick child still becomes an outcast, due to the demands of his illness. He’s out of school or in school sporadically. He looks different — no one else in his class has lost his hair or is missing a limb. His parents are stressed out from juggling his care along with their other responsibilities — they may even fight in front of him. The child’s physical pain is further exacerbated by the fear he may not survive. Long hospital stays may mean seeing other children pass away, maybe even in the next bed.

The emotional trauma notwithstanding, the social isolation is especially hard to handle for these children. In camp, they’re in an environment in which they’re finally not the outcast, finally among other kids who know what they’re going through. “The kids wait all year for camp,” Rabbi Scholar says. “And the euphoria lasts them all year. We consider the word ‘disability’ to be nivul peh. We’ve created an environment where abnormality is normal. We say the kids have ‘different abilities.’ ”

Michele adds, “The best bonding they do is in their bunks at night, after lights out. That’s when they really talk to each other, and it’s the best therapy they could have.”

Because here, the kids can really be open about the questions that plague them: Why did Hashem make me sick? Why this illness? What if I don’t get better, what happens to me? “We don’t have nevuah, and the answers aren’t always reconcilable with This World,” Rabbi Scholar says. “But we validate the children’s questions.”

What Comes After Cancer care has changed much over the last three decades, and children who survive their cancers have become a new demographic with their own brand of trauma to overcome. During a catastrophic illness, the nucleus of the family shatters. Having gone through such a harrowing experience, both children and parents suffer a sort of PTSD. Siblings may display anxiety, fear, or jealousy — some may lie awake at night worried that they, too, might become sick, while others may secretly wish they could get sick too, in order to enjoy the extra attention, concern, and toys showered on the sick sibling. And parents, now back together on a normal, day-to-day basis after so many months in survival mode, might find the going rocky and can experience marital tensions.

“The trauma is very real,” Rabbi Scholar says. “You cured the cancer, but how do you cure the family? How do you turn them back into a functioning unit after all they’ve been through? You have to give them the right support. Later, you get the calls full of simchah.”

For the kids themselves, a clean bill of health doesn’t spell an end to the pain. Often, all the fear that was locked within them during their illness now spills out. “Illness leaves real emotional scars,” Rabbi Scholar says, “and they can be devastating, even after a child seems physically healed. There can be nightmares, there can be social issues…. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens.”

Creating the infrastructure to recognize and treat those scars is what defines and differentiates Chai Lifeline. “We don’t just go into the hospital with a clown, although that is important,” Rabbi Scholar says. “It’s not just about making a trip, it’s about keeping them whole. It takes skill. It takes a professional organization dealing with every aspect of illness. Every staff member and volunteer is attuned to these types of red flags. Even the volunteers — I call them ‘unpaid professionals’ — get training and are accepted and respected by the medical staff.”

You’re Doing a Good Job Often the recovering kids are the most resilient family members, drawing from a deep spiritual well of determination and power. Parents may need more counseling to recuperate after months of tension and stress. Survivor families are a group in and of themselves, and Chai Lifeline has a ten-day pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Eretz Yisrael for these families, for both religious and nonobservant families. These encounters constitute a sort of “soft kiruv,” Rabbi Scholar says. Non-religious parents aren’t asked to make any life changes, but are often inspired by the tireless chesed of the religious community.

Each case is unique, and the outcomes so unpredictable. Rabbi Scholar has seen cases where doctors claimed a cure rate was 97 percent, yet the child died anyway; other children given dire prognoses turned those predictions on their heads. One can’t help but wonder if all the emotional ups and downs don’t take a toll on Rabbi Scholar himself after a while. How does he deal with the often-devastating outcomes? He pauses. “I have choshuve rabbanim,” he answers. He still treasures the memory of meeting Rabbi Moshe Sherer at a simchah, a few years after Chai Lifeline began, and discovering that Rabbi Sherer knew who he was without introduction. “You’re doing a good job, young man,” Rabbi Sherer told him, and he still counts it as one of the most significant moments of his career.

Does he ever get to take a break, go on vacation? To answer, he opens his computer to show a glimpse of his typical e-mails: A girl in New Jersey who is dying, a new cancer case in Israel, and another in Lakewood, a happy photo of a Camp Simcha camper going on an outing with a counselor, an invitation to a bar mitzvah.

There are emotionally fraught moments every day, but the tragic outcomes are balanced by the happy ones, and that’s what keeps him going. Rabbi Scholar has served as mesader kiddushin at the weddings of children never expected to survive, and as sandek at brissim where the baby’s parents, survivors of illness, were told they’d never have children.

“In the end, none of it is in our hands except the giving,” he says.

(Originally Featured in Mishpacha, Issue 751)

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