For almost a month, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer of Am Shalom Synagogue near Chicago has known that her 8-year-old son Sammy will die. So right after Thanksgiving, she decided to join a group of her colleagues who have signed up to shave their heads in solidarity with “Superman Sam,” as he has been known since he was diagnosed with leukemia, and other children with cancer.
The rabbis’ goal: 36 “shavees” going under the razor together on March 31 in a “Shave for the Brave” event at the Reform movement’s annual rabbinical convention to benefit childhood cancer research. Those who can’t make it can shave at home in their synagogues; non-Reform rabbis are also welcome to participate.
“The drugs are out of date,” Rabbi Sommer wrote on her Facebook page after deciding to shave her own head. “The treatments are dangerous and the outcomes are beyond unacceptable. I cannot get what I want. Nothing will change it, nothing will give me my ultimate desire. But I can help to change that outcome for someone else. Do it for all the future Sams.”
Nineteen rabbis have signed up to shave so far. Donors have pledged $13,000, and the event’s organizers plan to raise $180,000 for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit based in Monrovia, Calif., that generates awareness about childhood cancer and raises money for research.
The group began as a one-off St. Patrick’s Day party at which attendees shaved their heads to raise money for the cause. It became a nonprofit in 2005 and this year sponsored over 1,400 such events, said spokeswoman Traci Shirk. In addition to raising money, some participants donate the hair they cut off to groups that provide wigs for sick children, she said.
In June, 2012, Sammy was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, in which the bone marrow produces large numbers of abnormal blood cells that flood the bloodstream and invade organs. At the end of August, he received a bone marrow transplant — his last chance at recovery, said Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, speaking on behalf of the Sommer family. Rabbi Schorr is running the St. Baldrick’s project with Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, in Queens. (She is also a regular contributor to the Jewish Week’s “New Normal: Blogging Disability.”)
Then, on Nov. 12, a dental check in response to tooth pain revealed signs that the leukemia was back, said Rabbi Schorr. The family — Rabbi Sommer’s husband Michael, who is also a rabbi; their three other children; Phyllis’ parents; Michael’s mother and brother and a dear friend — was on a plane to Israel five days later. Now they’re in Florida on a trip sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Other plans of Sammy’s: fireworks shows and ice-skating lessons.
For some, the idea of shaving one’s head is an easy sell — for others, not so much, Rabbi Schorr said. Some are superstitious, and won’t shave their heads lest they tempt fate. Some female rabbis want to participate, but won’t because their husbands don’t even want them to cut their hair, much less shave it off.
Rabbi Sommer has long, thick hair. The shave will also be a way to express her grief: “I am going to shave my head and the whole world will see it. I will not hide my pain.”