Life Line

By January 31, 2017Interviews-Leeds

Chai Cancer Care has been serving the Jewish community for 26 years. JLife’s Laura Sefton spoke to Louise Hager, the organisation’s chairman, about what has been and what is to come.

At the time of our recent chat, Louse Hager, chairman of Chai Cancer Care, was still catching up after the support organisation for the Jewish community’s annual dinner. The event raises substantial funding, this time reaching £1.1 million on the night, and Louise was delighted with the outcome: “It’s a huge relief as the amount raised is almost half of our running costs, which are £2.4 million. What was so wonderful was that even though we had 760 people in attendance it felt very warm and everyone felt very connected. It was fantastic.”

Fundraising is an important aspect of the work Louise does in her role as chair of Chai. The organisation does not receive any statutory funding, so every penny is raised through donations from the community, friends and supporters, as well at events such as the yearly dinner.

Chai was established 26 years ago and now has 11 branches across the UK – including a fast-growing service in Leeds and at the newly redeveloped centre in Heathlands Village in Prestwich, Manchester – that offer a range of services for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and their families.

“Two remarkable women, Susan Shipman and my mother, Frances Winegarten, both of whom had personal bitter experience of what it meant to live with the impact of a cancer diagnosis, set up Chai in 1990,” explains Louise. “My mother had been diagnosed with a very rare form 10 years earlier and had treatment for two-and-a-half years.” Frances survived for another 26 years, passing away at the age of 84 of a heart attack. The cancer did not return after the treatment, although she suffered daily with the side effects of the treatment.

Susan’s experience of cancer affected her daughter, Natalie, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour before she was three years old and passed away before she was eight. When Frances and Susan met they had both seen the two sides of cancer – survival and loss – and they were determined that others would have somewhere people could get support; something that neither of them had had.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but 26 years ago, no one talked about cancer. It was a taboo subject. My mother and Susan felt very isolated, despite having huge family support, wonderful friends and a great network of care. But there was nowhere to go to be with other people who were experiencing what they were experiencing. That was the catalyst.”

They took their own personal experiences and were determined to create something. That is how Chai started. A telephone helpline was set up in Frances’ bedroom, there was a write up in the Jewish Chronicle and a request sent out for volunteers. A lecture, the first of its kind put to a lay audience, was held in the local synagogue: “We put out 200 chairs and didn’t know if people would come. But over 400 turned up and we had to turn away 100 because there was no room in the hall,” explains Louise.

The word Chai, the Hebrew word for life, was chosen because a cancer diagnosis at the time the organisation was formed meant death and dying, but those affected by it had to find a way to carry on living.

From there, it became apparent that some people struggled to pick up the phone and so the first Chai centre was set up in London. Here, complementary therapies, groups and counselling were on offer, meaning that there was a new opportunity for people to say they wanted a massage, rather than that they needed counselling.

In 2002, Chai had outgrown the original base and bought a building in Hendon, North West London: “It was a huge leap of faith. We didn’t have that many clients but unfortunately we knew that cancer was on the increase. We knew we’d be needed.”

Today, Chai supports over 2,550 clients and their families, with 40% of that number comprising family members. Louise explains that this is a positive percentage as for years they would be told by relatives that, as they were not the ones with cancer, they did not deserve support: “It just makes sense, though, that if the family member is supported, they can help the one who’s not well.”


Local Service
As the organisation grew, it became cost-effective for the satellite branches outside London to work out of existing communal buildings, and each of these branches are different. As Louise says, what is required in Glasgow is different to the services needed in Leeds, and they are all shaped to what the community needs and how financially viable it is for the organisation.

“The service at the small medical base in Leeds is growing very quickly, however we’re not in a position yet to have a big physical centre in the city,” explains Louise. “But we will see 22% of our clients in their own home, which means if they can’t come to one of our satellite Chai centres, we will go to them, so in Leeds especially we will go to people’s homes.”

For those in Leeds seeking services provided by the Chai team who are able to travel, there is currently an expansion plan underway across the Pennines at Heathlands Village in Manchester and the new-look centre is to become a hub for people across the region: “We hope people will come from South Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. It means they can come and have some counselling in the morning, join a group, enjoy a massage, and go home feeling very supported. Cancer isolates people. Just being in a beautiful environment like the one at Heathlands surrounded by others who understand what you’re going through can give tremendous support and strength,” adds Louise. “There’s no charge for any of this. We don’t charge a penny for our services and all of these new additions will be phased in from early 2017.”

For any other organisation, expansion plans such as those that are taking place in Manchester would be welcome. However, as Louise says, this growth is bittersweet: “We’re here offering all of these services for as long as people need us, and unfortunately cancer isn’t going away. We respond to the needs as cancer sadly continues to rise.”

Chai is there at every stage and its doors are always open, but Louise explains that the aim is to give clients the tools so they do not have to come back to a cancer organisation: “We are always here for them and will support them at different stages, so you’ll see someone a lot then they’ll not come in for a while. Chai is designed to help our clients find a way to go forward.”

The organisation is both proactive and reactive, and everything on offer for its Jewish clients is mainstream, so clients will receive complementary rather than alternative therapy and all services have been endorsed by a medical advisory panel.


Here for You
Although her mother was co-founder of Chai, Louise was never destined to become chairman. She started out working on the PR and marketing side of the organisation, raising the profile and building donor relationships.

“In 1998 I became a trustee and then when my mother became Founder President, I became co-chair with Susan Shipman. Susan moved to Israel and that’s when I became chairman. So it was never on the cards. I was a mother of four and it wasn’t something I was looking for but thankfully it seems to have worked!”

And what is the best thing about being a part of Chai for the chair? “Seeing the difference we can make to people’s lives. We are blessed with a wonderful team here and it feels like an extended family. We encourage people to come and see what we do here because you can only really see in full what we do first-hand.”

The role of chairman is seven days a week, though: “I’ll be going to shul or buying challahs and someone will come up to me and tell me they’re not feeling well and that’s fine. I want people to talk to me and it can’t be a 9-5 job. We would never want it to be because then we’d lose the heart, drive and passion and soul of what we do.”


For more information on Chai’s specialised support services, call 0113 266 7727 or the Freephone Helpline on 0808 808 4567. Visit

Louise will be giving a talk at the Jewish Women’s Circle’s Women’s Night Out event, taking place at Chabad Lubavitch Leeds on 6th February at 8pm. The evening has a £10 cover charge and will include a dessert buffet and a raffle in aid of Chai Cancer Care. Contact Dabrushy Pink at