The Valley

Camp Chesed in Woodland Hills provides a unique experience for disabled kids

A Special Summer

By Wendy J. Madnick, Valley Editor

Counselor Joshua Hay, left, and camper Cory Lefkowski enjoy the sights at Disneyland.

Six-year-old Cory Lefkowski has multiple health problems, including epilepsy and cerebral palsy; he is also learning disabled and attends special education classes during the year. Under ordinary circumstances, his summer would be a long and isolated one. But thanks to the willpower of some extraordinary people, Cory has spent the first week of the last three summers at a camp geared to improving the lives of Jewish children with disabilities.

The Hay family — father Jaque, mother Judy, daughter Jalena and sons Joshua and Jonathan — created Camp Chesed-Camp Dora Hauser in 1995 to give developmentally and physically disabled children the opportunity to have the same kind of summer fun as other Jewish kids. For the past two summers, the West Valley Jewish Community Center has hosted the one-week event, which this year ran June 22- 26 for the 29 campers and their 54 counselors (two or three assigned to each camper). The camp is held free of charge, an amazing boon to parents often stretched to the limit financially, and this year included an overnight trip to Disneyland.

Cory’s mother, Marby Lefkowski, said her son looks forward to Camp Chesed all year long. The camp presented the first opportunity for Cory to participate in arts and crafts and go on field trips with other kids. Lefkowski underscored the importance of such social activities for the differently abled.

“These children often have low self-esteem because they do not play with other (non-challenged) children,” she said. “But here they are able to participate. It gives them a fuller life and makes them feel like they are a part of the world.”

Hay estimated that about 80 percent of the campers were returnees; for others, like Riley Weinstein, 6, and her twin sister, Taylor, this was their first camping experience. Riley was born with a congenital brain stem malformation known as a cavernous angioma, which caused three strokes and resulted in 15 surgeries, totaling more than $1 million. Riley is the only known survivor of this type of abnormality. She can speak clearly but cannot move most facial muscles to show expression; at camp she needed full-time assistance with walking, swimming and meals.

Riley’s mother, Teri Weinstein, echoed several other parents when she expressed how grateful she was for the opportunity to send her daughter to camp.

“We all exhaust so much money on caring for our kids, so the fact that this is a gift is a true mitzvah ” she said.

Weinstein was also happy she could keep her two daughters together for the summer.

“Normally when I talk to Riley about going to special needs classes she gets scared [to be away from her sister], but she’s not afraid here. It’s good for Taylor, too, because she can see she’s not the only child with a ‘special’ sibling.”

Parents of disabled children form a unique network within the Jewish community. Usually they meet through special needs classes, but occasionally they make contact through synagogue programs at places like Stephen S. Wise on Mulholland and Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. The latter runs the Moses Program (named for the famous prophet, who was said to have had a speech problem) to encourage the full participation of adults and children with disabilities in synagogue life.

Most of the counselors at the camp attend the Hay kids’ alma mater, the Valley Torah Center in North Hollywood. None of the counselors think it is particularly remarkable to give up a week out of their summer to care for these mostly younger, sometimes challenging children. In fact, the counselors said they get far more from the experience than they give.

“You gain a certain perspective from working with these kids,” said Robert Cordas, 19. “They have so many problems, but their attitude is so happy, they just glow. It really makes you count your blessings.”

Hay contacted Arnie Sohinki, associate executive director of the West Valley JCC, last year about hosting the camp for summer 1997. The community center provides the camp with facilities, including the auditorium and access to the swimming pool.

“We juggle our schedule around the camp because it’s worth it, not only because of the people we’re helping but because it is important for our membership to be exposed to this part of our community,” Sohinki said.

Sohinki’s office overlooks the grounds where the children spent most of their day, and he commented on how lucky he felt to have such a view.

“It’s so wonderful to see the look on the counselors’ faces as they’re helping the children, and the look on the children’s faces from all the fun they’re having.”

For more information or to participate in next summer’s Camp Chesed-Camp Dora Hauser, call (818) 349-3932.

Painting for Peace

Students at Valley Beth Shalom Hebrew School commemorated Israel’s birthday with more than just a party. Sixty graduating students at VBS worked for eight months on a 15 x 40-foot outdoor mural to express their love for Israel and peace. The mural contains the portraits of five of Israel’s founding giants, Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Yehuda, Golda Meir, and David Ben-Gurion. The faces, surrounded by 50 doves, envelope a map of Israel with the words of the Hatikvah.

The mural, dedicated to the memory of Israelis who lost their loves to terrorist activity, instilled within the students a veneration for Israel’s heroes, said Yafa Saghian, VBS art director. Especially in a day and age where violence is unduly prevalent, VBS wanted students to creatively honor peaceful and heroic actions. Even in 20 years from now, students will be able to visit the wall and reconnect to the achievements of Israel and the achievements of their youth.– Orit Arfa

Cantor Fox Trots In

Bringing the taste of Jerusalem — with a touch of summer camp and a hint of Southern California — to West Hills, Joel Fox will begin as new pulpit cantor at Shomrei Torah Synagogue at the end of this month.

Fox, whose latest post was in La Jolla, was lead baritone at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and served as a member of the Army Rabbinical Choir for the Israel Defense Forces, where he served.

He has studied music and chazzanut in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and was head of the music at Camp Ramah in Massachusetts. Cantor Fox will join Rabbi Eli Schochet, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Cantor Emeritus Avrum Schwartz at Shomrei Torah. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax