A Cedarhurst family has joined forces with their community to form Team Jacob, in support of Jacob Hersko, a sixth-grader at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway Middle School who has short bowel syndrome, a severe digestive disorder. Team members plan to raise money by running in the Miami Marathon on Feb. 6.
Not long after he was born, Jacob, who’s now 11, was diagnosed with the condition, which necessitated the removal of 80 percent of his small intestine.
He spent most of the first year of his life in the Cohen Children’s Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where his mother, Rachel Hersko, connected with a liaison from the Manhattan-based Chai Lifeline, an international children’s health organization that helps young patients and their families who are coping with the challenges of lifelong, life-threatening illnesses. Jacob continues to face health challenges such as malabsorption, difficulty digesting the nutrients in food, which leads to malnutrition.
Chai Lifeline has indeed been a lifeline for the Herskos: Its volunteers have cared for Jacob to give Rachel and her husband, Geoff, some downtime. Jacob has a 14-year-old sister, Olivia, and a 6-year-old brother, Ethan.
The organization also makes sure the family has a hot meal available at home after spending a day in the hospital, helps the Herskos connect with specialists and facilitates medical appointments.
Three years ago, Jacob started attending Camp Simcha Special, a medically supervised overnight camp in the Catskill Mountains for children with chronic illnesses, genetic disorders or physical disabilities run by Chai Lifeline.
Around that time, Rachel learned that people from across the country band together to take part in the Miami Marathon for Chai Lifeline, calling themselves Team Lifeline.
The team of runners — 420 strong this year — raises money for children with life-threatening or lifelong illness. Jacob and Rachel took part in their first half marathons in Miami as part of Team Lifeline in 2019 and in 2020.
This year, to give back to Chai Lifeline after all the organization has done for Jacob, the Herskos will participate with Team Lifeline as a subgroup of 25 called Team Jacob, composed of immediate and extended family members, Rachel’s and Jacob’s friends and Jacob’s HAFTR Middle School sixth grade teacher, Rabbi Chaim Siff.
“It’s really incredible to just feel the love and support from a community,” Rachel said. “From friends, from teachers — I mean, it’s very special for us, and I really can’t imagine doing it without them at this point. We’re very blessed.”
Team Jacob started fundraising last September, and collected nearly $9,000 in its first two weeks. Jacob and his friends helped out, raising money through bake sales for the Jewish holidays at HAFTR. There were also customized Team Jacob yarmulkes for sale.
“When some of my students asked if I wanted to contribute to their fundraiser, I was happy to,” Siff said. “When I found out it was to raise money in honor of their friend, my wonderful student, and Chai Lifeline, I knew I wanted to take part in a bigger way.”
Team Jacob has now raised nearly $150,000. “The boys really ran the show,” Rachel said.
Because of his condition, Jacob is different than his classmates — starting with the feeding tube on his back — but that hasn’t stopped him from making supportive friends.
Six of his friends are going to Miami to race, and have been training on the Atlantic Beach boardwalk to push Jacob in a racing stroller.
Team Jacob will gather in Miami with Team Lifeline members, many of whom are recovered patients, family members of sick children and those running in memory of kids who have lost their battles with illness.
“Those who join our team are not simply united in the personal goal of crossing the finish line or crossing this off their bucket list,” Team Lifeline Director Moshe Turk said. “They are a special caliber of people, connected by a sense of dedication and determination to use this experience to help others.”
Rabbi Simcha Scholar, CEO of Chai Lifeline, saluted the runners and said he takes great pride in the community that comes together in support of Chai Lifeline families.
“Each year we are more and more encouraged by how many choose to come out and train for these physically challenging events,” Scholar said. “Literally every step these athletes will be taking is helping a sick child and family, and that is an incredible thing to witness and support.”
Chai Lifeline provides children and families with programs and services including counseling, case management, insurance and medical advocacy, financial assistance, meals, transportation to medical appointments, retreats, crisis interventions, and the summer camps, Camp Simcha, Camp Simcha Special and Camp Simcha Without Borders.
All of its services are free of charge. To learn more, go to www.chailifeline.org.