This is one of the scariest sermons I’ve ever written.
It also might be the one I was most excited to give.
A few weeks ago, when Nelson Mandela died, it seemed a no-brainer that my sermon tonight, for “Just Shabbat” would be about him.
But then Superman Sam died, and everything changed.
There will be a time to talk about Mandela – anniversaries of his death and of his deeds. I promise that I will give that sermon one day. But sometimes the important things that people have done in the past have to take a backseat to the important things people are doing right now. And right now, 72 of my colleagues and I are raising money to fight childhood cancer.
If we reach our fundraising goals, we will shave our heads.
It’s called 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave – it was originally supposed to be only 36 rabbis, but we’ve been inspiring one another and the number has grown. There are also rabbinical students and relatives participating.
Your obvious question at this point: You’re going to shave your head???Why on earth would you do that?
Well, I’ll tell you.
In some ways, it started with Superman Sam.
But in some ways, it also started years ago.
With Jonah Dreskin and with a tragic loss of my own.
Jonah Dreskin was the son of two very special people – Rabbi Billy Dreskin and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. They are angels. They touch and inspire countless people. They do wonderful things for the Jewish People, the Reform Movement, their own community, the world… but that didn’t protect them from losing their son.
The world doesn’t work that way. No matter what we tell ourselves, there comes a day when we realize it’s not true. And for me, that was the day Jonah Dreskin died. I was already tremendously worn down from my own personal loss and grief that year and by that point I was mostly numb. But the news about Jonah shocked me back into the “awareness of the unfairness” as I call it – what we spend most of our lives trying to hide from but rarely ever do.
The unfairness of the Dreskins – two of the best people I know – losing their son, shocked the breath out of me. I literally crumpled to the floor from the edge of my bed, where I had been sitting when I read news.
“Where are you God?!?” I cried out.
And I wept.
It was a very dark time for me, as I struggled with the theology of loss and with my personal relationship with God.
But I’ve already given that sermon. If you missed it, I’d be happy to forward you a copy of it so that you can catch up.
In any case, what I remember most about that time is feeling helpless. There was no mobilizing or fundraising
around Jonah’s death at first (although there is now a foundation, to which I donate annually), and there was no fundraising around the cause relating to my own loss at the time either. And even if their had been,
I was a poor, exhausted and grief-stricken rabbinical student who barely had enough money or energy to stay in school and make it through each day, let alone mobilize for a cause.
There’s a time to weep and a time to act.
Superman Sam was also the son of two wonderful leaders of the Jewish people. Two rabbis – Phyllis and Michael Sommer.
On December 14th, while so many of us in the Reform Movement were sleeping after an inspiring and joyous Erev Shabbat at the URJ Biennial, Sam lost his battle with AML – Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
Sam had been diagnosed in June of 2012 and in November of the same year he completed treatment and was declared in remission.
But at the end of March 2013 he relapsed and although he received a bone marrow transplant last August, the fatal leukemia returned, and the end came brutally fast.
Sam wanted to be famous.
When Sam was first diagnosed, his mom began a blog, called Superman Sam, and asked friends and family to help Sam know how many people were rooting for him by sending in photos of themselves in clothing with superhero logos, to be hung on Sam’s wall.
I sent them a picture of Manny, wearing a shirt that says, “not all Superheroes wear capes.” In the picture, Manny is looking both adorable and a little sad, as if, in his doggy-wisdom, he knew just the right tone to set. Sam too, in the photos on his mother’s blog, looks both adorable and a little sad.
Although I don’t know the Sommer’s very well, and am pretty sure I never met Sam, Phyllis’ blog – reposted by so many of my rabbi friends, caught my attention, and I read along with anxiousness, and then joy, and then sorrow, as their story went from fear to relief
and then to unbearable anguish.
In the past few weeks, Phyllis has bravely recounted telling 8 year old Sam that he was going to die; she has described their last attempts to give Sam some of his wishes by dropping everything to travel as a family to Israel and then to Disney Land; she has recorded Sam’s final conversations, final minutes; and then this morning she recounted his funeral and the shiva.
I don’t know how she holds it together to write.
But I know that if she can do that, then I have to do something too.
Sam’s death echoes for me in the hollow place in my heart left by the day that Jonah Dreskin died.
Hopelessness in the face of unfair and unbearable loss.
But this time I’m not crippled by my own grief, by my struggles to get through each day, or by my own financial burdens.
This time I can do something.
And this time I will.
So I’m going to try to raise $5000 for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, who will invest every dollar raised into “the best possible childhood cancer research”. And if I reach my fundraising goal, then I am going to shave my head.
If this seems radical to you, know that part of me feels that way too. I have never done anything like this before, which in-and-of-itself is reason enough. Rabbis should be out there doing stuff like this all the time. I firmly believe that but I haven’t been walking-the-walk.
So it’s time.
Also, know that there are 20 or so other women who are Shaving for the Brave, including Sam’s mom Phyllis and Aunt Anne. Phyllis alone, has raised almost 35,000 dollars.
You should also know that when women rabbis started to sign up, I groaned inwardly. “Oh no!” I thought, “now everyone will expect me to do this, and I can’t!
I can’t shave my head!
I’m not embarrassed to be that vain!”
Except that as soon as I finished thinking it, I was embarrassed.
Even though no one heard me.
Even though there are lots of other women rabbis that are not signing up.
I heard me.
And I cringed.
I cringed because along with Phyllis’ blog, I have been reading the blog of my friend’s cousin, Stephanie Herzog, who went to school with my brother when they were young. Stephanie, who is in her late 20’s, has been battling a rare and aggressive kind of Breast cancer. She’s winning right now, thank God, but her blog has been raw and brutally honest all through the scariest and most hopeful parts of her journey.
Stephanie didn’t have a choice about losing her hair and it seemed like it was one of the hardest parts for her (although she bravely posted pictures and she looked beautiful). How can I let a little vanity prevent me from helping when the victims of what I’m trying to prevent don’t get a choice? Sam didn’t get a choice about losing his hair either.
Or about losing his life.
There’s no vanity when it comes to cancer.
Stephanie will be the first to tell you, and I’m sure Sam would have agreed.
Vanity and fear are terrible reasons to do nothing when something can be done. We can’t save Superman Sam but we can try to save children like him. We can’t save Phyllis and Michael and Sam’s three siblings from the terrible loss they are experiencing and will experience every day of their lives, but we can try to prevent other families from having to go through it.
So that’s why.
For the Sommers.
For Jonah Dreskin.
For my own loss,
and for the rabbi that I want to be for all of you.
The total goal set by 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave event was $180,000, and today, one week after Sam died, we passed that goal! By March 31st, the fundraising deadline, we will have far surpassed it. I hope you will help us.
On this Shabbat may each of us pick one fear we have, one fear that holds us back from reaching out to help someone else;
On this Shabbat – Shabbat Sh’mot, the Shabbat of Names – may we name that fear, and face it, and then reach out in spite of it.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.
May it be God’s will.