Maybe it’s the high heels. Maybe it’s the sky-high spirits. Maybe it’s the smile hinting ever so slightly of mischief. But when I meet Rochelle Shoretz at a downtown Starbucks on a recent bright September day, I’m surprised.
Shoretz — who founded the organization Sharsheret, which this month celebrates a decade of helping young Jewish women facing breast cancer — bears no observable trace of anger or anxiety, self-pity or sadness. Never mind that a year and a half ago, at the age of 36, Shoretz learned that her breast cancer had returned. That this time the disease had metastasized.
Never mind that Shoretz is a divorced mother of two teenage sons. She’s grateful, she says, to know her ex-husband’s second wife, the woman who will look after her children if Shoretz should die before they’re grown. She’s so lucky, she says, to be “able to hug that person and say thank you so much for helping raise my boys. It’s indescribable.”
“They often say when you lose one of five senses, your others are enhanced,” says Shoretz. “I wonder if life feels so much more powerful and vibrant because I lost some of my health.”
Shoretz laughs merrily. She takes a sip of hot chocolate, her first food of the day. An attractive woman of tall stature, a dark dress complementing her strawberry blond hair, Shoretz almost looks the part of a celebrity. She has carefully draped five additional outfits over her chair, and now holds each one — sexy, playful, sophisticated — up for display. She didn’t know which would be most suitable for her photo shoot earlier today for the Lions of Judah conference, where she will speak in November. In the end, she lugged them all. The collection includes a dazzling cream-colored dress she wore the week before to celebrate as her younger son, Dovid, became bar mitzvah.
This Yom Kippur, Shoretz spent the day caring for a friend in the hospital, intensely praying during free moments, reflecting on all that occurred since last fall. It is a year that not only included Dovid’s bar mitzvah, but also her sister Dalia’s pregnancy, her older son Shlomo’s graduation from middle school, and the continued growth of Sharsheret.
“There’s so much in life to appreciate,” says Shoretz. She doesn’t allow herself to entertain thoughts about mortality, instead focusing on “enjoyable, enriching, meaningful ways to live.”
Hers is a life so crammed with activity that on a recent day, she’d already attended two Manhattan meetings by 1 p.m., and planned to attend two more after our interview, before meeting Dovid’s yeshiva bus that afternoon at 5 in Teaneck, N.J., following which she would supervise homework and prepare dinner.
Hers is a life that often includes 10- to 15-mile walks on weekends in the New Jersey parks, where, she says, “I do some of my best thinking.” Hers is a life with a past that includes a stint as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a future that will likely include a sprint around the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, where Israel’s first Race For the Cure will be held later this month. And that experience will bring her life full circle.
“After my first diagnosis, I took the boys to Israel for the first time.” Now, 10 years later, Shoretz says, “It’s my time to run around these very walls. I get to say, ‘Thank you’ for my health.”
You look great, I say. You must be feeling well these days.
In Shoretz’s smile, I sense a shrug. “You see this,” she says, indicating her lush, hair, her pretty face, her stylish, form-fitting dress.
What I don’t see, she explains: the disease’s progress internally. “It’s not what I choose to focus on,” she says.
“Sometimes people look to us people with cancer as angelic, extraordinary in the way we approach life,” says Shoretz. Really, we’re able to shift gears, she says, because “we’ve had a pause.”
“A year and a half ago, it seemed very bleak,” says Shoretz. “But the more time that goes on, the more I think maybe I’ll be around for another 10, another 20 years. Maybe I’ll be able to dance at a wedding.”
“Maybe,” she says, her smile widening, “I’ll be able to see some grandchildren.”
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at email@example.com.