The Hebrew word “simcha” is used to describe something joyful.
And that’s what Jewish international nonprofit organization Chai Lifeline has provided — for free — to children and teens with serious or chronic illnesses and disabilities at its Camp Simcha programs in the Catskills since 1987.
The only kosher overnight camp system for this population, Camp Simcha provides full medical services and a trained counselor for each camper. But the main focus is on providing fun and friendship for kids who otherwise could not go to sleepaway camp.
It is little wonder then that last summer prospective campers and their parents were anything but joyful when Camp Simcha could not open due to the pandemic, according to Chai Lifeline CEO Rabbi Simcha Scholar. (Yes, that’s really his name — it’s happily matched with the camp.)
“They were disappointed beyond belief,” Rabbi Scholar said. “It was devastating because most of these kids have no other place to go. Camp Simcha is it.”
This summer, the core Camp Simcha program for children and teens with cancer and other blood disorders still isn’t possible. But Chai Lifeline is running a two-week Camp Simcha Special session for kids and teens with serious and chronic illnesses, a one-week Camp Simcha Beyond session for children and young adults with disabilities and also for their siblings, and Camp Simcha Without Borders day camps for kids and teens outside of the New York area with serious illness and disabilities.
Speaking on the first day of Camp Simcha Special for girls on June 24, Rabbi Scholar acknowledged that a lot of creative thinking went into adapting camp for the current reality.
“Give us the box to work in and we will make the box rock,” he said.
“Certain kids could not come because of the pandemic, but we’re expecting a full complement of children from all over the country. Over the course of the summer, we’ll have approximately 400 in overnight camps and 1,200 in Camp Simcha Without Borders for those who can’t travel or are in a difficult medical situation.”
All of the approximately 800 staff members — including two full-time pharmacists and 16 nurses — are vaccinated, he said, and the programming was changed as little as possible.
“Our number-one consideration is always the health and safety of participants,” Rabbi Scholar said. “That overrides everything.
“We meticulously follow appropriate guidelines put out by the government. Within those parameters, thank God we were able to create a program this summer that will have the same magic and excitement as in every other year. We had to switch the dining room around into pods, and we had to be creative in terms of entertainment; dancing hand in hand won’t happen right now. Every kid has to be tested for covid before the first day of camp. But campers won’t feel much of a difference, thanks to our staff and our generous supporters who believe in this mission.”
Racheli Herzfeld of Teaneck, 21, spent eight happy summers in Camp Simcha Special and now is excited about the opportunity to join Camp Simcha Beyond, a new program, which will run July 12-20 for boys and August 4-10 for girls.
“I’ve never been at camp for only one week but also it will be different because I will be meeting people my age, while normally campers are from ages 5 to 18,” Ms. Herzfeld said. “I’m looking forward to reuniting with the staff and being in the same place again. I miss it so much, and I can’t wait to be back.”
Camp Simcha Beyond was designed for 5- to 7-year-old campers who are too young for Camp Simcha Special and for 17- to 21-year-old graduates of Camp Simcha Special. The latter group will hone life skills through sessions on communication and relationships, driving with a disability, cooking, effective writing, and photography.
“I am excited for the new activities,” Ms. Herzfeld said. “The main thing I love is that they go to the fullest extent possible to make sure you have the most tailor-made fun during your time at camp.”
She also is looking forward to socializing. “I’m a student at Touro College, and this year was on Zoom,” she said. “It was hard because I was so yearning to be in a community, and this whole year with covid has been so isolating. One of the things I’m most looking forward to is being with camp friends and meeting new people.”
Ora Goldgrab, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy from Wesley Hills in Rockland County, does not know what earlier summers were like; this is her first time at Camp Simcha Special.
Her mother, Netta Goldgrab, said she’s not worried about covid because Ora already had it.
“It’s her first time going away from home, and that was my biggest concern,” she said. “At first, Ora did not want to go. She is a homebody. I told her she does not have to go but then I showed her some videos from Camp Simcha’s Instagram page and she got more excited.”
The real gamechanger was meeting the 21-year-old woman who was slated to be Ora’s personal counselor. Before camp began, this counselor — who happens to live in nearby — spent time getting to know Ora.
“Now she’s very excited to spend the summer with her, and I know I am leaving her in good hands,” Ms. Goldgrab said.
She was told that due to the covid restrictions, parents are not allowed onto the campgrounds. Instead, parents are receiving videos that give them a clear picture of how their children are doing in camp.
Ms. Goldgrab displayed two videos from the first day that showed colorfully clad counselors welcoming a delighted Ora with dancing and cheering.
“Every day packs in a full 24 hours of amazing, fun-filled activities led by trained volunteer counselors,” Rabbi Scholar said. “There’s no such thing as boredom in Camp Simcha.”