The modal reaction to those who came in contact with the Kids of Courage (KOC) West Coast Tour last week was one of utter disbelief. Twenty-four participants, all of whom suffer from chronic conditions so daunting that the rest of us cannot even pronounce their names, had an opportunity to enjoy unimpaired joy and camaraderie the likes of which they rarely, if ever, can enjoy.
To accomplish this, over fifty support personnel – all of them familiar with the needs of these kids – came along. Special arrangements had to be made every inch of the way. Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Sea-World had to cooperate. Special medical equipment had to be provided, including a Hatzolah ambulance that tagged along. Hospitals were “on call” and ready to meet anticipated needs. No airline was willing to fly so many “medicals” on one flight, until the very last one called – Continental – agreed. Toys R Us agreed to open an hour early to accommodate the kids (each equipped with one hundred dollars) who wheeled or dragged themselves through the isles for a surprise shopping spree. (They were met on arrival by Fox, CNN, and ABC media crews.) Srulie Williger flew out to entertain at a Hancock Park barbeque.
Of course, someone had to pay for it. Or rather, someone had to raise a hefty sum to make it possible.
Three people took chief responsibility. All of them are part of the Camp Simcha universe. (Indeed, although the event was not part of the official Camp Simcha calendar, KOC has to be seen as the natural consequence of the astounding work that Camp Simcha does.) They are Camp Simcha’s famous medical director, “Dr D” (Dr. Stewart Ditchek), its Chief Paramedic, Howie Kafka, and its Boys Division Head, who happens to share my last name (and asked me to downplay his role).
No one gets paid; most personnel had to take unpaid leave. At least one family had two generations of staff participants in attendance, who sweated bullets in shlepping and helping. For this, they were rewarded by being allowed to make a five figure contribution. (We are hoping that HKBH will stand by the Boys Division Head during finals at the law school he is supposed to be attending while making all this happen.)
Some of the participants (ranging in age from 8-26) had never flown before. A few had tried, and the plane had to be diverted. They somehow found the courage by being part of a group – hence the name. One chair-bound participant was hooked up to so much equipment and their monitors, that his power chair resembled a small Hummer. At least two of the participants were solid b’nei Torah who at some point learned in major yeshivos. (One of them wishes he still could. Slowly left paralyzed by the benign tumors that strangled his spine, he sits alone most of the time with the mind and neshamah of a budding talmid chacham trapped by his own body.) Some of the kids were not frum at all; some were chassidish. Hesitations by parents of both of those types had to be overcome to obtain their permission. By the time it was over, when the kids returned to NY, the parents burst into tears at the airport, realizing the miracle of what had been accomplished for their kids in the preceding days. [For more information, go to their website, at kidsoc.org ]
Everyone who watched the five days in Los Angeles take place were left awed and speechless. It is something to be so blown away by an experience that you grasp for words; it is another when the proximal cause is your own son.
While I haven’t yet “landed” long enough to find the words, I can at least frame the experience in terms of three elements that impressed, or rather overwhelmed.
The first is the sheer goodness of the care providers. It is one thing to volunteer time as my friends did a generation ago in various kiruv activities, like spending every second Shabbos with NCSY. We may have thought we were being selfless, but the rewards to our egos was huge as we demonstrated to ourselves that we were effective teachers with a message to which people responded. It is quite another to spend time tending to tracheotomy tubes and wheelchairs or staying up most of the night helping with medication, sometimes with kids whose arrested development keeps the conversation very simple.
The second is capacity of the human spirit to compensate. Some of the participants have personalities that fill a room. They can be cheerful, hilarious, entertaining, riveting. You wouldn’t know until you meet them up close, and when someone has cared enough to make it a good day for them.
The third is the power of laughter, and more specifically, of people to laugh at themselves. At the barbeque, each participant was presented with an “Oscar” for achievement. I was initially shocked to hear the MC not only praise each child, but poke fun at them, including direct references to their disabilities. It didn’t take long to realize that the professionals with KOC worked diligently to strip the kids of self consciousness about their plight, to be able to freely talk about it and laugh at it. Laughter, it turns out, is far healthier than self-pity. KOC gets them there by emphasizing that everyone has a handicap. (The kids respond by freely poking fun at their counselors and organizers.) To one participant with a marked birth defect, Dr D offered these words of tribute: “Ploni (not the real name) has proven to all of us that arms are overrated.”
A Medrash Tanchuma (Ki Sisa) has HKBH expressing His preferences regarding the Mishkan avodah. “ I don’t need anything to eat or drink. All I get is the rei’ach nichoach. The proof is that the korbanos are offered on the outer mizbei’ach, while ketores is offered on the inner one.” R Eliyahu Kitov (Sefer Ha-Parshios) offers a characteristically elegant development of a difficult-to-understand passage. All korbanos are marred by self-interest. The offerer receives some direct benefit, by way of the atonement or elevation he/she seeks. What is “in it” for HKBH, kivayachol? The sweet savor of seeing the זבחי א-קים רוח נשברה, the broken spirit of the person who feels himself pained beyond endurance by his/her estrangement from Hashem. HKBH recognizes the sinner as whole and pure from the beginning, even before he/she approaches the mizbeach!
This recognition of the inner beauty of the imperfect person is symbolized by the ketores, the rei’ach nichoach of which differs markedly from the fate of other korbanos. Food is only appreciated after it is broken down through digestion. Smells, on the other hand, are wholly assimilated by the body; scents, moreover, are sensed from a distance, while tastes are not. Ketores represents Hashem’s sensing in us what we do not always feel ourselves.
Like many others, I often have a difficult time with the parshios of the korbanos. What, specifically, do they ask of me today, without a beis ha-mikdosh? Is there any way to translate their profound lessons into action? A great principle of Torah living is emulating the ways of HKBH. I had never thought of applying this to His role in the avodah. KOC taught me that there is a way, בזעיר אנפין, of seeing the beauty in others that is superficially invisible to some. Hashem can see it instantly, while we, as small refractions of His greatness, need to look for it. When we find it, its sweet savor, like that of the ketores itself, is overwhelming.