Rochelle Shoretz, whose own breast cancer diagnosis at age 28 led her to found the national cancer organization Sharsheret, was remembered this week as a “passionate,” leader whose “tenacity” and “intense optimism” helped thousands of women with cancer and their families.
Shoretz died Sunday afternoon at her home in Teaneck, N.J. She was 42. The cause of death was complications from breast cancer.
“We at Sharsheret have lost our founder, our leader, our mentor,” a statement from Sharsheret said. “The Jewish world and the cancer world have lost a true champion of women and their families. … Her passion and drive will forever remain the foundation of Sharsheret. … We will honor her memory by dedicating ourselves to continuing the critical work she loved so much.”
On Sharsheret’s website, the organization invited people to post memories of Shoretz and within hours, dozens had responded.
“With boundless energy, intense optimism and laser sharp focus, Rochie proceeded to raise her sons, create Sharsheret, [and] inspire thousands of women and to forever change the landscape of breast cancer awareness and support,” wrote Tzippy (Schulman) Wolff, a longtime friend.
“In short, she made it her business to leave this world immeasurably better than when she got here,” she continued. “As paradoxical as it sounds, she had a ‘long life’ in her too-short 42 years. I will miss her indomitable spirit, her quirky humor, her infectious laugh and her warm smile. She was larger than life. I know that she will live on in each of us who was blessed to have shared in her magnificent journey.”
“She was truly a bright light to the greater community,” wrote Linda Blachman, founder of the Mothers Living Stories Project.
Shoretz founded Sharsheret in 2001 while undergoing chemotherapy. The organization provides health information and support services for Jewish women living with breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or who are at increased risk for those diseases.
The organization’s name is Hebrew for chain.
Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent are at heightened risk for certain genetic mutations that can lead to cancer.
“When I was diagnosed [in July 2001], there were a lot of offers to help with meals and transport my kids, but I really wanted to speak to another young mom who was going to have to explain to her kids that she was going to lose her hair to chemo,” Shoretz told JTA in 2003.
In a video of a talk she gave three years ago at Tribefest, a conference sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America for millenials, Shoretz said her work with Sharsheret was “unapologetically Jewish” and she urged her audience to live lives in that spirit as well. “Embrace it. Own it,” she said, “because at the end of the day, our legacy will be unapologetically Jewish.”
A graduate of Columbia Law School, Shoretz went on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is thought to be the first Orthodox Jewish woman to clerk for a Supreme Court justice.
“She told me she affixed the mezuzah on Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s door at the Supreme Court,” Stuart Himmelfarb, who first met her in 2004, when she was a fellow at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Berrie Fellows Leadership Program, wrote in an email to The Jewish Week. “She was so gracious and conveyed incredible power in terms of her commitment, intelligence, tenacity, dedication to her cause … and truly was always trying to help.”
Shoretz beat her initial bout with breast cancer. But in 2009 the cancer returned, and it had spread. No longer curable, it was treatable — and friends say her energy and resolve were boundless until the end.
Shoretz is survived by two teenage sons, Shlomo and Dovid Mirsky; her mother, Sherry Tenenbaum; her father, Morris Shoretz; five sisters and two brothers. She was a stepdaughter of Jeffrey Tenenbaum and Carol Ann Finkelstein.
The funeral and interment were held Monday in New Jersey.
JTA contributed to this report.