The skies were stormy last Sunday when Rochelle Shoretz, 42, succumbed to complications from breast cancer.
Rain continued falling Monday as more than 500 people gathered at Gutterman and Musicant in Hackensack to mourn and eulogize the mother of two teenage sons, who lived in Teaneck and was the founder and executive director of Sharsheret, a locally based national nonprofit organization providing health information and support services for thousands of young Jewish women living with breast or ovarian cancer.
Many of her friends and relatives said that the rainy gray horizon seemed symbolic of the great light that was leaving this world.
In his eulogy, Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck noted that this Shabbat’s Torah portion centers on the kindling of the eternal light in the Temple sanctuary. “It seems that, ironically, our light — Rochie Shoretz — has been extinguished,” he said. “But she would reject that conclusion categorically. … Rochie, you are already a light to so many.”
Ms. Shoretz, a Brooklyn native and graduate of Columbia Law School, was only 28 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, about a year after she moved to Teaneck after she completed a clerkship under Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She founded Sharsheret (Hebrew for “chain”) in 2001 while undergoing chemotherapy, shifting her energies to what she called “Plan B” in a 2003 interview with this reporter.
I don’t see myself going back to Plan A,” she said at that time, though she did return to her law career briefly while her cancer was in remission until 2009. “When I finished my clerkship I wondered if I would find another job as exciting. The challenges that I face here in developing this organization are equally as exciting.”
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2003, Ms. Shoretz explained that after her breast-cancer diagnosis in July 2001, “there were a lot of offers to help with meals and transport my kids, but I really wanted to speak to another young mom who was going to have to explain to her kids that she was going to lose her hair to chemo.”
Sharsheret is targeted specifically to young Jewish women, addressing their unique concerns and questions both before and after a breast-cancer diagnosis. One in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women carries a mutation on the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene, increasing their risk of breast cancer by as much as 80 percent.
In 2012, Ms. Shoretz wrote for Kveller: “I’ve done a lot of amazing things in 40 short years — I clerked for the Supreme Court, learned how to kayak in class 4 white water, took an impromptu trip to South Africa with friends when I was diagnosed, for the second time, with metastatic breast cancer. But as someone living with a sharpened sense of the value of time, I appreciate that nothing has given my life more meaning than sharing Sharsheret’s unapologetically Jewish message worldwide.”
Ms. Shoretz started by matching newly diagnosed women with experienced “links,” or peers. Sharsheret grew to encompass a variety of programs for Jewish women with breast and ovarian cancer and those at genetic risk, and for their families.
“I started out as the first link in that chain. I was the person there for the next person down the pipe,” Ms. Shoretz told Medical Daily in 2013. “The chain has come full circle, so I get to draw on the chain myself.”
Ms. Shoretz was included in Brad Meltzer’s 2012 book “Heroes for My Daughter.” She was named a 2003 “Woman to Watch” by Jewish Women International and as a Yoplait Champion in the Fight Against Breast Cancer. She appeared on Jew in the City’s 2012 list of Orthodox Jewish All-Stars and was honored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Israel Cancer Research Foundation. She also was a member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women.
“Brilliant, passionate, compassionate, visionary, strong, and electric” are the adjectives Elana Silber, Sharsheret’s director of operations, uses to describe Ms. Shoretz. The two women worked together closely for 12 years. “There was something magnetic about her; she attracted so many people to join her in her efforts. She touched thousands of women and their families and treated each one individually with respect and professionalism.”
Ms. Silber, who spoke at the funeral, started volunteering at Sharsheret in late 2002 when the staff numbered just two. Now the organization has 16 staffers and a regional office in South Florida. It has responded to tens of thousands of inquiries and only two weeks ago held its 13th annual benefit gala at the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe.
“In April we finished developing a five-year strategic plan, and last October we received a five-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has recognized us as the premiere organization for culturally relevant support for young Jewish women and families facing breast cancer,” Ms. Silber said. “Today Sharsheret is stronger than ever, and we have a clear road map that Rochelle was very much involved in charting. We are sad that she will not be here to experience this next stage of Sharsheret.”
Sunni Herman, executive vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, grew up with Ms. Shoretz in Brooklyn.
“I remember Rochie as the coolest girl at Shulamith High School,” Ms. Herman said. “She was the star in our annual student play, leaping higher than any of the other dancers and delivering her lines with such wit that the whole audience couldn’t stop laughing. She was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and taught us how to cut and paste columns (this was pre-computers) so the paper looked as professional as possible. When she became a clerk in the Supreme Court, so many of us oohed and aahed from afar. She showed us that it was possible to be religious and have amazing achievements at such a young age.”
In his eulogy, Rabbi Baum said that he had been learning one-on-one with Ms. Shoretz for the past six months. “We studied the text of the Shema as she was preparing for what she understood and called Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. She was getting reading to meet her Creator. After our sessions and after she offered me another cup of tea — or apologized because she couldn’t because she was in the hospital or too weak — I would sit in my car, cry and laugh, and jot down some notes of what I learned from her and then sent her an email assignment for our next meeting.”
Rabbi Baum told the gathered mourners that in contemplating the concept of “echad,” “oneness,” in the Shema prayer, Ms. Shoretz shared her insight that “oneness is not just about God, but as imitators of God every human being is unique, and that’s what Rochie saw in front of her. … She loved the Shema. She recalled saying it with her mom and could never fall asleep without reciting it.”
Other speakers at the funeral included Ms. Shoretz’s two sons, Shlomo Mirsky, 19, who recently returned from a gap year in Israel, and Dovid Mirsky, 17, a junior at Torah Academy of Bergen County; as well as her ex-husband, Tani Mirsky, and his wife, Sora Leah. In 2010, Ms. Shoretz told the Jewish Week that she was grateful to know that Sora Leah would help care for Shlomo and Dovid when she was no longer alive.
Her sister, Dr. Dalia Shoretz Nagel, and her close friends Marnie Rice and Jennifer Miller recited the Shema with Ms. Shoretz on the day she died. Ms. Miller said that the bedside prayer book had a bookmark on the appropriate page.
Ms. Miller gave a eulogy adapted from a letter she wrote to Ms. Shoretz in April, praising her friend as “the smartest, quickest, most insightful and as a result often the funniest person I know,” and as the most present person she knows. “You embrace each moment of every day purposefully. You are conscious of the fresh air you breathe when you take a walk. You are the arrow on the big map in life’s amusement park with the caption ‘I am here.’ … Modeling for Shlomo and Dovid how to live a life of purpose is something they already appreciate.”
Rabbi Chaim Hagler, principal of Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, noted that Ms. Shoretz was a founding parent and a longtime board member. “As the mother of our alumni Shlomo (class of 2010) and Dovid (class of 2012), Rochie shared her many talents with Yeshivat Noam, working on developing our special-needs department, public relations, open house, and development, to name a few.”
Speaking on their way home from Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus on Monday, Nina Kampler and Tikvah Wiener, both of Teaneck, referred to their late friend as a “shining star” and reflected how much they would miss celebrating their summer birthdays with Ms. Shoretz, as was their custom for years.
“Rochie never asked ‘Why me?’ or felt sorry for herself,” Ms. Wiener said. “She was a source of life and light and fun, and had a sense of humor that turned any situation, even as dire as cancer, into something that could be laughed at. She always used to say there are no problems, only solutions waiting to happen.”
Ms. Kampler said it seemed to her that Ms. Shoretz “crammed 120 years of life into the last 14 years. When I visited her about five weeks ago she told me, ‘Nina, I’ve had the most amazing life and I’m at peace.’”
Her mother, Sherry Tenenbaum, and her father, Morris Shoretz, survive her, along with her step-parents, five sisters, and two brothers.
In a 2012 interview aired on Fox 5 News NY, Ms. Shoretz is shown running around preparing her sons on their first day of school and snapping a picture, as she did every September.
“I might not be around to see them get married or have children of their own, but I really try to look at the children as my impetus and my motivation to stay strong and stay healthy,” she told reporter Rosanna Scotto. “If I die tomorrow — and I don’t want to die tomorrow — I really feel like I had a great life.”
To make a donation in memory of Rochelle Shoretz, go to www.sharsheret.org/donate. To speak with a member of the Sharsheret team, call (201) 833-2341, or toll-free nationally, (866) 474-2774.