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Effusive Outpouring Moves Ill Child's Family

January 24, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Ryan Jokelson, 5, donates to Alex's Lemonade Stand during an event at BZBI in honor of a local child hospitalized in Philadelphia. Photo by Jordan Cassway
For the first 41/2 years of her life, Sara Burke ran around, danced and played just like any other kid. This past July, her family decided to visit their daughter at camp, watching Sara play a munchkin during a performance of "The Wizard of Oz." Her mother, Jen, who was sitting close to the stage, noticed that her child's eye kept moving involuntarily, and so she took her to get examined.

Days later, Sara was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In the weeks beforehand, the family said they saw no forewarning signs. Sara didn't mention any pain or seem especially tired; thus, in a flash, the family's life was turned upside-down.

Jen Burke, 38, now lives at the hospital with her daughter; a daylong visit to summer camp has turned into seven months of treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her husband Kevin, 41, continues to stay in their Meadowbrook home and take care of their other children: a 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.

"I don't know if you're ever prepared" for something like this, admitted Jen Burke. "It was a little like being punched between the eyes, but you gather yourself up and make it as positive as you can."

Throughout the grueling procedures, the Burkes have gotten emotional support from a very unlikely place -- the preschool at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. The Burkes aren't members of the synagogue, and before she got sick, Sara wasn't enrolled at BZBI; she attended Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.

But some parents of BZBI preschoolers knew Jen from high school, and they began following Sara's prognosis through a Web site that Jen updates daily.

"I was just amazed at their strength in caring for Sara and making sure she's getting the best possible treatment, and dealing with their other kids at home," said BZBI parent Brooke Kravitz. "She's just so inspirational and strong that we just thought we'd do something."

On Jan. 18, the synagogue's preschool held a fundraiser for Alex's Lemonade Stand; proceeds will be donated to the charity under Sara's name. While the 100 or so parents, kids and teachers sipped lemonade and sang songs for the upcoming Shabbat, they also discussed the importance of helping kids like Sara. So far, the event has raised $550, and the synagogue will be accepting donations until Feb. 1.

Jen Burke said that her family was touched by the support from BZBI and happy to see the money go to a worthy charity.

"It was such an honor to know that these kids don't know Sara, and for them to embrace her that way and ask about her and reach out and help, it is an amazing thing," she said.

The Burkes also received support from Sara's class at A.J., where students have sent cards, banners and even a book where each child included a picture and wrote about their favorite activity they like to do with Sara.

Just when the family thought that the Jewish community couldn't be any nicer, Jen and Sara looked out the window of their hospital room recently to see that the atrium was filled with around 100 people holding banners and balloons, wishing Sara a speedy recovery. Although the little girl couldn't go out to greet the group because of health precautions, she could peek out her window and see everyone -- a mix of family, her class from A.J., two families from BZBI, and a slew of friends and neighbors.

After such an overwhelming display, Jen made sure to "hug each and every one of them."

"The reason we've gotten through everything," she said, "is that we have such wonderful friends and family."

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