Siyyum is Hebrew for ending. Typically, it’s used in a religious context and refers to the completion of study of a significant portion of the Talmud, which is cause for celebration. The Sharsheret Coming Together Summer Barbeque on August 1 included a siyyum of the Talmud tractate Berachot, which enabled everyone there to mark the occasion with a meat meal. The barbecue was held during the Nine Days of Av, days that commemorate tragedies in Jewish history as they lead toward the fast day of Tisha b’Av. That’s a time when many observant Jews refrain from eating meat. But if you join in a siyyum, you may do so. The evening offered both the opportunity to learn Talmud, and through that the opportunity to eat barbecue.
The world siyyum also could refer to another ending — the end of the period of isolation that we experienced through more than two years of covid. The Sharsheret gathering marked the opportunity to come together in person, after the long months of pandemic separation. Throughout the evening there was a palpable sense of relief and joy as people could meet in person once again to support the work of this important organization.
Sharsheret — chain in Hebrew — was founded more than 20 years ago by Rochelle Shoretz, a young woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and longed for connection with other young cancer patients and survivors. Ms. Shoretz, who was the mother of two small boys at the time, enlisted the help of friends to set up a formal network of young women with cancer, who could connect with each on many levels. She called the group Sharsheret, because each woman was a link in a chain of support.
Rochelle, an accomplished attorney and advocate for cancer patients, died in 2015; but her organization has thrived, and now it is a nationwide resource serving thousands of cancer patients and survivors. According to its website, the organization focuses on the needs of “the Jewish breast and ovarian cancer community.”
Elana Silber, Sharsheret’s CEO, reported that the organization has grown to about 37 employees nationwide, with offices in New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Florida, and a budget of more than $5 million. She cited an approximate number of employees, as Sharsheret is “always growing,” she said. “We brought on four new people this year.” And that does not count the hundreds of volunteers all over the country, who donate resources and time, with many serving as links in the Sharsheret chain of support.
The barbecue, which drew more than 500 people, was held at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood; a similar gathering, on August 3, was held in Woodmere, one of Long Island’s Five Towns. The evening began with informative videos about Sharsheret, followed by the siyyum ceremony. It was led by Dr. Robert Alter of Englewood, who is a hematologist/oncologist at the John Theurer Cancer Center of Hackensack University Hospital.
After the siyyum, Sharsheret’s board president, Stacey Schwartz, introduced Jewish community leader, educator, and poet Maya Bernstein, who is a cancer survivor. Ms. Bernstein recited several poems, including her poignant “The Oncotype,” where she detailed her longing for “days and nights filled with unexceptional problems, like lost keys, or pens run out of ink.”
Ms. Silber introduced Sharsheret’s latest initiative, which is being spearheaded by Joy and Michael Goldsmith of Teaneck and their daughter Amanda Goldsmith Fein. When Ms. Goldsmith was diagnosed with breast cancer, her three daughters, Amanda, Melissa, and Jennifer, were faced with the challenge of supporting their mother through that crisis. “The hardest thing as a mother is to be in a position where your children feel they have to do for you,” Ms. Goldsmith said. Ms. Fein, who was 22 at the time, felt very alone. She reached out to Sharsheret, hoping to create a student support group. This led to the idea for YAD, Young Adult Caring Corner, a peer and buddy support system aimed at the young adult children of cancer patients. (Yad is the Hebrew word for hand.)
“Adversity often brings opportunity,” Mr. Goldsmith said. The YAD website describes the initiative’s goals: “It’s scary when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. You might wonder how you can support them, and you might feel selfish for wanting to also take care of yourself; for wanting to continue to do the things you like to — seeing your friends, doing your hobbies, going to school and work. We’re here to help you understand your loved one’s diagnosis, how you can help (even from afar), and how you can take care of yourself while still caring for them.”
Ms. Silber said that YAD includes a college campus program. “We’re on every campus with a Jewish community,” she said. Sharsheret helps to educate college students about their risks. “We talk about genetics,” she said. We try to promote ‘know your family history’ on your mother’s side and on your father’s side.”
While mutations in the BRCA gene that can raise the risk of breast and ovarian cancer are more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews than the general population, recommendations call on everyone to start BRCA genetic testing once they reach 25; that’s when the risk of those cancers begin to rise. Knowing family history is empowering, especially since there are many cancer cases that arise from genetic factors other than BRCA, which have not been identified yet.
Ms. Silber reflected that the covid pandemic was “isolating for people and certainly for people with cancer.” Sharsheret created “experiential programming” during the pandemic, “so we could be with them at home and during treatment,” she said.
“I feel blessed that we could be there for people when they were alone, so they wouldn’t feel so alone. That being said, there’s something to be said for being in a room with hundreds of people who are having similar experiences.”
Ms. Silber noted that while Sharsheret’s events often attracted mostly women, this time there were many men present as well. “We are focused on educating men on their risk” of hereditary breast cancer, she said. “The BRCA mutations and other mutations are also passed down through men,” she said. Men not only pass on the genes, but some men who carry BRCA mutations also are at elevated risk for breast and other types of cancer. “We have programs specifically targeting men,” Ms. Silber said.
Heidi Fuchs of Teaneck, an administrator at Touro College of Pharmacy, has volunteered for Sharsheret for years. She and her sons knew Ms. Shoretz and her sons years ago, when Ms. Shoretz first was diagnosed. “It hits home when it’s somebody your age, and so young,” Ms. Fuchs said at the barbecue. She and her family have joined Team Sharsheret on annual walks and she knows many women who have had breast or ovarian cancer. “I can probably name 10 women in our shul who are survivors,” she said. “That’s just how prevalent it is.”
An 84-year-old woman who wished to remain anonymous was at the barbecue with family members. She confided that her own mother, who had a BRCA mutation, survived breast and ovarian cancer and lived to 97. She does not have the cancer gene, the woman said, but her brother inherited the BRCA mutation, and passed it on to two daughters who both developed breast cancer at much younger ages. “In the last two years Sharsheret couldn’t hold these events, but they don’t give up,” she said. “People I spoke to feel the warmth and the caring and the effectiveness of what Sharsheret does. It’s min hashamayim” — from heaven — “that these people can be so successful and do such work.”
Information on Sharsheret is at www.sharsheret.org. The YAD program is at www.sharsheret.org/yad.
Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck is a professor of biology at William Paterson University and the author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” and “Brave New Judaism: When Science and Scripture Collide.”