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Members of AEPi sorority at the University of Iowa promote Sharsheret activities on campus. Courtesy Sharsheret

Ten years ago, you wouldn’t hear the word “breast” or “cancer” in certain communities. Now – thanks to organizations like Sharsheret – people of all ages are saying them loudly to raise awareness of an insidious disease.

As we enter Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Sharsheret is using this opportunity not only to ramp up its educational efforts but to assess its growing impact. Founded in 2001 to provide resources and support to young Jewish women with breast cancer, the Teaneck-based organization has begun to share its expertise, says Elana Silber, Sharsheret’s director of operations.

“We’re partnering with Jewish organizations across the country to develop face-to-face support systems on the local level,” she said, noting that the Sharsheret staff now offers guidance to agencies throughout the country.

“We’ve had approximately 15 groups sign on,” said Silber, “from Asheville to Austin, and from Detroit to Fresno.”

In April, Silber attended the April conference of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, offering Sharsharet’s support. Later, the Teaneck group hosted a national webinar for interested agencies.

“We travel to cities across the country and meet with Jewish organizations and community leaders,” she said. “Some ask us for monthly supervision, some for materials, and some want a speaker.”

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Rochelle Shoretz

To meet this need, Sharsheret has produced a support group leaders’ guide and trains partner agencies in developing support groups and creating educational events.

Silber said Sharsheret is also expanding its focus.

“We’re expanding our programs to include families facing ovarian cancer,” she said, noting the close relationship between ovarian and breast cancer. “We sent out an e-mail asking if anyone would be interested in a monthly teleconference [for this] and 23 women have called in already.”

“There’s not much out there for them,” she said. “We’re still a breast cancer organization, but since the two cancers are so closely related, we’re developing programs to address ovarian cancer as well.”

Silber said events such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month provide “a good opportunity to have people take a minute and pay attention, even if they’re not directly affected.”

In addition, she said, citing Sharsheret’s educational mission, the group “balances the commercialism of the pink ribbon” by offering “real education and resources. It’s a good month for us to talk about what is being done in the Jewish community,” she said.

Generally, those seeking Sharsheret’s help are women from 20 to 60, “though a lot of family members, friends, health-care professionals, and community leaders approach us for help and information,” said Silber. She noted that the Sharsheret does not charge for any of its services and is funded by individual donations, family foundations, and grants from organizations.

“Sharsheret was founded in Bergen County and is powered by hundreds of Bergen County volunteers,” said Rochelle Shoretz, founder and executive director of the organization. “We are grateful to have roots in a community of do-ers and activists.”

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Elana Silber

Silber – one of 10 Sharsheret staff members, five full-time, five part-time – said that while the group was formed with the young Jewish woman in mind, “all of our programs are available to all women without regard to race and religion.”

Still, she added, “we’re the only breast cancer organization dedicated specifically to Jewish issues.” For example, the group has helped publicize the existence of the BRCA gene mutation, carried by one in 40 Ashkenazic individuals, including men.

“No matter what denomination you are, if you have Jewish blood, you may be carrying the gene mutation, and it elevates your risk,” she said.

Sharsheret also addresses issues such as “religious rituals during treatment, living in a close-knit community, and spirituality. The High Holy Day season is particularly hard for Jewish women with breast cancer,” Silber said, “since services focus on life and death. When you’re living with this illness, it’s hard to know how to handle this,” both physically and emotionally.

Sharsheret – created by Shoretz in 2001 with a handful of volunteers – “started in her attic and then moved on to offices in Hackensack donated by IDT,” said Silber. In 2005, the group moved to its present location in Teaneck.

“Ten years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time, there was a void in the Jewish community,” said Shoretz. The organization has since launched nearly a dozen national programs to fill that void. “Now, facing breast cancer a second time, I can truly appreciate the services we offer. The community we created is one of which I am grateful to be a part.”

Citing the group’s major achievements, Silber pointed to the peer support network, developed in 2001; the creation of a medical advisory board; and the sponsorship of more than 21 medical symposia. In addition, said Silber, Sharsheret’s educational resource series now embraces six booklets “very much in demand.”

“Sharsheret has responded to more than 19,000 breast cancer inquiries, involved more than 1,000 peer supporters, and presented more than 200 educational programs nationwide,” she said.

The group does not lobby or do advocacy, though it “jumps in,” Silber said, when information is needed. For example, last year Sharsheret organized a teleconference when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced a proposed change in breast cancer screening guidelines.

“We encourage people to talk to doctors about everything they hear, to stay on top of it,” she said. “But we understand that there are complicated issues” that demand further explanation.

To launch the group’s 10th anniversary celebration, Sharsheret is hosting a major event at a private venue in New York City on Oct. 10 – one of 10 anniversary initiatives planned for the year. The October event will include an exhibit, “Sharsheret, Changing the Face of Breast Cancer,” by photographer Gail Hadani.

According to Silber, the celebration, dubbed the Jewelbilation Gala, will recognize significant gifts, or “Sharsheret jewels.”

Also planned is a “Text for your Next” mobile campaign.

“We’ll ask people to text 10 people, telling them to text Sharsheret, which will then send them regular reminders about checkups,” said Silber. “That was launched at last year’s benefit. We also use a blog, Twitter, and Facebook. We’re finding new ways to reach people.”

To mark its 10th year, Sharsheret will sponsor a 10-member team in the next New York City marathon; work with college students on a “pink day” in February, where students will wear pink and make $10 donations to the organization; and encourage 10 friends to buy Purim cards to benefit the organization.

Silber is particularly proud of the group’s association with AEPi and AEPhi, Jewish college sororities and fraternities, which have become “official partners” with the breast cancer group.

“They’re the next generation of health-care professionals, rabbis, and community leaders,” she said, explaining that members of these fraternities and sororities are “encouraging peers to learn about the issue and study their family history. It’s men as well as women,” she said. “They’ve made a tremendous impact on the college campus.”

“It’s a resource for us and for them as they enter the Jewish community as adults,” she added. The more people recognize Sharsheret’s name, the more likely they are to refer family members and friends with breast cancer to the group for help.

“It’s exciting to think about where Sharsheret will be 10 years from now,” said Shoretz. “We’ve grown in the wake of a difficult economy, and our strategic plan is ambitious. With the dedication of an incredible staff and board, and with the support of thousands of Jewish families across the country, years ’10 plus’ show real promise for Sharsheret programs and outreach.”

The organization has accomplished a great deal, said Silber, suggesting that Sharsheret’s proudest achievement is “when women who first call us for support call in later to see how they can help others.”

And, she said, “In communities that 10 years ago wouldn’t say the word ‘breast’ or ‘cancer,’ they are now encouraging the use of these words and distributing booklets.”

This includes men who recognize that breast cancer “affects the whole family and that they can also pass down the gene mutation. There’s more recognition,” she said. “It’s less of a taboo.”

“The more information the better,” said Silber. And if that raises more questions?

“We’re prepared for that,” she said.

For more information about Sharsheret, call (201) 833-2341 or visit www.sharsheret.org.

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Team Sharsheret, powered by Sharsheret volunteers, friends, and family members, has grown from 100 members in 2004 to 700 in 2009. The group participates in races, walks, triathlons, and marathons locally and in cities across the country, including Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Courtesy Sharsheret