Most people know Chaim Topol as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” But to a group of sick Jewish and Arab children in the Galilee, Topol is their biggest cheerleader.
Israel’s first international movie star was instrumental in the creation of the Jordan River Village, a camp for children with serious and life-threatening illnesses. He currently serves as the chairman of the organization’s Israeli board.
The American actor Paul Newman was the inspiration behind the camp. In 1988, Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a summer program in Ashford, Conn., designed to give sick children the opportunity to play in a therapeutic camp environment.
Over the past 25 years, 30 similar camps have been established around the world to comprise what is now called the SeriousFun Children’s Network. Hundreds of thousands of sick children have attended the programs, which are free, regardless of the family’s ability to pay.
Talk of starting a multifaith camp in Israel surfaced in the late 1990s when Murray and Marilyn Grant, an older Jewish couple, attended a benefit for the camp in Ashford and decided to initiate a similar project in Israel. They eventually raised $28 million, getting Israeli and Jewish stars involved along the way. Newman himself wrangled Topol into helping out.
“Back in 2001, I got a phone call from Paul Newman inviting me to join him on a visit to one of his camps in Cincinnati,” said Topol, who is 77. “When I saw that amazing place, I immediately understood we had to do something like it back in Israel, and that’s how my involvement began.”
The two-time Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated star of “Fiddler on the Roof” — who played Tevye both on the London stage and in Norman Jewison’s 1971 movie — threw his energy into raising the profile of the project internationally. Serious momentum began to build behind the idea when senior Israeli politicians got involved, such as former cabinet minister Isaac Herzog as well as current president Shimon Peres.
“In 2005, Shimon Peres called me late one night and told me to be ready to pitch the idea of the JRV the very next morning, asking for the government’s blessing and an allocation of land in the Galilee” for the Jordan River Village, Topol recalled. “I showed them a short presentation and… there and then, with unanimous agreement, the 60 acres was donated.”