‘We were very poor. My mother was on food stamps, and there just wasn’t much money, but did the best they could.’
“My parents were very charitable people. My mother came from Poland when she was young; my father fled the Nazis from Austria. They were separated, but although I lived with my mother, my father was very present in my life.
“We were very poor. My mother was on food stamps, and there just wasn’t much money, but did the best they could. Yet my mother kept something called a tzedakah box, which are basically little metal boxes that you put coins into, to save for a charitable cause. My mother kept about 4 to 5 of these in the top drawer of our kitchen. I still have one of hers that I keep to remind me.
“There were these little yeshivas, little schools, and rabbis would come to the house every month or so and take the pennies that were in the boxes. We had so little, but my mother always put something in these boxes for them. It was so important to her. It always struck me that no matter how little we had, it showed me there were people who needed even more than we did. The way I am just comes from that.
“My background was in day camps. I started working in day camps at 19, just looking for a purpose in life back then while in college. That’s when I realized I had an ability to work with children, and I fell in love with doing that, and just kept doing this work.
“I attended a concert in 2005, and it also turned out the event benefitted a sleepaway camp that focuses on children with various degrees of life-impacting illness, including cancer. At the time, I was the CEO of the Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside, which I had been doing for 20 years. I also have a master’s [degree] in social work. I began wondering about what day camps existed for kids with cancer, and I found there was really nothing aside from a couple of small weeklong programs, nothing summerlong.
“The subject really got on my mind. I learned that the lack of such camps for children was due to the fact that immunocompromised kids can’t be in a regular camp setting, and many parents can’t afford to send a child to camp due to the cost of cancer treatment. These kids were basically stuck sitting at home. I thought, I wonder if there was something we could do about that?”
Sunrise was so compelling. I figured, if I were going to do one final job before retiring, this was it.
“We already had a property in Wheatley Heights that had room for a medical camp, so we explored the idea, talking to local hospitals. And by the summer of 2006, we had raised about $750K toward the construction of the camp.
“We then rebuilt the property to suit the necessary medical needs. And with the help of local officials and hospitals critical to securing what else we needed, by 2006 we opened what would be the first camp for children with cancer, and we also included their siblings.
“One of the things we learned was how affected kids were by their siblings being sick, including not being able to do anything that might introduce germs into their homes, how much attention they received, the emotions they felt because of this, or how a family’s economy was impacted by the costs of experimental treatments. We felt we should not only include siblings, but make it their camp as well.
“The camps are called the Sunrise Day Camps Association. We were once part of the JCC, but in 2014 we split off as we wanted to expand, so we became a separate nonprofit. We’re still part of the JCC movement and affiliated with JCC in Oceanside, but we’re an independent organization as of that year. That was the point when we really started to grow.
“For me, the decision was an easy one: After nearly 30 years as a JCC director, Sunrise was so compelling. I figured if I were going to do one final job before retiring, this was it.
“After our first camp on Long Island, we opened our second one in Israel. One of the things we insisted when we opened the camp in Israel was that all children would be welcome. Whether they were Muslim, Jewish, Arab, Christian, Palestinian, it didn’t matter — the cancer was the key issue. It showed us that when you have a shared problem, a shared goal, you put your differences aside. With the camp we’re opening in Chicago this year, that’ll be eight camps in the U.S., with the original still going in Wheatley Heights.”
There’s a world full of issues, and some just don’t get addressed. If there’s an opportunity to help, to be a part of something like this, you just take it. You just do it.
“The camps are free for the children; everything is free. We have a lot of one-on-one counselors, so that there’s more attention that can be paid to the kids. Some children require a one-to-one counselor who’s assigned to them, perhaps due to a cancer that limits their mobility, or they have brain cancer, bone cancer or perhaps they just haven’t socialized with children and are inexperienced with others and need to be guided through their first experiences with other children.
“We didn’t just want to build a day camp for children with cancer. We wanted to build the best camp we could build, to give these kids the greatest summer ever and as normal a summer as possible with as many smiles as we can fit into the day.
“I didn’t grow up knowing any children with cancer. I never met a child with cancer until I started work on the camp. It wasn’t about that. I really feel that people can’t just contribute to those issues that affect us personally.
“There’s a world full of issues, and some just don’t get addressed. If there’s an opportunity to help, to be a part of something like this, you just take it. You just do it. This was something that came to my attention. Then it became something I brought to other people’s attention, looking at the landscape and seeing we had an opportunity to do something, to make some kids’ lives better, so why not just do it? It’s the subtle things in life that inspire you more than the things that people throw at you and tell you that you have to do.
“I first learned by watching my mom — and she was always a huge influence for me — what she did for others. It’s clearly something that stays with me, as when our grandchildren were born. I gave each a tzedakah box. My wife and I also give a great deal to charity; it’s what we do. In the end, the choices that I made were influenced by understanding what was most important, and I believe that the best way to inspire people is to just go about your life and do it right. They’ll see. You don’t have to push it on them. What they should think and what they should do, they’ll see. That’s what I saw with my mom.”