Rabbi Kalman Akiva and Michal Kovac welcomed a new baby and Chai Lifeline into their growing family at exactly the same time. Michal was 9 months pregnant when she and her husband received the shocking news that their 10-year-old son, Yehuda, had cancer. “It all happened so fast. He needed pretty aggressive treatment,” recounts Baltimore native Kovacs. “Chai Lifeline came in before we knew it was cancer and even knew we needed help. They helped us figure it out, even if I didn’t know what I needed.”
Chai Lifeline, founded in 1987 by Rabbi Simcha Scholar to serve New York-area Jewish children with cancer, soon grew to serve children in Florida and Israel. Chai Lifeline is now a leading international children’s health support network, providing social, emotional and fiscal assistance to children with life-threatening and lifelong illnesses (and their families) through a variety of year-round programs and services.
From the moment of diagnosis or trauma, Chai Lifeline’s professionals and trained, compassionate volunteers step in to help restore equilibrium and bring joy and hope back into lives devastated by illness and crises.
In addition to providing the support of professionals and trained volunteers to children and families, Chai Lifeline offers crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement services through Project Chai. These services are offered to kids, families, communities, schools, synagogues and local organizations following an illness diagnosis, sudden death, terror attack, natural disaster and all forms of trauma.
Chai Lifeline’s Mid-Atlantic region recently hired Racheli Daniel to serves as its regional director. Daniel served as chair of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School Science Department and has previous experience as an educator at various Baltimore-area institutions. Daniel will oversee a dedicated team of professional staff and volunteers who support more than 80 Chai Lifeline families across the Mid-Atlantic Region.
“We are excited to welcome Racheli Daniel to the Chai Lifeline family,” says Rabbi Simcha Scholar, CEO of Chai Lifeline. “As an active member of the Baltimore community, she truly understands the needs of our families, and is committed to growing and strengthening Chai Lifeline’s impact in the region.”
Rabbi Mordechai Gobioff, national director of client services, adds that she “brings vast programmatic and administrative experience, as well as fresh energy and enthusiasm, to the organization.”
As for Daniel, she is looking forward to “working with my team to realize the organization’s critical mission. I loved working with people in schools and working with children my entire career. This new position allows me to continue working with kids and families; it is very much part of my calling. It fills my need to give back to the community as well.”
She also points out being impressed with the “diversity and unity” of the Baltimore Jewish community.
‘They do it so lovingly’
Daniel shares the fourfold mission of Chai Lifeline: crisis management, family stability, advocacy and emotional support.
While Chai Lifeline is perhaps best known for its support for children with cancer and their families — and for a summer Bike4Chai charity bike ride — Daniel notes the range of services “big and small” they offer to individuals, families and the community.
“Sometimes, a person just needs something to drink or some kosher gum,” attests Daniel, who recently recounted a request by a mother who “badly needed” a soda but didn’t want to miss meeting with the doctor who was scheduled to visit her child’s room at some point in the day.
Various times of the year can be particularly difficult for Jewish families dealing with medical crises. Daniel describes how the fall months require attention to High Holiday preparation details, which can be overlooked when a family has to deal with treatments.
“We sometimes provide gift cards for clothes, paper goods and cleaning help for the holidays, and assistance with getting siblings to participate in trips over Chol Hamoed,” the intermediate days of longer Jewish holidays such as Passover and Sukkot.
Kovacs is indebted to Daniel and her team for all of the support Chai Lifeline provided. She highlights the important role they played in reaching out to her other children. “When all else was chaos, they took the other kids out. They took one of the worst times in our lives and made fond memories,” says this appreciative mother.
She highlights Chai Lifeline’s unique ability to “meet me where I was” and “ask what they thought I need to be asking when I didn’t even know what I needed.” She adds that “they never make you feel guilty about taking and asking and taking help. They do it so lovingly.”
Kovacs shares her own “soda story,” noting that a Chai Lifeline volunteers’ willingness to bring her son a Diet Coke “saved my son from getting a feeding tube since he was losing weight very quickly.” Volunteers understood that Yehuda desperately needed to drink and eat. “What he craved, they got — volunteers brought steak, Dunkin Donuts and pizza at various times.”
Kovacs notes somewhat ironically that, prior to Yehuda’s cancer diagnosis, her husband “did the Bike4 Chai” to help raise money for Chai Lifeline. “We never thought it would circle back for us,” she acknowledges.
The family is delighted to report that Yehuda recently “rang the bell,” the ritual that marks completion of medical treatment. He is now back to learning with friends in fifth grade at Talmudical Academy. “Chai Lifeline is still with use every step of the way still,” she says, “even after he rang the bell!”