After Their Son’s Death, Parents Help Thousands of Families to Fight Cancer
After their son’s death from leukemia, Chaim and Miri Ehrental created Zichron Menachem to provide essential support to Israeli families affected by cancer.
Chaim and Miri Ehrental’s oldest child Menachem was two years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia. A bright, energetic and happy boy who loved music and spending time with friends, Menachem stayed positive throughout his lengthy illness.
"Menachem battled so bravely," Chaim told Aish.com. "Despite multiple surgeries, long stays in hospital, including a bone marrow transplant, he held on to his smile, his faith and maintained his spiritual strength which helped him beat back his illness several times over.”
After defying the odds through years of sickness and recovery, he succumbed to his illness the day before Passover in 1990, at age 15. Just two weeks earlier he had told his parents he no longer wished to fight.
“It was profound to see how the soul impacts a person's will to live. It became so clear why when we pray for someone according to the Jewish tradition we pray first for their soul and then for their body. We saw so clearly how a person’s desire to fight is affected by their spiritual state.”
Menachem Ehrental died from leukemia at age 15
Chaim and Miri saw firsthand the impact they had on their son’s ability to fight his illness. "As parents, we realized very early on that we were a mirror for our son. Miri and I cried and felt broken many, many times – but not in front of him. If we went to Menachem looking depressed, he would be depressed, and if we came upbeat, he would pick up too.”
"We always felt like we were a team of two. Today, mommy falls, the next day daddy does. We had many hard moments but when we came to see Menachem, we projected our best selves – calm, positivity and a strong sense of emunah, (faith) as hard as his condition was.”
Looking for answers
Menachem’s death left his parents with a void in their lives. “Our home had been full all the time," Chaim says. "I would often pick up several bags of challah and food for Shabbat on way home on a Friday because a group of yeshiva students had asked to stay over to bring extra happiness to Menachem and the family. It was a very busy home and suddenly it stopped.”
Chaim, a jewelry store owner, was preparing to return to work, but Miri had only just begun working as a graphic designer before she had to care for her son full time. Together they began wondering about the meaning of their experience. They had spent almost their entire married life battling cancer and supporting their son’s resolve.
“Why did God give us this? What was it for? These were the thoughts that would swirl through my mind. And the more I thought, the more I grew sure that during the entire time we had been receiving training for something." Eventually he put the thought to his wife. "We have so much experience," he told her. "God has sent us to this school for such a long time.”
A month after this conversation they made the decision to do something, and three months later they held the first event for Zichron Menachem, meaning “in memory of Menachem,” – a relief concert featuring some of their son’s favorite Jewish singers. Tickets were sold out.
At the heart of Zichron Menachem’s philosophy is their own experience as parents, and the knowledge that alleviating the suffering of cancer patients and their families can raise their spirits and help them fight their illness.
Fun activities help children with cancer to maintain a positive outlook
Today, the organization brings hundreds of children each day by bus to its House of Dreams, a fun-filled center brimming with activities. "There is a lot to be said for simply taking the strain of the illness away as far as possible. Providing exciting things gives children something to look forward to and keeps them excited about life,” Chaim says. “It’s important to find solutions to the things that bring their spirits down.”
Many cancer sufferers find it very hard to lose their hair through the effects of chemotherapy. In 2011, Zichron Menachem launched its first nationwide hair donation campaign, ensuring every cancer patient in Israel has a wig. A full schedule of events, trips and parties fills Zichron Menachem’s calendar. Teams of volunteers visit the homes of children battling cancer, singing and dancing after Shabbat to create an uplifting atmosphere to start the week.
"When we go to visit someone who is ill, we don’t need to find out every detail about their treatment and how bad they are feeling," Chaim says. "We can talk about other things that they enjoy and love, ‘What singer do you like?’ ‘What sports do you like to watch?’ We shouldn't let a person’s illness start to define a person. The doctor is treating the illness, but we can help take it out of him.”
A girl at the House of Dreams in Jerusalem
Describing the impact of the organization, one cancer survivor named Racheli said, “It’s like running into a God-sent angel, who takes you in his arms, holds you as tight as he can, makes you feel so close together.”
Thinking out of the box
Zichron Menachem has realized the formidable dream of organizing holidays abroad, giving families something very exciting to look forward to when other families are also enjoying their summer break. Such big thinking also requires some highly creative solutions.
“If you want to take a child with such a serious illness away on vacation,” Chaim says, “you can’t take him too far away from a hospital. If he gets a temperature, it can be life threatening. If we wanted to do this, we would need lifesaving equipment on site."
The Zichron Menachem portable hospital
Chaim put a plan together for a portable emergency hospital with all of the equipment and machines that a child with cancer could need. "When I told a senior doctor about the idea, he laughed and said it was a fantasy.” Years later Chaim invited him to see the Zichron Menachem portable hospital, the first of its kind. It has accompanied Zichron Menachem all across Europe.
Inside the portable hospital
This summer, 250 children and their families will fly to the UK. Two weeks before they set off, the portable hospital will drive to the port of Haifa, travel by ship to Greece, then wind its way through Europe and across the English Channel, ready for when the group arrives.
Parents also need to look after themselves
Even with a plethora of fun activities, children cannot stay upbeat alone. Chaim and Miri meet with each set of parents, instilling an empowering message that can make a significant difference to how they will cope.
Zichron Menachem offers parents many services to help look after themselves, including a modern spa, massage and healing therapies. This holistic view also extends to the healthy siblings in families with cancer sufferers who Zichron Menachem invites to its centers to make use of its recreational centers and also to receive counselling for those who request it.
Summer holiday to euro Disney in France
"Cancer can hit a family in the middle of their lives," Chaim says. "Why my child? Why our family? people often ask me. Emunah, faith in God, is understanding that everything that happens to us comes with the stamp of God’s friendship and love, whether we know why or not. Sometimes in life we get these challenges that cause us to get closer to Him, to speak to Him."
Over the years Zichron Menachem has received donations that have brought Chaim to tears, including from couples who have asked for all the gifts on their wedding day to be given to support the organization. “God puts some beautiful ideas into people's hearts and we see tremendous kindness," Chaim says. "When you receive donations from doctors and nurses, even photographers, drivers and printers who are involved with us in some way, it could be a small donation, but is very powerful to see that it comes from the heart."
"The Jewish People have shown Zichron Menachem great generosity. Far more than we ask for donations, people reach out to ask if they can help.” Chaim attributes the special blessing he received early on from the Amshinov Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Milikowsky, famed for his wisdom and love for his fellow Jew. “He didn’t know me but I told him our story and that we wanted to open an organization supporting young cancer sufferers and their families. He said 'I will bless you that you won’t need to knock on doors to raise money to do your work.' That blessing is still looking after us.”
Never say I've finished
Chaim and Miri have endless energy. “Our philosophy is to keep asking what needs to be done, learn what we need to know and then try to make it happen.”
His current project is to build a multimedia center training the public how to better communicate with cancer sufferers and their families. “The center will be an open, welcoming place where people can come and better prepare themselves,” he says. “It will cost 1.5 million shekels, which we do not yet have but we are going ahead with the planning anyway, with God’s help.”
Chaim and Miri Ehrental receiving the Israel Prize
It is now 30 years since the birth of Zichron Menachem and the Ehrentals’ mission to forge something good following the loss of their son.
“After Menachem died,” Chaim says, “my wife originally wanted to raise money to write a Torah scroll as a way of elevating his soul. Recently, we looked back and agreed the living, breathing scroll we have been writing for the last 30 years is one which we hope is true to the Torah’s spirit of kindness and love for the Jewish People.”
Marking 30 years of public service, Chaim and Miri were recently awarded The Israel Prize, the country’s highest public accolade for their work of supporting thousands of young cancer sufferers and their families.