"The best way to take care of Jeremy was to take care of our kids."
How Pamela Becker and her late husband, Jeremy Coleman, z'l, took kindness extended to them and transformed it into a national Israeli support organization.
Here is what we have planned for this week (subject to changes as the new cycle requires):
Sunday: the music video, “I don’t hate,” which more or less shows how much people do hate, even if they are trying not to.
Monday : the numerous suggestions that it’s time for Israel to split into two countries (available in full to paid subscribers).
Tuesday (today): a podcast (available to everyone) with the founder of Jeremy’s Circle, an organization that provides support to the children of families who have a family member struggling with a critical disease.
Wednesday: a podcast (available in full to paid subscribers) with the founders of The Thinker’s Distillery, a distillery in Jerusalem that you’ve likely never heard of, which has a distinctly start-up-nation vibe.
Thursday: Israel tragically lost a brave, creative Israeli-Arab educator on Friday, when Dr. Dalia Fadila drowned off the Herzliya beach. When we ran our podcast with Dalia almost two years ago, many listeners were deeply moved. Many readers and listeners have joined us since then, so on Thursday, in her memory, we will re-run that interview, providing access to everyone.
Jeremy’s Circle is an Israeli non-profit that offers support to children and teenagers who are growing up with cancer in their families or who have lost a family member to cancer. The organization was founded in memory of Jeremy Coleman z’’l by Jeremy’s wife, Pamela Becker, and his two sisters Naomi and Juliette and inspired by Jeremy’s incredible circle of friends.
When Pamela Becker, and her late husband, Jeremy Coleman, z’l, were struggling with his illness while raising three very young children, they were astonished and inspired by the way their friends swept in, took their kids for days away at a Kibbutz, to movies, etc., all in order to give Pamela and Jeremy some time to breathe, a bit of much needed rest.
Pamela and Jeremy, along with his sisters and his friends, decided to found an organization to offer similar support to Israeli families — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — with children who need support while a member of their family battles a serious illness. Together, they founded Jeremy’s Circle, which today offers support to 1,000 Israelis families.
This is the story of how Jeremy’s Circle came to be, and what it does for families that are in such deep need of support. It’s one of those classic Israeli stories of deeply knitted communities, and of transforming personal struggle into a way of helping those in similar need.
Pamela Becker made Aliyah in 1994. She completed her MBA at Tel Aviv University and has built a successful career working as a senior executive and consultant for some of Israel’s biggest tech companies including WhizzCo, ironSource and SafeCharge. Pamela remarried and lives with her husband and their five kids in Tel Aviv.
Families who would like to join Jeremy’s Circle, volunteer, and other supporters can get in touch here. If you’d like to support the work and families of Jeremy’s Circle, please visit their donations page. You can also visit the Jeremy’s Circle Facebook or Jeremy’s Circle Instagram.
We are making today’s conversation available to everyone. The link at the very top of this page will take you to the recording of our conversation.
If you share our desire to forge a community of people engaged in reasoned discussion and respectful disagreement when it comes to Israel, please subscribe today.
In the aftermath of the Knesset vote at the end of July, and at least the temporary suspension of all of the mass madness on the streets in all directions, in all cities and people of very good souls on both sides of the divide, it's felt like it's long overdue to take a step back and to look at parts of Israeli society that actually fill us with inspiration. And parts of Israeli society that bring us together. And parts of Israeli society that do something that we focus on a lot in “Israel from the Inside”, which is to show the spectacular people who do wonderful things in this country, brought on by good things, brought on by challenging things, brought on by the news, brought on by family experiences. And thankfully, now that the political world has taken a slight step back from the news, we have an opportunity to revisit some of that. And I have the real pleasure now of sitting with Pamela Becker. Pamela is the founder of an organization about which we're going to hear in a second called Jeremy's Circle, named for her late husband, Jeremy. We'll hear more about that as well, but before we dive in, first of all, Pamela, thank you for having me at your home here in Tel Aviv, and thank you for taking the time to chat today.
Well, thank you for having me and this is quite an honor to have you here.
And so, let's just start with you. Everybody's already heard your English, so they know that you weren't born in Israel. So, tell us a little bit about you and how you ended up in North Tel Aviv.
Okay, so I have quite a passive Aliyah story. I came on a project, an artist project. In my previous life, I was going to be a famous writer, and I had come on an artist project in Arad and when the project ended and I sold the short stories that I wrote, I sold five short stories, I made a total of $25.
I hope you didn't spend it all in one place.
I did. I think I ate a falafel, and it was gone. And I got a job. I got a job in advertising and realized that I was going to need to do other things besides being a famous writer. Started my MBA program, started an MBA at Tel Aviv University and met Jeremy Coleman. And that was it. My fate was sealed.
Okay. Now, he came not from America, he came from England, right?
He made Aliyah from England. And yes. So, I was working at this ad agency. He had come with a group of friends from the Noar Hatzioni movement. We had a mutual friend. We met; our eyes locked across a crowded room with the bagels at the brit milah in Beit Shemesh. It was very, very romantic. Everyone else turned green. We did not. And the rest was history.
And you'd been here in Israel how long when you guys met?
I would say only about a year or two.
Oh. So, it was pretty quick. And he'd been here the same?
So, you came more or less the same time. And this is now back we're talking in the 90s…
Yeah, the 90s. We met, I think, in ‘96. We were married in ‘99.
Okay, you met in ‘96, you're married in ‘99. A couple of kids come along. A few kids come along…
And then tell us the story of how Jeremy's Circle got started.
Okay, so the youngest was six months old, and our oldest was six.
And there's one in the middle, right?
And there was one in the middle.
And they're girl, boy, boy?
They're girl, boy, boy. And he had some trouble swallowing. They took all sorts of tests. Nothing really came about, whatever. They couldn't figure out why he was having trouble swallowing until they did gastroscopy. And I remember coming in for the results. They call and say you have to come in for the results. And we're sitting next to the doctor, across from the doctor, who is about our age, and he's crying, and he says, “The surgeon who I trained under, he's like a father to me. I'm sending you to him tonight. Go there now”. These are the results. And yes, Jeremy had stomach cancer. He went within a week, he was in Ichilov Hospital trying to remove the cancer. They removed half of his esophagus and his entire stomach, but they could not remove all the cancer, which puts it in stage four. And there were complications. He was in hospital for a month. And as you can imagine, we were living the Israeli dream. We were both working in hi-tech. We had these three gorgeous little children. This was the life we had dreamed of…
And it was the ultimate successful Aliyah story.
And it turned into a nightmare. It turned into a nightmare, and that's it.
So, how did the idea for what you currently organized and partly run and certainly spearheaded, how did that come to be? As he's ill, you guys had an idea, I guess, based on an experience that you had, right? I mean, what did people do for you that they later gave you this idea?
Okay, so it took some time. So, Jeremy, now he transitions into this process of the chemotherapy treatments and radiation afterwards and so on and so forth. But there was one brutal treatment after another, and this is after he's back home. He was getting because he had no stomach and so forth, he was getting TPN, which is like being fed through a tube at night. We were exhausted. I was working freelance. It was exhausting. And our friends, Jeremy's circle of friends, saw this, and they would come on the weekends, and they would take the three booster chairs, which anyone with a small car in Israel knows, trying to shove three small children with their boosters into any car is already a challenge. But they did it. And they just basically took our kids, whatever they were doing over the weekend, whether it was a hike or a barbecue or to the movies or whatever. We all were kind of the same age, right? Their kids were the same age. So, their kids had a normal weekend while we could rest. And this made Jeremy feel very lucky that he had the kind of friends and family that could support us in that way, that understood that the best way to take care of Jeremy was to take care of our kids and help them feel normal.
Another thing that impacted, that inspired what would become later Jeremy Circle was, I have to admit, I was struggling. I made Aliyah. I didn't have family and I didn't even have this youth movement of friends from forever around me. I mean, I had Jeremy's friends, but…I….
You’d really come alone.
I had come alone. And I went to a support group for other caregivers. And my six-year-old daughter says to me that she wants to go to the support group too. So of course, I got permission and I brought her. And everyone was lovely to her, and this helped her very much. But then she said to me that she wanted to go to a support group, that she wanted to meet another little girl who had a daddy with cancer. Because everyone was saying to her, look, mom is not alone. Look, she's not the only mom that's taking care of a sick husband. Look, there are other moms like that. Just like that. There are other little girls going through what you're going through right now. And she was basically, show me the money, prove it. And it took a few months, and we found another family. And that meeting with that other six-year-old girl and her mother, we went to a cafe and then we went to a park, it was life changing.
You could see the shoulders of these two little girls drop inches and how much it helped them. They didn't talk about their fathers; they didn't talk about cancer or anything so heavy. They just played. But there was a connection there that they weren't alone that was remarkable and valuable and healing. So later, when Jeremy was ill, when he was very ill and his sisters came in from abroad and we were spending quite a lot of time around the bed you know, we started talking about, and Jeremy really, again, was a very special person and felt lucky. This particular weekend we could spend the time because his circle of friends had gone to the kibbutz that they used to go to all the time. The one that with their youth movement that they were associated with, with their youth movement. And of course, if they're going for the weekend to the kibbutz, they took our children for the weekend too. So, we had this time to sit around, the four of us, and talk about how we could give back…
The four of us is you, Jeremy, and his sisters?
And his sisters. Naomi, who is today a clinical psychologist. At the time, she was a student, and Juliet, who comes from a computer background, from a technical background. And we talked about this idea of kind of like almost like a play date database and bringing these children together. And when he did pass away about a month later and people started saying, “Oh, is there a charity that he believes in? Can we give money to? Do we plant a tree? What do we do? How do we express what we're feeling?” And I said, you know what? Put your money over here. We worked with an organization called My Israel Charity. We have an idea. And sure enough, we started. We had like a beta run…
Which you say, as a hi-tech person.
Yes, I come from the startup world. So before starting off with your new project, you have to have a beta test. Right? So, what is the beta test? I invited the other, I had graduated by this time from the caregiver to the widow group, unfortunately, at the wellness center. And I said, come, you bring hummus, you bring tahina, you bring hamburger rolls, we'll do a barbecue. If you don't have children, bring grandchildren. Right? Because I was, at the time, the youngest widow in the group. That happened quite a bit, and we'll see what happens. So, there were ten people…
This is at your house back then?
Yes, we were in a house that it was a rented house that had a large backyard, but it also had a large living room that was separate, where you couldn't see one, couldn't see the other. So, all the parents were down, were at the barbecue and prepared, and they all came at 12:00. And all the children, mine were the youngest. Gil, at this point was one and a half. Leo was was five and Zoe was seven. And the oldest kid that was there was 17. So, there was a real range. They all planted themselves in the living room and they came at 12:00, and at 10:00 p.m. I had to ask everyone to leave. There was something about… it was like they all and none of these kids had met each other before.
And it's a huge age range.
It was a huge age range, and it was a large number of kids. It was a large living room, but it wasn't that large. It wasn't a football field. It was a room. So just the fact the bigger kids kind of took command of the situation, whatever…
But they all stayed together.
They all stayed together. And it was amazing to me to see that, wow, there really is a strong need here. And so, we kept moving. We had our first event. So, I mentioned it at work, I said, okay, I'm thinking of doing this event. And so, one person in the office said to me you know, I was very active in the [Israeli] scouts. I know the scouts in LaGuardia has a great space. I'll make sure you can use it.
LaGuardia, by the way, people should just know is an exit on the Ayalon, not the airport in New York.
We're talking about an area of Tel Aviv. Okay. Anyway, go ahead.
And it's a very nice scouts’ area, much better than where my kids go to scouts. Anyway, I start talking to social workers, trying to drum up interest in other people and start getting the word out. And I call the social worker in Afula, and she goes, yes, I have 15 children. I'd like to hire a van and bring them. Is that okay?
Afula is about, what, an hour- ish from here?
A little bit over an hour north. Yeah. And then somebody else, the girl who just happened to be at the support group because she's writing a project on support groups or something, she goes, “Oh, you know what? My boyfriend is a DJ, and I'll find someone to pay for the equipment, and we'll bring the DJ”, and somebody else calls me and says, “Is it okay if I bring Kosher catering hot dogs for about 100? Is that right? Is it okay?” And I'm like, yes, it's okay. Today we do pay for things, but it was like everyone was holding their breath, and we just poked.
And how long was this after Jeremy passed away?
That first event was a Hanukkah event and Jeremy passed away in July, so...
It was half a year later.
So, it was half a year later. It was December 2008. That was our first event, and it was amazing. It was about 25 families, and we had a makeup center. We had professional photography so that you could go home with the picture of you in the makeup, with the makeup and everything. And I saw there were these two kids who were battling it out in these funny costumes. It's one of those…. culturally appropriated, but they put the kids in these sumo wrestler outfits, and they're battling it out. And maybe… it may be a little bit racist and whatever, but it's hysterical to watch. So, I apologize if I offend anyone to say that, but the kids are having a blast, and everyone watching them is having a blast, except for this one woman who's crying. And I ask her, “Why are you crying?” And she's the mom, and she said, “this is the first time my kid has let loose and have fun in months. I have not seen him laugh in months”. There is something about when there's tension at home, say I'm a kid and I just lost my dad. Maybe I don't feel like I should be having fun. I just lost my dad. Is it okay? But if I'm in a situation where other kids have gone through something similar and they're having fun, then it gives me permission to be a kid that day. And that permission means a lot. That's one of the things that we've learned. Sometimes we hold ourselves back and we do need that. We do need permission to live, to move forward.
It's been 15 years, and I can see even in your eyes as we're talking, the power of that moment. I mean, 15 years is a long time, but the power of that is clearly very raw still.
Yes, yes because I have to say, as a young widow, I also felt that I needed permission to laugh and be human and not just a robot that woke up every morning, took care of her kids, went to work, financed the family and so forth. I also needed permission from someone, some greater someone to say, “it's okay, you can have a life. You can be happy”.
So, there's this network of families. There are people who are ill. There are people who've already passed away. I assume sometimes it's the parents that are ill and sometimes, maybe, I guess, it's one of the kids who's ill and there's this growing network of people who discover in what's now already called Jeremy's Circle, I guess right?
We're a thousand families now.
You're a thousand families?
A thousand families from as far north as Nahariya to Beer Sheva.
Right. So Nahariya very close to the northern border and Beer Sheva smack in the middle of the Negev. You're a thousand families. I know you don't ask, but you can still tell by names and the names of the villages where people come from. Are these all Jews? Do you have a sense?
I think most of the people from the center are Jewish, but more of the families in the north and in the south, we see from the names of the villages that we have a diverse group and we do have people coming in traditional dress, we have Druze and Muslim families that attend. And I need to make this very clear because the reform is really so heavy on all of our minds.
You mean the judicial reform that we’re all talking about?
The judicial reform that is very hard not to think about 24/7. But cancer really doesn't care what side you are of the judicial reform. It doesn't care.
Right. And, you know, it's interesting. You're talking about having Druze people and Muslim people and Jewish people, my wife in a previous career was a clinical social worker who worked for a while when we got to Israel in a battered women's shelter. And it was a similar comment that she made to me, said, you know, when you're scared that your mom's going to get beaten up by your dad, you don't really care what religion the other kids are and you don't care if they're Haredi or secular or whatever. The kids just wanted to play together. And she said it was tragic in a way that it took being in a horrible situation in a family for these kids to break all those other barriers. And this is also obviously there's a lot of tragedy involved in the stories of the people that make up Jeremy's Circle, but it does enable them to transcend, I guess, national boundaries and religious boundaries. And here you're saying among the Jews, even political boundaries.
Yes. Just last week we were at Park Utopia, which is near Netanya. It's this lovely park with beautiful flowers and a petting zoo and parrots…
Is it an indoor space?
There's like a rainforest that's indoors, but there's also an outdoors. It is lovely. It's a great morning and one of the families was complaining, yeah, we have to go home and cook dinner for our family, but not the family we like. This is our family. Because one of the things that we've heard quite a bit is there's something about when someone gets cancer, a lot of the families that come to us, they tell their families, “Oh, I have cancer”, and everyone disappears.
Right. People are scared.
It’s human and so they feel alone. And then we're there and we become their family and we're really family to the point where they'll even tell us what we're doing wrong because family tells family.
So, you're 1,000 families now that are part of this network, people that are currently ill, people who've lost people. How long have the longest people been part of this network now?
So, we have families that continue to come that were in the very beginning.
So, it's 15 years, 14 years?
Yes. The youngest brother, there were three brothers, one of the brothers was ill and the youngest brother who he still comes to our teen events to help out.
That's another thing that I think is very important about Jeremy's Circle. There is something incredibly healing about helping.
That's a very Israeli thing. I mean, it's international and it's universal and it's human. It is. But there is something very Israeli about healing through helping. I mean, so many of the people that we've interviewed in this series over the years are people who, in response to some trauma… there is a guy whose brother was killed in an Arab terrorist attack who then went ahead and started this thing called “B’Derech L’hachlama” on the Road to Healing so that he could reach out and help other Arab people who needed to get to Israeli hospitals. And so much of this comes from a sense that I'm hurt, I'm maybe even broken in a certain way. And the way I'm going to fix me is by helping other people. I know it's universal, but it's just such an incredibly, deeply embedded part of the Israeli DNA. Now, you were running this on your own for a very long time, I guess, with some friends or coworkers?
Together with Jeremy's circle of friends. Yes.
Now, at a certain point, there had to be some staff added, right?
Right. So, we are still that original group from his youth movement and his sisters who are still fundraising in England. My parents do fundraising in the United States. But his closest friends and now their children also come and volunteer. It's like an intergenerational thing. They come to all our events, but yes. Then after a couple of years, once we reached a certain level, we had to hire a part time director to make sure that we… I call it fashla free. That we are fashla free.
Fashla is an Arabic word for sort of a disaster, a massive screw up, I guess.
Right. So that everything, our books are beautiful.
You mean the accounting books and all that kind of stuff?
Yes. All the things that I hate dealing with.
But that the government cares about a lot.
Yes. That keeps it so that we can legally accept tax deductible donations in Israel, America, and England. All of that is handled by a very proficient admin guy, and this year he's a part time person. We hired a youth leadership person to expand our teen program. We have recognized not only have the children of Jeremy Circle grown up, but also the feedback we got from the families is that the teens need more. You have a family fun day. That's amazing. The kids connect with each other, whether the parents don't have to come, but when they do come, we take care of everything, the transport, the food, the water, the hats, everything that they need so that they can make these memories together and they can have that time. Teenagers need something else, and especially when they're older siblings or so forth, the experience of the teens is quite different…
They become caregivers in a certain way at the same time as needing to be cared for, right?
Some of them or some of them will just slam the door and disappear for three years or whatever. I mean, teenagers are teenagers. Anyone who's had one and hasn't regretted it. No, just kidding. No, but their needs are different. So, we have special programs that are just for teens. No parents or younger siblings allowed, because like I said, we know that if they are younger siblings, then they're coming to our events to babysit the younger siblings. Right? So, we did hire someone to expand that program because we see that there is a real need.
Now, if a family, God forbid, goes to the hospital because somebody is sick and they're in Hadera or they're in Nahariya or they're in Beer Sheva. How are they finding out about Jeremy's Circle?
It's mostly word of mouth.
From the staff, the nurses or other patients?
It’s usually from the feedback that we get from the families, because we ask them, how did you hear about us? They hear about us from the other patients or from a Facebook group or from a WhatsApp group. We do notify the social workers and sometimes, like in Nahariya, they're wonderful, they get all very active and they call everybody, but other areas not so much. So, we are very active on social media and trying to spread the word and asking people to help us grow. We're not the kind of club what is it Woody Allen said? There's something about… why you wouldn’t…
You wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him or something like that?
I don't know, but we're not the kind of club that you would want to join unless you need us. We're a terrible club to join. What normal person would say, oh, I'd love to take my kids to a group where the children have parents with cancer, right? Unless you have cancer, and your kids need it in a way that they need to breathe.
Just to wrap up. There's another nice part of this story, which, of course, is that somebody else shows up at one of your meetings, one of the first events…
Yes. And his name is Alon yes, it was bound to happen. The widow of Ramat Aviv, the widower of Maoz Aviv, at least four different people tried to get us together, and finally he brought his boys to a Jeremy Circle event. And since then, we've merged our families. I've adopted his boys. I have four boys, and yes, we don't have anything delicate in our home.
It's a great story. I mean, it's a sad story. Obviously, anytime anybody loses a spouse at an early age, it's a terribly sad story. But obviously on your personal side, the fact that you guys met up and blended families and have another new bright chapter, hopefully, God willing, a very long chapter is a wonderful story. But I think the really Israeli part of this and the part of this that says something about Israeli society is what you just said before about how people in Israel tend to help themselves heal by helping other people. And Jeremy’s Circle, when I first heard about it, actually from your sister, is really just a kind of a classic example of that. And I thought especially in, as you pointed out, these are heavy times and they're dark times and they're very divisive times, and people that we actually like a lot and respect a lot who end up on the other side of the line, for whatever reason, becomes hard to talk to them. It becomes hard to even have dinner together. It's hard. And so, to hear a story about people who have taken much worse crises and built real beauty out of it and real love out of it is a reminder of really, the greatness that's at the core of this society. And it's a reminder, I think, of the things that people like you and people like me and people like our friends and our families all need to work together to bring back to the surface and to try to rebuild a little bit of what has for so many, many years, for so many of us, made this such a wonderful place to be.
So, Pamela, thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for all that you've done for yourselves and your other families and for everybody else that hasn't joined, but unfortunately, one day we'll need to join, thank you for the rays of amazing light that you are in Israeli society.
Well, thank you very much. Thank you.
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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