Mobilized by the death of a colleague's young son, local rabbis joined in a mass head-shaving campaign to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
Two Delaware Valley spiritual leaders were among 53 Reform rabbis who went bald during a rabbinic conference in Chicago last week to raise money for pediatric cancer awareness and research conducted by St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
Rabbi Benjamin David of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J., and Rabbi Yair Robinson of Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Del., participated in a campaign that raised more than $570,000 to date. The rabbis voluntarily shaved their heads on April 1 at the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Chicago.
The “Shave for the Brave” event was inspired by the death last December of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommers’ 8-year-old son, Samuel, to refractory acute myeloid leukemia. Phyllis Sommer, an associate rabbi at Am Shalom in suburban Chicago who had documented her son’s struggle on a blog called “Superman Sam,” came up with the idea for the shaving campaign along with Rabbi Rebecca Schorr of Emmaus, Pa., shortly before Samuel’s death.
Even though David, 37, doesn’t personally know the Sommer family, he said he felt “connected to them” through the event.
“People will see me bald and ask, ‘Why has this happened?’” said David,who had raised more than $2,000 by the time the electric clippers starting buzzing.
A co-founder of The Running Rabbis, which encourages clergy to run for charity, David raised money last year for a cancer charity as part of his participation in the Boston Marathon. He had already finished the race when the terrorist bombing occurred. He wanted to race again this year, he said, but was recently sidelined with an inflamed Achilles tendon.
Several rabbis who were unable to make it to the mass hair-shedding event shaved their heads elsewhere.
Locally, Rabbi Eric Goldberg of Shir Ami in Newtown Square gave up his hair in March during a special Purim celebration at his synagogue. Reconstructionist Rabbinical College student Matan Peled had his hair shorn for the cause at Keneseth Israel in Allentown on March 30. And Rabbi Jeremy Winaker of Wilmington’s Albert Einstein Academy is planning his shave during a Pasta & Pediatrics fundraiser in Wilmington this coming Sunday, April 13, to be joined by Robinson in a second go-round if he has any new hair to raze, according to Schorr.
In all, 75 rabbis will have their heads shaved for the cause by the end of the month, Schorr said.
While Samuel inspired the shaving campaign, it in turn inspired a new Jewish ceremony.
Volunteers at Mayyim Hayyim, a nondenominational mikvah in suburban Boston, developed a series of blessings for individuals wishing to immerse in a ritual bath before shaving their head or cutting their hair for a charitable purpose.
Schorr reached out to Mayyim Hayyim soon after Sam’s death, asking if the nonprofit, which has developed numerous ceremonies involving mikvah immersion, had a ceremony for people shaving their heads for cancer research.
“We jumped on it,” said Carrie Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. “What’s exciting is it’s a whole new way of thinking about what mikvah can do in our secular lives. There’s a whole religious component, the fact that they are doing this as rabbis, to this very secular occurrence. The idea of marking something in that way and being conscious of the transitions going on in our lives was very exciting.”
The new ceremony, which can also be used by people donating their hair to groups like Locks of Love, consists of three immersions, each preceded by a blessing.
The campaign that culminated in the group head-shaving on April 1 was originally called “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave,” but ultimately recruited twice that many rabbis and raised more than triple its original fundraising goal of $180,000.
According to California Rabbi Charles Briskin, one of the newly bald rabbis, the campaign brought in more money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation than any other single head-shaving event this year.
Founded in 2000, St. Baldrick’s coordinates group shave-a-thons in which volunteers shave their heads to show solidarity with cancer patients who’ve lost their hair to chemotherapy, raise awareness and solicit donations.
Although he did not opt to immerse in a mikvah beforehand, Briskin, of Temple Beth El in San Pedro, said in an email interview that “from a participant’s point of view, having my head shaved last night was truly a sacred experience.”
Whether or not the shavees knew Sammy and the Sommers, during the event all of them were “part of one extended family, sitting, shaving, crying and laughing in solidarity,” Briskin said.
Afterward, he continued, “we just hugged one another, admired our new looks, and, of course, rubbed one another’s heads.”