|An assembly line of rabbis having their heads shaved at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Chicago on April 1. Julie Pelc Adler|
There is not much that anyone can do to comfort colleagues whose son has died of cancer.
Nor is it intuitive to think that if anything could help, it would be a line of rabbis getting their heads shaved.
But that is what 54 Reform rabbis did in Chicago on April 1. The so-called Shave for the Brave was in response to the December death of 8-year-old Samuel Sommers – Superman Sam, as he was called.
Sam’s short but joyous life was chronicled by his mother, Rabbi Phyllis Sommers, who blogged about his struggle; she and Sam’s father, Rabbi Michael Sommers, were the first to have their heads shaved onstage during the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ meeting last week.
The shave itself is an initiative of Saint Baldrick’s Foundation, a group that exists only to fund research on childhood cancers, including the leukemia that killed Sam. The numbers the group posts on its website are sobering. Worldwide, a child is diagnosed with cancer every three minutes, we are told; before they turn 20, 1 in 300 boys and 1 in 333 girls will have been so diagnosed. Children are not just small adults; just as their cancers ravage their bodies differently than other cancers attack and destroy adults, those cancers must be treated in ways developed specifically for children.
“Only four percent of charity money in general is earmarked for pediatric cancers,” Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Temple Avodath Shalom in River Edge, one of the newly buzz-cut rabbis, said. St. Baldrick’s helps redress that by spending all the money it raises on research for those cancers.
Part of the point of shaving is to draw attention to the cause; another part is to show visceral solidarity with cancer patients, whose hair loss is not voluntary but instead the result of the chemotherapy that kills so much of what it touches. Hair is such a potent symbol to so many people that the point of raising cancer-fighting funds through its temporary loss makes quick emotional sense.
The shave at the CCAR convention was wildly successful. “We wanted to start with 36 rabbis,” Rabbi Jacobson said; that number was based on the concept of the lamed vavniks, the 36 hidden righteous people for whose sake, folklore tells us, the wicked world is allowed to continue to turn. “They were trying to raise $180,000″ – 18, of course, is another Jewishly fraught-with-significance number, signifying chai, life. Instead, the 70 Reform rabbis who shaved their heads, including some who did not come to the convention but instead did it at home, so far have raised more than $572,000. “They have funded at least four and possibly five yearlong grants for pediatric research,” Rabbi Jacobson said.
In fact, St. Baldrick’s specializes in group shaves, but this is the single most successful one the organization has sponsored.
The point of shaving his head was “to call attention to what we’re doing, and give it a physical sign,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “It’s similar to putting on a ribbon if we’re doing AIDS or domestic violence awareness. This is not putting something on but taking something off – and giving people a reason to ask what’s going on and to give us the chance to talk about it, to say that here is this very important cause to support.”
What was it like for him? “I had never shaved my head before,” he said. “I had very nice brown hair. I like cutting it short usually, but this is … somewhat breezy.” More seriously, he said, “it’s kind of like removing fluff.
“This is a transition time in the Jewish calendar,” he added, given that Pesach is just weeks away. “It’s like removing chametz. It’s a chance to see what’s really important. Hair will grow back, of course, but it gives us a chance to see what really matters.”
“We have a family who suffered an unspeakable tragedy,” he continued. Is there any way to help? “To go from this time of darkness not to a time of joy, but to say how do we take this grief and think about doing something positive with it? How do we take steps to move in the direction of doing something good?”
Rabbi David Widzer of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley was another of the rabbis getting buzzed onstage at the CCAR convention. It was a powerful experience on a number of levels, he said.
“It was an opportunity to stand with colleagues who had been through the most awful tragedy that anyone could imagine. And it was an opportunity to stand with all families who have kids battling cancer.
“It was an opportunity to raise awareness of childhood cancer. It was an opportunity to raise awareness in my congregation, among my Facebook friends, across social media, in all the communities I’m part of, to raise funds for the important research that needs to be done.
“The experience itself was almost indescribable,” Rabbi Widzer continued. “The energy and the emotion in that room in the time leading up to it, the preparation, the meditation service before – the emotion was palpable.
“There were four of us from the same rabbinical school class, the class of 2000; we all were in Israel together in 1995 to 1996. And then there were people a couple of years behind me, and older colleagues as well. All of us were assembled to do sacred work, to engage in a task of healing and wholeness and holiness.
“It was spiritual and moving and exhilarating and sad and wonderful. I think we all felt very humbled and very honored to have been a part of it.”
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah and his wife, Elyssa, knew the Sommers from summers at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, the Reform movement’s camp in Wisconsin; all are from Chicago. (The Mosbachers were counselors; the Sommers were their campers. Now they are equals, colleagues and friends.) Rabbi Mosbacher did not wait for the CCAR convention to shave his head; instead, he did it at his own shul on Purim, giving his own little Sweeney Todd-like twist to the proceedings. “I wanted to share the experience with the synagogue, because so many people there gave so generously,” he said. Following St. Baldrick’s rules, like all the other participants he actually did not have all his hair shaved off but instead got a buzzcut; the next day, he reported, he went to a barber shop to have the stubble shaved off as well. He did it again at the convention.
“The mitzvah isn’t shaving your head,” he said. “The mitzvah is calling attention to a disease that is insidious.
“We all become rabbis because we want to fix stuff,” he said. “The only thing the Sommers want us to do we can’t do – bring him back. So the idea was to try to do something that would reduce the number of these stories in the world.
Like Rabbi Wizder, Rabbi Mosbacher resorted to a string of mutually exclusive words to explain the evening. “It felt exceedingly emotional and powerful and sad and joyous, and really quite mixed up,” he said. “I walked into the room that night and someone looked at me and said, ‘Are you OK?’
“And I said, ‘I don’t know how to feel. I am so proud of us for raising all this money, and so desperately sad for the Sommers family.
“I don’t know how they’ve walked through these last two years of their lives, much less through this convention,” he continued. (Sam was diagnosed 18 months before he died.) “Their presence was so moving and extraordinary. I would like to think they gained some comfort from this experience, but I can’t imagine how it must be for them to walk through their daily lives.”