Thirty-Six Rabbis Shave for the Brave: The Backstory
Sometimes it is a seemingly innocuous comment that can be the beginning of something amazing.
At the end of October 2013, my dear friend, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, casually mentioned to me that the time had come for her to participate in a St. Baldrick's shave event. She first had learned about the St. Baldrick's Foundation just after her son, Sam, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in June 2012. Like many parents of kids with cancer, Phyllis had long yearned to do something to support the important work of St. Baldrick's. I wondered, aloud, if she thought we might get a few of our colleagues to join her and shave their heads as well. And before long, a plot was hatched: what if 36 Reform rabbis would shave their heads to bring attention to the fact that only 4% of United States federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers, as well as raise $180,000 for this essential research?
Just two weeks after this conversation, Phyllis and her husband, Rabbi Michael Sommer, learned that Sammy had relapsed. And they had to tell their eight-year-old son that there were no other treatment options. There was no more hope.
But why would anyone shave his or her head?
In 1999, three business men came up with a unique proposal: to shave their heads for donations to raise fund for kids with cancer. On March 17, 2000, they, along with 16 of their colleagues, shaved their heads for what would become the first St. Baldrick's event.
Since that time, the St. Baldrick's Foundation has devoted its efforts to raising more than $100 million in research grants - all for pediatric cancers.
Kids with cancer often lose their hair as a result of their treatments. Shaving heads is one way to show solidarity with them. It also gets attention - necessary attention - to the fact that so little funding goes to pediatric cancer research.
It might seem odd that a group of rabbis has joined forces with what appears to be a Catholic organization. In fact, that is a common question we get. However, St. Baldrick's is not a religious organization. And there is no actual St. Baldrick. St. Baldrick is a mashup of "bald" and "St. Patrick," paying homage to the first event that was held on St. Patrick's Day in 2000.
Many know that the number 36 has special meaning as it is a multiple of 18, the Hebrew numerical equivalent of the word "life." But in our conversation, Phyllis and I were taken with an additional significance of 36. Our sages teach that at all times there are 36 righteous people in the world and if just one of them is missing, the world itself would come to an end. They are known as the Lamed-Vavniks, based on the numeric equivalents of the two Hebrew letters for 36: lamed, which is 30, and vav, which is six. (Tractate Sanhedrin 97b; Tractate Sukkah 45b).
The identities of the Lamed-Vavniks are hidden from each other and even from themselves. In fact, should a person claim to be one of the 36, that would be proof that he or she most certainly is not a Lamed-Vavnik, as a true Lamed-Vavnik is too humble to think that he or she is that righteous.
But what if, for one moment, everyone behaved as if he or she truly was that righteous? Imagine such a world. What if we could offer our colleagues the opportunity to do something righteous?
And so it was that "36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave" was born.
The response from the rabbinic community has been overwhelming. More than 70 rabbis (and a few rabbinic students) have registered to shave their heads at the upcoming convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which will take place in Chicago from March 30 to April 2, 2014. Nearly two dozen others are serving in some other volunteer capacity for the event. The response to our fundraising requests has been equally impressive. We met our initial goal of $180,000 just a few weeks after we launched the #36Rabbis, and set a new goal of $360,000. Currently, with fewer than two weeks until the event, we have raised more than $432,000 on our way to a new goal of $540,000.
In the wee hours of December 14, 2013, surrounded by his loving parents, Samuel Asher Sommer, z"l, breathed his last breath, and on December 16, 2013, he was tenderly laid to rest by his beloved family and friends.
We are a group of slightly meshugene (crazy) but very devoted rabbis who yearn to do something. We couldn't save Sammy; perhaps, though, we can save others like him, and spare other parents like Phyllis and Michael from the pain of telling their child that there is nothing the doctors can do to save his life.