Israel’s oldest charity organization Colel Chabad has a long history of building Jewish life in Israel. From helping Israel’s early settlers scratch out a living in 1778 to supporting thousands of needy Jews throughout the country today, it remains one of the best-known and most diverse charities in Israel.

“There is a unique and special mitzvah (good deed commanded by God) in building and supporting and helping Israel,” explained Rabbi M. Lieberman, a director of Colel Chabad’s camp program for hospitalized children, to Breaking Israel News.

These summer camps are among Colel Chabad’s most unique and touching projects, giving sick kids a way to enjoy their summers by providing regular camp activities they might be missing, and restoring to them a sense of normalcy and freedom that is often stolen away by a stay in the hospital.

The summer program, which Colel Chabad has been running for over 20 years at hospitals in Rehovot and Ashkelon, enables sick kids who are stuck in the hospital for treatment during the summer months to go to “camp” – special activities rooms set up for arts and crafts, games, and play.

Without the camps, explained Rivka Gruzman, a coordinator for the program, the kids would be bored, inactive and unhappy. During the school year, the children receive tutoring daily, but over the summer break, there is precious little in the way of activities to keep their minds active and off their illnesses and injuries.

In Rehovot’s Kaplan Medical Center, a little boy enters a small, neat room filled with art supplies decorated with colorful posters and banners. He receives a special Colel Chabad t-shirt to protect his clothes while he works. A counselor gives him a funny hat and a set of markers, and he kneels studiously at the work table to color. Hanging on the wall is a collection of photos and thank-you notes from past campers. It is clear that the room is a bright haven for kids in the institutional setting of the hospital.

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Colel Chabad brings all of their own camp equipment, down to the last colored pencil, said Lieberman. They provide arts and crafts supplies, games, puzzles, t-shirts – everything that is needed. Though the room is a schoolroom year-round, the teachers prefer that the camp not use their supplies, Lieberman explained. The camp is run mostly on donations.

Camp participants range in age from toddlers up until 18. Because of the nature of hospitals, kids are always coming and going. Some children might be in the hospital for a few days recovering from a broken leg, while others have chronic diseases that keep them hospitalized for weeks or months.

For the parents, the camp is a godsend, said Gruzman. It keeps the children occupied during non-visiting hours, when they are alone, and it provides the kids with personalized care and attention from the volunteer camp counselors. “The mothers are very thankful,” she said. Gruzman recalled a mother who told her, “I don’t believe he’s smiling and happy, he was crying all day.”

“The kids are isolated,” she said. “We want to make it as close to a regular camp as possible, because some of them are missing real camp with their friends.”

During last year’s summer war with Gaza, the camps provided comfort not only for children, but for mothers as well. With their husbands called up for military reserve duty and their children in the hospital, many turned to Colel Chabad for support. “We listened to them and comforted them,” Gruzman said.

Lieberman pointed out that the program is helpful not only for parents but for the medical staff too. It keeps kids from running around and disrupting the ward. “The camp lets the doctors do their work, and the nurses be more effective,” he said.

Colel Chabad's camp room at Barzilai Medical Center. (Photo: Breaking Israel News)

Colel Chabad’s camp room at Barzilai Medical Center. (Photo: Breaking Israel News)

At the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, the camp is slightly larger, and games and puzzles are stacked floor-to-ceiling. The room is decorated with kids’ artwork and filled with stuffed animals, books, and toys, as well as computers for the campers, which are usually occupied.

A father helps his son piece together a Spiderman puzzle, while other patients play computer games. The atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful in the afternoon hours, but in the mornings, says the counselor, the place is packed, with every seat filled.

The organization has an eye to the future, planning new projects to further enhance the kids’ experience in the hospital. “We want to bring in more activities,” Lieberman explained. “We’d really like to train one of our staff to become a medical clown.”

Colel Chabad also runs a winter program providing generous Hanukkah gifts to hospitalized children in many hospitals throughout Israel. “The mitzvah is to make the children happy, to help them enjoy the Hanukkah holiday” despite being hospitalized, said Lieberman. The gifts give joy to kids who are desperately in need of it.

The Colel Chabad hospital camps are for everyone who needs them, Lieberman emphasized. “We get kids of all denominations,” he said. “Chabad cares for everyone.”