Rabbi Chananya Chollak, Founder and International Chairman of Ezer Mizion, is available for phone consultations almost all the time. As he sees it, there is no other possibility, since it might be a matter of pikuach nefesh, life or death.
Rivky Goldfinger, 17 Tevet 5778 – Jan. 4, 2018 – 12:16
Rabbi Chollak: “Ezer Mizion is a mission”
The log on Rabbi Chananya Chollak’s cellular phone provides proof of calls that took place in the wee hours of the night.
The night before the interview, for example, the phone rang at three in the morning. On the line was a frightened son. His father is a terminally ill patient whose breathing is supported by an oxygen tank. The son had just realized that the tank was almost completely empty and he was concerned for his father’s life. Rabbi Chollak calmed him down and arranged for a full tank to be delivered immediately by Ezer Mizion. Only after he had confirmed that it had arrived at its destination did he go back to sleep.
Rabbi Chollak, one of the most admired chessed personalities in Israel, works around the clock and keeps a packed and intensive schedule. From his point of view, there is no other way: “We serve as a supportive crutch for many parents, families, and children. It’s day and night, Shabbat and Yom Tov. It never stops,” he explains very simply. “For example, a few weeks ago, on Friday night, I was sitting in shul. Suddenly, someone tapped me on the back and asked me to close my siddur and quickly go outside with him. He told me of the tragic death of a young father, and asked me, at the request of the shocked wife who was still in the hospital, to give the terrible news to the children. Of course, I immediately went to their house.”
“Many times, I go to sleep at night and think to myself: ‘Ribono shel Olam, what will the morrow bring? Who will be the unfortunate caller?’ It is definitely not easy. There are heartrending stories. A young mother with cancer, who passed away recently, taught her son how to say Kaddish before she died. A mother teaching her son how to say Kaddish for herself – it’s beyond comprehension. I see very many troubles and calamities. But with all that, I think I’m a happy person and thankful for everything I have. Ezer Mizion is a mission, and I believe that I have received special capabilities from the Creator for that purpose.”
An Ambulance Is Born
Rabbi Chollak was led to establish Ezer Mizion by his own personal experience. Two months after he’d gotten married, his father-in-law, a man in his fifties, had a stroke. “For a year, my father-in-law was in and out of the hospital. That year, I was exposed to the almost impossible struggles experienced by families of patients. There was a little girl there with cancer. Her parents didn’t leave her bedside for days and nights. I thought to myself, ‘What about the children at home? Who is taking care of their needs?’ I spoke with my wife Leah and we tried to think together how we could help that family. We recruited a few neighbors and took turns seeing to hot meals and taking shifts at the girl’s bedside, so that the parents could freshen up a bit and recharge their batteries and also spend some time with their other children. That’s how we started, on a small scale,” he recalls.
“With time, more people asked for help. The circle of volunteers and scope of activity gradually expanded. In the hospital, I saw patients who needed to come in for dialysis three times a week. That meant that they had to arrange six trips, back and forth to the hospital, every week. That’s a lot. I met with a friend who had a big van and told him about these families’ hardship. He hitched up to the cause and gave us his vehicle. We adapted the van into an ambulance, and that was our first ambulance. That’s how we started driving patients to hospitals.”
When the organization first began in 1979, all activities were focused in the Chollak family’s tiny home. “Everything worked out of our little apartment,” he chuckles. “The receptionist sat in the kitchen or the children’s bedroom. I sat in a cubicle of sorts at the entrance, and in the half-room sat the people waiting for consultations. Volunteers came to us to work on meals for distribution and they organized themselves in the bedrooms. The medical equipment that we gave out was stored at home. The house was wide open to everyone, all the time.
Three years later, Rabbi Chollak felt that the apartment had become too small to accommodate their needs and that the time had come to expand the work of the organization in an orderly manner. “We moved to a larger apartment but the organization quickly outgrew that too. A philanthropist helped us buy the apartment next door. Later on, we rented a few more such places around the city, and the organization continued providing solutions for existing problems and developing further, without a stop. We’ve come a long way, baruch Hashem. At the start, we delivered meals to a handful of families; today, we deliver hundreds of meals each day to families escorting patients in hospitals, to afternoon programs for special children, and to families whose intensive attention to a patient does not enable them to cook for the rest of the family.”
Today, Ezer Mizion works from a countrywide deployment of 57 branches. In addition, for the last dozen years, the focal point of the organization’s activities has been in its Jacob Fried national center building in Bnei Brak. The building houses a division for loan of medical equipment, a hydrotherapy pool, a center for medical counseling and referrals, a division for social services, day nurseries for special needs children, a child development division, and more. The organization has a network of thousands of volunteers at its disposal throughout the country, as well as an ambulance fleet for transport of patients.
Another project, founded about two decades ago together with Motty z”l and Bracha Zisser, is Ezer Mizion’s International Bone Marrow Donor Registry. This is the largest Jewish bone marrow registry in the world, numbering 877,315 potential donors, thanks to whom 2,657 lifesaving transplants have taken place to date. Together with the Zisser family, they also established Oranit in Petach Tikvah, a cancer patient guest home and cancer patient services center for patients with cancer and their families. The organization has won many awards for their diverse activities, among them, the prestigious Israel Prize in 2008.
“At Ezer Mizion, we try to provide a systematic response for sick people who are going through a most difficult time in their lives,” Rabbi Chollak defines the goal that he has set for the organization’s work. “We provide the patient with an all-embracing support system, including initial medical counseling, loan of medical equipment, help with the children at home, and more.
“Take for example, the case of a woman who becomes ill. She needs, first of all, to go for medical counseling to help her decide what specialist to go to. We get dozens of calls like this to the medical counseling department every day. Later on, the doctor sends her for tests, either in the hospital, a testing lab, or the local Kupat Cholim. Not infrequently, we encounter absurd situations in which critical tests are set for several months hence. The woman can call us, and we will do what we can to move the test to an earlier date. Afterwards, we will refer her to the appropriate specialist or senior surgeon, and then, when she is receiving chemotherapy treatments, we will see to her needs.
“In addition, we also place an emphasis on what is going on at home with the children all that time. Very often, when a parent has a serious illness and is away from home, the children go through a tremendously difficult time and are in a fragile emotional state. Suddenly, the girl has trouble paying attention in school, or the little boy has tantrums in preschool. We have psychologists and professional therapists who provide these children with emotional therapy. Support groups are run for the patients themselves and for their spouses. Having personally experienced this challenge of a sick spouse, I know exactly what it means to see the person closest to you suffering and fighting a battle for life. It tears the heart to the core,” he sighs. “It was from a deep familiarity with the situation on the field that we created this broad-based services cushion, so as to help the patient and his family at their most difficult hour.”
Services are provided to all applicants, Rabbi Chollak stresses. “The entire range of the Jewish people comes to us – secular, religious, Chareidi, everybody. Our services are granted to all populations: elderly, lonely Holocaust survivors, who receive meals delivered to their home, mentally ill individuals, families of Alzheimer’s patients, cancer, and more. Unfortunately, the need for help is great and we try to help however we can to anyone who requests our assistance.”
Twelve Children and Another Four
Rabbi Chananya Chollak (64) was born and raised in Bnei Brak. He applies his aspiration to live a life of chessed in his personal life as well. He is the father of 16 children, four of them adopted. “I met them in the course of my work at Ezer Mizion. There was a family of immigrants from Iran. The mother was stricken with cancer. There were four little children. I came to them for a home visit and saw the terrible poverty in which they lived. The refrigerator was totally empty. We brought volunteers and hot meals into the house, and we tried to help with the mother’s treatment as much as we could. Two years later, she passed away. A half year afterwards, the father also died of a brain tumor. The four orphans remained all alone.”
“After the shivah, the oldest daughter, who was then 13 years old, came to me,” he says, and in spite of the many years that have elapsed since, his voice trembles. “She cried when she told me that they were informed that the plan was to split them up among different institutions. Suddenly, she looked me in the eye and asked, “Maybe you could adopt us…?” I spoke with my wife and said to her: ‘It’s a heartbreaking situation, but I can’t tell you what to do. It is entirely your decision.’ My wife the tzaddeket agreed to take them,” he said with visible admiration.
Rav Chollak relates very naturally to the adoption of the four orphans and explains that they are his children in every respect. “All in all, it was the expected humane thing to do. They were little orphans who had simultaneously lost father and mother and we were there for them. True, the beginning was not easy. But our natural children received them with a lot of love and they became an inseparable part of the family. Today the four are already married and we have grandchildren from them,” he says proudly.
The many tragedies that Rabbi Chollak is exposed to in the course of his work did not immunize him to the personal tragedy that struck: About three years ago, his wife and the mother of his children, Leah, passed away after battling cancer. She was 57, right in the middle of her life. From the start, the doctors had said that the situation was not simple, but that for her kind of cancer, you can usually stretch things out for about eight years. Sadly, it did not take long; she died a little over a year later. Her death was a heavy blow that he needed to recover from. Now, there is a happy atmosphere at home. “We knew that Hashem did not want us to be broken by it,” he shares.
“It is important for me to stress that Leah z”l built Ezer Mizion together with me, with her own hands. I didn’t do anything alone. She was a great woman, full of life wisdom. If she had not dedicated herself to this project – it definitely would not have been able to grow and develop as it did. She is a full partner in the establishment of this huge enterprise.”
You and your wife took care of so many sick people, and now, she herself succumbed to the illness and is no longer with us. Do you feel any anger?
“I was once delivering a talk, when one of the women got up and asked me, ‘How is it that G-d took Leah the tzaddeket, when she did – and you do – so much chessed?’ I told her, ‘Look, I don’t know any more than you do. I believe that the supreme purpose of the Creation is to do good for the creations. Hashem does only good, so it cannot be that He did something not good to me.’ We don’t understand and we don’t ask questions. We are merely human beings. I don’t try to understand, and it is clear to me that there are things that cannot be understood by the human mind. We try to be good people and hope that things will be better.”
At the conclusion of the year of mourning, Rabbi Chollak married Rut Cohen. The wedding was held in a limited forum of close friends and family. “After Leah’s death, it was hard for me to think about remarrying,” he says frankly. “A few months later, when one of the rabbanim came to speak with me about the topic, I told him, ‘Rabbi, I’m a wounded man. What are you talking about?’ But Hashem makes matches, and at the end of the year of mourning, I married Rut, a special, wonderful woman. I received a true partner.”
A Kibbutznik’s Question
Many times, Rabbi Chollak is given the job of giving family members bad news or informing them of a tragic accident. “I am like the town-major, going to tell people about the death of their loved one or that their relative was diagnosed with cancer or was hurt in a road accident. Unfortunately, I’ve accumulated experience in this, and when there was a time of repeated terrorist attacks, I taught a group of people in Tel Aviv how to do so with wisdom and sensitivity.”
Every Tuesday, Rabbi Chollak goes to visit patients in the various wards of Tel Hashomer Medical Center. One – he encourages with a hug and a good word. Another – he helps refer to the appropriate specialist or senior surgeon. A third – he directs to a helpful professional personality. “The scenes are not easy to see,” he admits. “Not long ago, I met with parents of a little girl with a cancerous brain tumor. The doctors had already given up on her. You can’t imagine the parents’ pain. It shatters the heart.”
What do you say to parents in such a situation?
“You know that your job at this time is to encourage them. Before anything else, you have to understand and appreciate their horrible distress, their inconceivable pain. At the next stage, you need to know how to give these aching people the tools to cope and get through this difficult and complex period. I told them: “You are real heroes and you have unusual inner strength. You were privileged to have a very special little girl. Rally the strength for her sake and for the precious children waiting for you at home. They need you.”
Rabbi Chollak expresses his admiration for the Dati-Leumi (National-Religious) community who are, as he puts it, partners on the way. “The Dati-Leumi sector is a full partner in Ezer Mizion’s activities and the extensive chessed that we do. Many of their girls volunteer at our summer camps for cancer patients, in hospitals, and with food distribution. Whether they hail from settlements in Shomron, from the South or North, from Petach Tikvah, Raanana, or Jerusalem, they all rally to this important cause. Take, for example, the “Lifesaving Communities” project, which began in Moshav Nechalim with Uri and Nurit Cohen. It is thanks to them that this important initiative was launched here in Israel. Many more communities in Modi’in, Elkanah, and other places have joined them in their goal to sponsor more members when they join the Bone Marrow Registry and save more lives.
“I think that this is the beauty of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Chollak. “Everyone unites in order to save lives. You see it tangibly at the meetings of stem cell donors and their recipients. They embrace emotionally – a secular fellow who saved a Chareidi, a Dati-Leumi who saved an irreligious person. There are no differences and no barriers. That is really marvelous in my eyes,” he says with a smile. “A few years ago, ex-president Ezer Weizman put it very well when he said: ‘There is no organization that bridges the gap between the religious and the secular as Ezer Mizion.’ And that’s the truth! You see it very powerfully at our summer retreats, how everyone spends time together in amazing unity. We are all brothers in times of misfortune, when we look at the next person with a humane and positive eye.”
Rabbi Chollak recalls how, at one of the retreats, a woman came over to him, a mother of three children from a kibbutz in the North, and said defiantly, ‘I am irreligious and an extreme Leftist. When I came to the retreat, I was afraid that you’d try to convert me into a baalat teshuvah. Now I see that all you want is that we should enjoy ourselves at the retreat. Excuse me, I just can’t understand – why is it important to you that I should be happy?’
“I answered her, ‘When you’re happy – I’m happy.’ I don’t understand why, just because she has opinions that are different from mine, I shouldn’t want her to be happy. Let’s break down the barriers of polarity and groundless hatred, and instead, focus on the good and look at others with a positive view. I always tell people: ‘You’re happy? You have a job? Sweet kids? Where is your appreciation to the Creator for all the good He showers on you? The thanks should be that you do good for others!’ Devote some time to others once a week, even once a month, just do something. Cook a meal for a needy family. Do you play an instrument? Go cheer up hospital patients. Are you a psychologist? Take on a patient gratis. Donate a bone marrow sample; you might even be privileged to save a life. Not just ‘me, me, me.’ Step out of yourself. That is part of how we thank Hashem, and there is no greater pleasure than giving to others.”
Fundraising Campaign: “A Broad Service Cushion Needs Funding”
At this time, Ezer Mizion is running the “Lifesaving Prize” fundraising campaign, during which volunteers will be going around the country and recruiting donations for the organization’s work. “Throughout the year, Ezer Mizion is there for anyone who needs help. But this time, Ezer Mizion is turning to you and asking for your help,” says Rabbi Chollak. “We need your partnership in our efforts to support the population of patients and their families and to relieve their load. The hardships are great and the needs are many. ‘Lifesaving Prize’ is a unique initiative in which you can join us in supporting and relieving them and literally saving lives – and also win prizes. Every donation gives the donor, not only the merit of an act of chessed, but also a raffle ticket for prizes, including a car, furniture, electrical appliances, plane trips abroad, and more.
Some people might argue that Ezer Mizion is an established, veteran entity and that it is preferable to donate to smaller organizations.
“Ezer Mizion is an organization that provides assistance to very many populations: patients with cancer and other serious illnesses, mentally ill, children with special needs, seniors, and more. We give everyone a broad range of services to help them and ease their struggle: ambulances, hot meals, medical and rehabilitative equipment, medical counseling and referral, innovative therapies and treatments, summer camps and retreats, and more.
“The cost of operating all of these services is very steep, and that is precisely the reason why Ezer Mizion in particular needs the help of the public – specifically because of our commitments in so many areas and to so many patients and families who need this important help.”