February 7 may have looked like color war day at many local schools, but the real reason for the great abundance of pink was to raise awareness of breast and ovarian cancer in the Jewish community, and to ensure all Jewish children and teens know there is an address for information, questions, and concerns about these cancers.
The ninth annual Pink Day, observed in more than 100 schools, companies, organizations, and synagogues in the United States, Canada, and Israel, was sponsored by Teaneck-based Sharsheret, a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to addressing the needs of Jewish women and their families as they face breast and ovarian cancer.
“Thousands of students across the world are marking Pink Day at the same time, in different ways, and that’s really incredible,” said Ellen Kleinhaus, Sharsheret’s director of campus and community engagement.
“In the Jewish community and beyond, everyone knows someone who has been personally affected by breast or ovarian cancer,” Ms. Kleinhaus said. “This year, we suggested that the schools lead the day in honor or in memory of someone important in the students’ lives.”
Also new this year was a downloadable Sharsheret Pink Day Tool Kit that gave participating institutions everything they needed to make the day a success, including a variety of resources, template flyers, social media memes, hashtags, and the Sharsheret logo. Educational handouts available for distribution included Sharsheret’s “Fast Facts About Genetics.”
In Bergen County, participants included Fairleigh Dickinson University, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, the Frisch School, the Moriah School, Yavneh Academy, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey (for the first time), and Torah Academy of Bergen County.
What later would become global Pink Day got its start at Torah Academy — an Orthodox boys’ high school in Teaneck — in 2006, when admissions director Donna Hoenig staged a day called “Do Real Men Wear Pink?” at the school in support of Sharsheret. Tzvi Solomon, then a freshman, was one of a handful of boys who dared to show up wearing pink that day.
Mr. Solomon worked with Ms. Hoenig in succeeding years to expand the project. By the time he was a senior, all the students and faculty came to school wearing pink on Sharsheret Pink Day, raising funds for the organization by charging $5 a head to be included in a group portrait. Mr. Solomon also harnessed the power of social media to turn Pink Day into an international phenomenon in Jewish high schools and post-high school programs in Israel.
“Every school tries to infuse Pink Day with some meaning, recognizing that not every story has a happy ending,” Ms. Kleinhaus said. “By wearing pink and having events such as pink bake sales, guest speakers sharing personal stories, or sales of gear with the Sharsheret logo, the goal is to generate conversations.”
At Moriah in Englewood, middle-schoolers created a wall of hand cut-outs on which they wrote messages to women affected by breast or ovarian cancer. They also dedicated the proceeds of their monthly tzedaka campaign to Sharsheret.
Several groups held “mini cake wars,” a pink cake-decorating contest. JFNNJ held a “Sip and Paint” evening for about 40 women led by traveling art studio Paint with Me!, and invited Sharsheret’s director of national outreach, Melissa Rosen, to speak.
In her talk, Ms. Rosen said that in the general population, one in 500 people carries the BRCA mutation that raises the risk of breast cancer. Among Ashkenazi Jews, however, that number is one in 40. “Every time I share that statistic with audiences there is an audible gasp,” Ms. Rosen said.
She explained that the increased genetic risk for Jews necessitates a focused way of providing community education for the Jewish population, which is one of Sharsheret’s goals. The organization’s other mission is to provide support for patients and their families from a Jewish perspective.
“Study after study has proven that patients whose non-medical needs are met have a better outcome. The meaningful religious and cultural support we offer really allows people to do much better,” she said.
Although about 15 percent of the 80,000 women, families, healthcare professionals, community leaders, and students in all 50 states served by Sharsheret (Hebrew for “chain”) are not Jewish, young Jewish women and families are the main target clients.
In addition to Pink Day, Sharsheret sponsors Jewish community programs year-round such as Pink Shabbat and challah bakes — especially during National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in September and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
Pink Day, which happens every February, is geared to encourage participants of any age to take charge of their own health, Ms. Kleinhaus said. On the college level, Sharsheret urges students to learn about their family’s cancer history and to turn to the organization if they have questions.
“Recently there was a student who started a Sharsheret program at her college, and later her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Ms. Kleinhaus said. “Because she was already familiar with Sharsheret, she felt empowered to speak to her parents and tell them about our resources, including our seven staff clinicians, one of whom is a genetic counselor, available to answer questions. She herself spoke to our clinicians about how she could help her mother while away at college.”
For the youngest Pink Day participants in middle-school grades, the focus is on how they can make a difference, for example by reciting Psalms or dedicating Torah learning in memory or in honor of a community member with breast cancer.
“Even at a young age, we make sure they know they have a place to turn if they or their families have questions. We show them they can be leaders if this is a cause they’re interested in,” Ms. Kleinhaus said.
Over the years, Pink Day has motivated parents to call Sharsheret after learning about it from their children, and even has inspired some participating students to choose a path in social work or psychology. “We’re really seeing the effects,” she said.
Sharsheret has offices in New Jersey, California, and Florida. Among its free, confidential programs are peer support and online 24/7 live chats with mental health professionals and genetic counselors, customized beauty kits, busy boxes for children, healthcare webinars, college campus programming, community education seminars, cultural competency trainings for professionals, b’nai mitzvah projects, and Team Sharsheret fundraising races and walks.
For more information or to learn more about volunteer opportunities, go to www.sharsheret.org or call (866) 474-2774.