September 23, 2004
New Camp Gives Life to a Dying Wish
During the last few weeks of his life, when the brain cancer that had stalked him for eight years was about to claim victory, Daniel Jacoby spent hours on his laptop.
Jacoby, 38 when he died last March, could barely speak or get up, but he propped "Nonprofit Kit for Dummies" on his bed and wrote up the bylaws for Interfaith Inventions, drawing energy from the legacy he was intent on leaving.
"I think all of us deny the fact that life is limited and we only have so much time," said Rabbi Judith HaLevy, who became Jacoby's friend and adviser during the last six months of his life. "Especially in a young person dealing with a life threatening situation. We're bound by two ends -- between never-dying hope and the fact that you have to open a place in your mind that says this really may be it, so what do I really care about?"
Jacoby confronted that question at several points in his illness and four-year remission, and pursued its resolution with zeal.
He became an active member and volunteer for the Wellness Community, where cancer patients support each other.
At 34, Jacoby retired to a beach house in Malibu, having made his fortune co-founding an online banking startup during the dot-com boom. He became a photographer and art collector and learned to do magic, which he performed for the Wellness Community and his three nieces, whom he often surprised in Colorado with unannounced visits.
Just before the cancer reemerged in 2001, he took a trip to Antarctica, using as his guide Alfred Lansing's "Endurance," a book about Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, an English explorer of the early 1900s who shaped the race to the South Pole and who became Jacoby's hero.
"The essence of who he really was emerged in the last seven years of his life after he found out he had a tumor," said his mother Janine Jacoby, who with her husband, David, have been members of Temply Aliyah in Woodland Hills for 37 years. "I remember him crying that he can't die yet, he still has too much to do. He didn't realize what he meant at that time, but when he was given seven more years, that is when the things he did became so remarkable. He did not waste one second of the last seven years of his life."
But as his illness progressed, his suffering became more profound and so did his anger.
In August 2003, he found the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (MJCS) on the Web, and e-mailed HaLevy, even though he felt alienated from institutionalized religion.
"Rabbi, I live in Malibu and have a terminal brain tumor. Do you do house calls?"
For months, HaLevy visited weekly or more, fielding the toughest questions a rabbi gets: Why has God, if there is a God, chosen to do this to me?
Then one December evening, HaLevy lost patience with the anger and the despair that was eating away at Jacoby.
"You can't just lie here and feel sorry for yourself," she told him, realizing the absurdity of saying this to a dying man. "You need to think about doing something for someone else."
The next day Jacoby asked the rabbi to come over to pick up a blank check to pay for MJCS's new preschool playground, a need he identified from the synagogue's Web site. Then Jacoby asked HaLevy, "What about the camp?"
That question set into motion a rapid-fire process of setting up Interfaith Inventions, with a mission to set up camps for kids from different faith communities.
Jacoby's focus on camp came from his own formative experiences at Camp Ramah in Ojai. His idea was that if kids not yet burdened with adult prejudices could get to know each other as people and learn about each other's traditions surrounded by nature and having fun, they would grow up to be peace-seeking adults.
He was intent on seeing that idea come to fruition before he died.
A key to the success turned out to be HaLevy's connection to Andy Gold, an old friend who owns Rose Mountain, a spiritual retreat center in the Sangre De Cristo mountains of New Mexico. Gold contacted Rabbi Lynn Gottleib of Nahalat Shalom in Albuquerque, N.M., who has been dedicated to interfaith work since she was a teenager.
"Daniel's emphasis was to make sure the kids have fun with each other, in the service of peace and understanding," Gold said.
For one week in July, 15 11- and 12-year-olds and about 10 staff members from a mosque, a synagogue and an Episcopalian church in Albuquerque did regular campy things -- hikes, games, art, drama -- while sleeping in tents and eating vegetarian meals outside.
"They are children and they play together, so they can form relationships based not on issues of identity but on human nature," Gottleib said. "Once you play together and have fun together, you can then begin to build the trust you need to speak to the difficult issues."
In sessions throughout the week, the kids taught each other about the traditions of their own homes. Jewish kids brought Kiddush cups and a tallit to share, Muslims their prayer rugs, Christians their children's Bible. They did bibliodramas and taught each other prayers for an interfaith service.
A video shot at camp shows one outdoor circle on prejudice, where a Muslim boy spoke of friends who wouldn't speak to his family after Sept. 11, and a Christian girl spoke of the prejudice she sees among her friends.
"We all have one thing in common --we're all God's creatures," she said, tears coming down her face. "So why are we so mean to each other, especially because of something as simple as religion?"
Interfaith Inventions has already hosted one reunion in Albuquerque and plans to invite members of all the participating communities to events throughout the year. Next summer the group hopes to hold two camps -- one in the Los Angeles area and one at Rose Mountain.
Jacoby put up $30,000 for the first summer so kids didn't have to pay, and Leslie Harris, a childhood friend of Jacoby's who is running Interfaith Inventions, hopes to raise $100,000 for the coming summer.
"The kids were demonstrating there is hope for this world, and right now with all that is going on on the world scene, a lot of us adults are not very hopeful and are despairing," Gold said. "Just one week with these kids really helped give us light and instilled all of us with a lot of hope."
For information on Interfaith Inventions, visit www.interfaithinventions.org .