Its official name is the Israel Breast Cancer Emergency Relief Fund (http://esra.org.il/israel-breast-cancer-emergency-relief-fund-ibcerf), but the Teaneck native who founded it prefers “the Lemonade Fund,” the nickname it’s gotten for sweetening the lives of needy women suffering from breast cancer.
The fund’s origin was a breast cancer diagnosis for Shari Mendes in July 2010, a few months short of her 50th birthday. She and her family had moved from Bergen County to the central Israeli suburb of Ra’anana seven years earlier. Her husband, David, was then chief of plastic surgery at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba. (He’s now at Shaare Zedek.) Shari was busy running her architectural firm and had taken the time for a routine mammogram. She was surprised by the results.
While undergoing treatment, Mendes was consumed by two thoughts: First, she wondered how financially strapped women were managing the costs of the disease, ranging from medications, wigs, and prostheses not fully covered by national health insurance, to extra transportation and household help expenses.
“I was shocked to learn how extremely costly a serious illness can be,” she said. “I had so many new out-of-pocket expenses, and all I could think was to wonder how poor women could do this.”
Second, Mendes wanted to do something to mark her milestone birthday, whose celebration had been delayed by her treatment. She inaugurated the fund a year from the day she had her mammogram.
“I received the news that I had breast cancer on the Ninth of Av, one of the saddest days of the Jewish year,” she said. “It seemed fitting to do something positive on the one-year anniversary of diagnosis, specifically on a day that addresses ways to heal after destruction. Thank God, I’m doing fine and feeling fine.”
Mendes talked to other women and to breast cancer center social workers, coming away convinced that nothing like what she envisioned existed in Israel, despite the great need for it there. The Israel Cancer Society gives $250 grants, but she wanted to do more.
“Aside from worries about your illness, it’s so expensive to be sick,” she said. “You’re working less, and life costs more. By quickly and compassionately delivering direct financial assistance, some of the financial burdens that accompany breast cancer can be eased so that patients can concentrate on the more important challenge of getting well.”
Mendes learned that the Herzliya-based nonprofit ESRA (English Speaking Residents Association, www.esra.org.il) runs a welfare fund. She incorporated her Israel Breast Cancer Emergency Relief Fund under this charitable umbrella, which allowed her to begin quickly and waste no money on overhead.
“It’s amazing how easy it is to just do something,” she said. “From idea to execution was two months.”
Within one month of launching, on Sept. 18, 2011, the Lemonade Fund awarded its first five grants, using some $12,000 that Mendes had raised by emailing “almost every woman I know.” Since then, she’s raised more through foundation and individual donations, many of them in memory of her father, longtime Teaneck resident Martin Greenwald, who died recently.
Somewhat reluctantly, she’s decided to go public with her appeal because the needs are even greater than she had anticipated.
“Hospital social workers all over Israel have learned about the fund, and when a patient is desperately poor they urge them to apply,” she said. “They have to supply financial information, and the social worker sends the application to ESRA for review.”
Adele Hunter, head of ESRA’s Welfare Committee, explains that ESRA has been giving to the needy, via social welfare departments throughout Israel, for more than 20 years. A committee composed mainly of retired social workers screens about 25 applications every month.
“Shari’s fund is run on the same lines,” Hunter said. “We invite Shari to come review the applications – about three to seven per month. Together we decide which ones meet the criteria and how much we can give. A week later, we send them a check directly, along with a letter to their social workers.”
The amount of each grant depends on how much has been raised, but it’s usually between 1,500 and 4,500 shekels.
“Shari’s got a very open heart and really wants to make a difference,” Hunter said. “If she had more money, she’d give more money.”
Mendes is struck by how diverse the applicants are. There are native Israelis as well as Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, Arab women, and religious and secular Jews.
Mendes received a letter from another woman, who wrote:
“I have no words to describe how much I thank you for your contribution … to be ill and also suffer from poor financial conditions is extremely difficult for me. … I am a single mother and I have many expenses; for example, buying drugs that aren’t covered by insurance to help me with the side effects of the chemotherapy. This donation helped me purchase these drugs and it is easier for me to deal with breast cancer treatment.”
Mendes said that one recent applicant particularly tugged at her heartstrings. “She’s an Israeli woman, orphaned at 12, abused as a teen, a single mother, and is now 42 and suffering from severe disease. She was a hardworking nursery school teacher but cannot work now and makes almost nothing. To give her 4,500 shekels is nice, but it’s a drop in the bucket. If I could give her 10,000 I could help save her life.”
That’s no exaggeration, she insists. “When you’re stressed about money it’s hard to get well. If you could be calmer about your financial situation it could impact recovery. I think this helps just like medicine helps.”
Make U.S. tax-deductible donations through the PEF Israel Endowment Fund, 317 Madison Ave. (Room 607), New York, N.Y. 10017. Checks should be made payable to “P.E.F. Israel Endowment Funds.” Designate ESRA IBCERF on the memo line.