The Orthodox Jewish Volunteers Who Help A Child With Cancer
Even though eight-year-old Laila and her family are from New York, they never had much experience with Orthodox Jews until Laila was diagnosed with cancer. Laila’s mother recalls that when treatment began, that changed in an instant. “Memorial Sloan-Kettering gave us more direct exposure to Orthodox Jews. They have a big presence at there.” Laila’s mother grew up in a republic of the Former Soviet Union, where she was not exposed to Judaism. When the family met Hannah Tessel, a Hunter College student, it was the first time they heard of many concepts from Judaism, despite knowing they were Jewish. They all came in a friendly, caring package that made Laila’s family want to know more.
The Orthodox Jews who volunteered for Chai Lifeline, a non-profit which supports children with cancer “…were fighting the fight with us. They gave us access to meals for Shabbat and holidays, in the hospital and at home.” Chai Lifeline regularly sends volunteers to help families with meals, assistance and offer friendship. “I started learning about them as we interacted. Then an Orthodox family we became friends with, who was getting treatment for their daughter alongside of us, invited us to their son’s wedding.” While Laila’s family celebrated the high holidays and Passover, they have since been exposed to so much more. “I never thought that I would have [Orthodox] friends.” Hannah met Laila and her family during a particularly rough patch of treatment. Neither Laila nor her mother had slept through the night for five nights in a row. “I was going crazy. Chai Lifeline had a volunteer to help. That girl, I owe her.” Hannah not only stayed with Laila through the night, giving Laila’s mother the chance to rest that she truly needed, but she cared for Laila in a way that only a close family member could. “She was an angel. That night, her sister gave birth and she shared half her time with us. Now she’s a family member.” Hannah soon introduced Laila and her family to her friends who would come to spend time with and help care for Laila. Their positivity made an incredible impression on Laila’s mother. “I wish I met them under different circumstances, but it’s a blessing to know them.”
Laila’s mother was suddenly surrounded by Orthodox Jews and realized how she wanted to know more about what they believed. “Hannah gave me a book. I learned so much from her, so many things I didn’t know. In nine months I learned more about Judaism than in my whole life before then.” The family also developed a relationship with a frum doctor, who similarly made a striking impression. “The doctor asked for her Hebrew name and said he would pray for her. That really got me.” The doctor is an active part of their lives as Laila’s treatment progresses. When Laila had to have surgery at Johns Hopkins, Chai Lifeline Mid Atlantic was there to help them get settled temporarily in Baltimore. They experienced Shabbos with an Orthodox family there for the first time, and their other daughter attended school at Beth Tfiloh while they resided there.
Now that they are back in New York, Laila’s mother hopes that they can experience Shabbos again soon. The impression made by the volunteers is one of indelible positivity. “Despite the indescribable pain that my daughter and our family has undergone in the past year, one of my strongest sources of strength has been through the volunteers that I have met throughout this process. If they have not defined what it means to make a Kiddush Hashem, I don’t know what would. They have demonstrated the highest levels of kindness and selflessness, and have triggered a thirst for our family to be more involved in a Jewish life.”
The family is incredibly grateful for the outpouring of generosity they have experienced from the Jewish community- both with their time and their money. “We could never have properly prepared ourselves for what Childhood Cancer brings.” Both the emotional and the financial toll is a genuine struggle for their family. “Every penny does indeed help, and to know people care for us is truly the most beautiful and comforting feeling in the world. We look forward to being on the giving end very soon and trying to somehow give back to the community for which we are forever grateful.”
Click here to donate to Laila’s medical fund.