A massive crowd of supporters from the Jewish community and beyond filled the ballroom at the Grand Hyatt New York at this year’s Chabad Children of Chernobyl (CCOC) Gala Dinner on November 19 to demonstrate their appreciation of the organization that does everything possible to care for the countless children suffering the aftereffects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster nearly 26 years ago.
The evening was highlighted by the appearance of various “entertainment” personalities, which is the result of CCOC being chaired by many of the top entertainment figures in the world today. As famed movie producer Steven Spielberg and his family are ardent supports of this unique organization, Spielberg’s sister Nancy Spielberg Katz and her husband Shimon Y. Katz, and the producer’s mother Leah Spielberg Adler – all three of whom expend great time and effort to put together the fundraisers necessary to support the work of CCOC - attended the special event.
The nuclear “meltdown” tragedy at Chernobyl in the Ukraine took place on April 26, 1986, yet the effects of that tragedy are still prominent and in many ways coming to light at this time.
The disaster released huge amounts of radiation which ultimately destroyed and endangered life both in the immediate environment of Chernobyl and in neighboring towns in the Ukraine and Belarus. Many of these towns, such as Minsk, had very large Jewish populations. The huge amount of radiation not only killed people, vegetation and animals, but spread over many parts of the USSR and Europe.
Over 350,000 people were rescued and moved away from the epicenter of the tragedy, but millions more were exposed to high levels of radiation, which would have dire consequences years later. The levels of diseases such as cancer are infinitely higher in populations that were near Chernobyl than in other parts of the world.
Chabad Children of Chernobyl was founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt”l, who in his infinite wisdom and knowledge of science knew that merely moving children a few hundred miles away would not put them in a safe situation. Diseases such as cancer often occur because of cumulative genetic damage, and are even more dangerous in children who would be exposed to the radiation for a longer period of time.
The Rebbe asked Rabbi Yossie Raichik z”l to create the CCOC organization in 1990 to rescue the children in the environs of Chernobyl and bring them into a safe haven. In addition, many of the children were very ill and many were becoming ill, and they needed top level medical care to cure them of their cancers and birth defects. Rabbi Raichik served as Director of Chabad Children of Chernobyl for 18 years until his untimely passing four years ago. Over 2,835 children have been saved on 98 rescue missions and the work still goes on, as the effects of the disaster continue to be felt worldwide. The majority of the children have been sent to Israel for treatment in Israel’s best medical institutions.
Following Rabbi Raichik, Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov took the helm of CCOC four years ago. He often travels to the Ukraine and Belarus searching for more victims of the tragedy to bring “home” to Israel.
In addition to the Spielbergs, highly regarded actor Jon Voight has been involved with CCOC for many years. Voight speaks passionately about his involvement with the children and his many trips to Israel and to Kfar Chabad.
Speaking with the Jewish Voice, Voight was asked why he decided to get so involved with the organization. He responded that he made a movie in the early 1990’s about the Chernobyl disaster and the children it affected, and he was looking to get involved with some outreach organization to help these unfortunate youngsters. “I found out that this group, Chabad, was doing something exactly for these kids,” Voight said. “I felt this was a G-d send and this was a natural partnership.”
This year’s dinner honored Gale Epstein and Lida Orzeck of the unique clothing and accessory company Hanky Panky with the Beyond the Call Award, Lawrence B. Benenson of Benenson Capital Partners with the Humanitarian Award, and Debby Tabacinic Aqua for her Young Leadership activities.
In one of the evening’s emotional highlights, Rabbi Swerdlov related a story about one of the Chernobyl children who went though double heart surgery in Israel years ago, and today is running, climbing and playing like a child should. Rabbi Swerdlov thanked all the participants and honorees stating, “Mazel Tov, your commitment to the children is saving lives. There is no greater mitzvah.”