Last Friday, three eager teenagers from Israel landed at Newark Airport, looking forward to two weeks of sleepaway camp in the Catskill Mountains.
They were accompanied by a nurse from the transplant team at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petach Tikvah near Tel Aviv, and were greeted upon arrival by Israeli pediatric nephrologist Yehuda (Lewis) Reisman.
These three teens each have had a kidney transplant.
They are going to Frost Valley YMCA Camp in Ulster County, New York, courtesy of the Teaneck-based Ruth Gottscho Kidney Foundation, which has sponsored a summer-camp experience at Frost Valley for more than 1,800 eight- to 17-year-olds with kidney disease since 1975.
The Israelis are the first patients from outside the United States to be part of the program, the only one in the world that fully mainstreams kids with kidney disease into a regular camp, said Judy Gottscho Eichinger, chair of the foundation.
Ruth Gottscho, Ms. Eichinger’s sister, died of congenital kidney disease in 1960, when she was 15, before the advent of dialysis. The family lived in Millburn in Essex County.
“My sister always dreamed of going to sleepaway camp but couldn’t because of her illness. She was very jealous when her friends and I went away to camp,” said Ms. Eichinger, whose parents, Eva and Ira, had met as summer-camp counselors.
At first, the foundation in Ruth’s memory was devoted to buying and lending dialysis machines for children and training parents to perform dialysis at home. After Medicare began funding the procedure, the foundation began supporting other services for children with kidney disease.
Mr. Gottscho died in 1971, and the next year Ms. Gottscho looked for camps in New Jersey that mainstreamed children with kidney disease into the regular summer program. She did not find any, but Frost Valley YMCA liked the idea and agreed to build a small dialysis unit in the camp’s wellness center. Since then, Frost Valley YMCA also has welcomed campers with developmental disabilities, and this year it also enrolled campers with hearing loss.
Each summer, about 15 campers with kidney disease or with a transplanted kidney — referred by their pediatric nephrologist, nurse, or social worker — join in the first two sessions of Frost Valley YMCA Camp, along with 1,000 other campers in every two-week session. They live in the same bunks and participate in the same activities as the other campers on the 5,500-acre campsite, but they receive dialysis and/or medications under the supervision of volunteer pediatric nephrology doctors and nurses, such as Dr. Reisman. The program is overseen by the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
The camp is not under Jewish auspices and the campers come from diverse backgrounds and religions. But Dr. Reisman, a semi-retired pediatric nephrologist at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center who keeps an apartment in Fort Lee, was eager to include kids from Israel.
“I have been going to Frost Valley for many years and I believe that for the children with kidney disease, the camp experience is much more than a vacation,” Dr. Reisman said. “It is an empowering experience that helps build self-confidence in these children. Frost Valley fosters mutual respect and acceptance and tolerance of others. As such, it represents the best of American culture and values.
“I have long wanted to bring Israeli kids to Frost Valley so that the Israelis would be exposed to the variety of children at camp, and so that the Americans would have a chance to get to know Israelis of various backgrounds,” Dr. Reisman said.
“I became certain that I wanted to do this in 2015, at the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the pediatric kidney transplant program at Schneider Children’s Medical Center. The kidney transplant coordinator, Neomi Zanhendler, said, in both Arabic and Hebrew, ‘The children are our bridge to understanding and peace.’ Afterwards, three children with kidney transplants sang ‘Sheyavo shalom aleinu,’ ‘May peace come upon us,’ and all the families — Jewish and Arabic — joined in.
“I decided that I wanted to bring Israeli kids to Frost Valley to teach the song to the American kids at camp,” Dr. Reisman said.
The Israeli campers include Stiven, 16, who was born in Russia; Aviv, 17, who was born in the United States to Israeli-American parents; and Bar-Shalom, 16, an Israeli of North African descent. All experienced kidney failure when they were young, received transplants at Schneider, and now are medically stable.
The Eichingers and the Reismans hosted the visitors in their own homes over Shabbat — the kids and their nurse were eager to experience Bergen County shopping and the sights of New York City — and then drove them to Frost Valley on Sunday for the first day of camp.
Ms. Eichinger, who moved the foundation office to her Teaneck home in 2009 after her mother died, has a daughter, Karen Feuer, who lives in Israel with her husband and children. She said that the camp board agreed to fund the cost of the summer camp for the Israeli teens but was not able to foot the bill for transportation or other expenses. Dr. Reisman secured donations from the United States and Israel to fill that gap.
Contributions can be made online at www.gottschokidney.org, or mailed to the Ruth Gottscho Kidney Foundation, 515 Warwick Avenue, Teaneck, NJ 07666. The foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.