Kids of Courage

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 ]
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.

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11 Responses

  1. Gershon Spiegel says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, As a grateful parent of one of the Los Angeles based KOC and a regular reader of Cross-Currents, I was suprised and gratified to see your description of the event my daughter just attended. What a week she had with her favorite counselors, doctor & Medic from Camp Simcha Special. The enormity of the logistics involved is mind boggling but Dr. D, Howie and your son carried it off without a hitch. Our daughter Miriam who has profound handicaps manages to lead a pretty normal life for a frum 16 year old. She attends Bais Yaakov Los Angeles with her own nurse and is busy texting to all of her friends from Camp Simcha or locally whenever she has a chance. But after eight years of Camp Simcha Special, it is clear that her whole year revolves around Attending Camp Simcha where she has made lifelong friends and where she can truly be herself.

  2. Ken Applebaum says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein, all I can say about the wonderful event that your son and the other support personnel made happen is that I am jealous of their z’chus (merit).

    Have a wonderful Purim and may Hashem soon bring the time when all our infirmities (physical and spiritual) are healed.

    Kenny Applebaum

  3. Pesach Sommer says:

    Chai Lifeline, like many wonderful organizations, needs help at this time. If this article is inspiring, let it inspire you to open your wallet as well.

  4. Sara says:

    Your beautiful article really sums this trip up in a nutshell. As the nurse on the trip, I have been priveleged to work with some awesome people and the most amazing kids in the world. Their courage is inspiring, their determination is incredible, and I am so lucky to have been able to be a part of this. Kudos to Ari and Howie for making the dream a reality

  5. Raymond says:

    I am so curious to know which Adlerstein son engaged in an activity so noble that it almost passes my understanding.

    I suppose it is true that everybody has their own handicaps and/or weaknesses. I am clearly not a good person at all compared to the supremely altruistic people described in this article; to be perfectly honest about it, I shun such activities, preferring to attach myself to the people in history who have made the most positive, longlasting, significant impact on the most people.

    Dealing with such unfortunate people, in such sharp contrast, is simply something my apparently very limited soul has very little capacity for. Or maybe my nature is too sensitive to withstand the pain I would immediately feel when around such people who constantly suffer through no fault of their own. Being anywhere close to where they are, I would probably not be able to stop crying…and if I do not stop writing this, I may cry, even now.

  6. tzippi says:

    Re 5: having the capacity to cry at another Jew’s pain is no small accomplishment.

  7. cvmay says:

    Thank You Rabbi Adlerstein for an inspiring account of a true chesed for others, a perfect post Purim desert.
    The frum kehilla is able to love/respect/admire/ &care for those with physical disabilities as part and parcel of our Jewish nation (as they are b”h). Why is it that we do not share the same feelings towards those with spiritual disabilities? Our relationship to persons with different hashkafa/halachaic/daas torah behaviour is one of unacceptability and outright disdain.

    Let us look at the words of Chumash for the proper understanding:
    “HKBH recognizes the sinner (spiritual not physical) 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.”

    WHAT & WHO is an imperfect person? Is the imperfection physical, emotional or spiritual……..or DOES IT MATTER AT ALL?????

  8. Raymond says:

    To Tzippi whoever you are, thank you for your kind words. Sometimes I need to be reminded that I am not such an unworthy or bad person after all.

    As for all of us having various handicaps, I would like to relate a recent experience I had at my work involving two of my co-workers. I will try to keep this just to the punchline.

    The two co-workers in question, are very polite, friendly, helpful, wonderfully pleasant people to be around. Both are very intelligent and educated people; in fact, one has a graduate degree from Stanford University. Yet after more than a year of working with them, I recently discovered that one is a terrible antisemite; she regards the Torah as a book of hate and equates Zionism with naziism. The other woman not only supports abortion and euthanasia, but also seriously advocates genocide against half the human race. Neither of them ever even read the Torah, not even once, in their entire lives.

    I think that wisdom is far more important than either intelligence or formal education, and that wisdom is a whole lot more difficult to come by without the Torah. The Torah, in effect, tries to teach us wisdom from its words, so as to save us from having to learn about the realities of life directly from the school of hard knocks.

    These two women I mentioned, have little or no wisdom. Whatever education they have, is next to worthless. They know nothing about true moral values, because they know nothing about the Torah. It is no wonder, then, that they hold such outrageous views on life, because they have no guide to lead them to a straighter path. These women are truly handicapped.

  9. Toby Katz says:

    “The frum kehilla is able to love/respect/admire/ &care for those with physical disabilities as part and parcel of our Jewish nation (as they are b”h). Why is it that we do not share the same feelings towards those with spiritual disabilities? Our relationship to persons with different hashkafa/halachaic/daas torah behaviour is one of unacceptability and outright disdain. ”


    Not everyone in the frum community is able to relate to severely handicapped people. We all feel sympathy, but to be able to really get involved and do hands-on chessed takes a special kind of person.

    Conversely, the majority of Orthodox Jews do deeply desire a close connection with those who have “spiritual disabilities.” In a way, every person alive has “spiritual disabilities.” We all fall short of our own ideals. But as a general principle, Orthodox Jews do open their hearts to fellow Jews with “different hashkafa/halachaic/daas torah behaviour.” You constantly find that when a Jew is in some kind of trouble — loses a job or a home, faces illness or personal troubles — that other Jews reach out to help, regardless of hashkafic differences.

    Think what happens if you see an Orthodox Jew on the side of the road, on the way up to the Catskills, changing a flat tire, while his little kids are in the car crying. It doesn’t matter what kind of headgear he is wearing; if he is identifiably Jewish, other Jews will stop and offer help, regardless of hashkafic differences.

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I hope that’s true. Here in Israel people don’t always take care of people who are identified as “them”.

    BTW, are you guys still recovering from Purim, or what? Must be Pesach cleaning by now. Hope to see a new post or two soon.

  11. sima ir kodesh says:

    Toby, I relate to your POV but it is not a MAJORITY consensus.

    “if he is identifiably Jewish” – Many of our holy Jewish brothers & sisters do not look identifiably Jewish. Therefore…..

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