In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, PopJudaica.com is doing a couple of special things in order to raise funds and provide information and raise awareness of the disease.
Continue reading for an interview with Rochelle Shoretz, who at age 28 was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her experience as an observant Jew afflicted by breast cancer led her to create Sharsheret, an organization that provides culturally sensitive support for Jewish women affected by the disease.
After you read the interview, head over to PopJudaica.com and pick up a pink item -- 20 percent of purchase proceeds will be donated to Sharsheret during the month of October!
To start off, we have to know: The idea for this organization arose when you were in the midst of treatment in 2001. Was there a specific event or instance that made something spark the idea to create Sharsheret? Or was it a building up of events?
Rochelle Shoretz: From the moment I was diagnosed, my goal was to find another young, Jewish woman living with breast cancer with whom I could speak. I had so many NON-medical questions that needed to be addressed: How would I care for my young boys during treatment? How best to prepare for the High Holy days that were soon approaching? And when I was finally connected to another young woman (her name is Lauryn, and she has served on Sharsheret's Board of Directors since its founding), it became clear that we somehow needed to let other young women know that we were out there and available to provide support. At the time, a very kind journalist from the Jewish Week was working on a story about my work in the legal field, and he offered to help publicize if I could get the ball rolling on this "organization" in time for the publication of his story. It was a race against the clock, but Sharsheret was founded in time to be included in that article.
CB: How did you manage to cope with everything while getting Sharsheret rolling? Were there others outside your family who helped? Or were you solo in the beginning?
RS: Sharsheret was a group effort from its inception. My then-husband encouraged its founding, reassuring me that he would get to heaven on my coattails. Lauryn was an inspiration, and then spent hours helping with all of the leg work required to get an organization off the ground -- making phone calls, stuffing envelopes, planning strategy. My friend Sara helped organized some of the very first Sharsheret outreach events. The community -- and particularly my own home town of Teaneck, NJ -- responded to the need and pitched in, offering their time, their networks, their contributions. Although I'm often seen as the face of Sharsheret, the reality is that there are thousands of Sharsheret angels who helped grow the organization.
CB: How did you come about the name for the organization? (Sharsheret is Hebrew for "chain.")
RS: This is going to sound "hokey" -- and I'm not generally a "hokey" person -- but the truth is, the name "Sharsheret" came to me in a dream. While we rushed to pull the organization together in time for the publication of the article I described, we were missing one key ingredient: a name! I think the last time I heard the word "Sharsheret" used before that dream was in a Yeshiva day school class. I woke up knowing that it was right. Our volunteers are called "Links" and our goal is to connect women with each other, like links in a chain.
CB: Is there something unique about the experience of breast cancer for the Jewish woman -- be she old or young?
RS: Yes! While women of all backgrounds share common experiences during breast cancer, we think it is critical to acknowledge some of the unique concerns of Jewish women. First, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes responsible for hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer are much more common in Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent (it is estimated that 1 in 40 Jewish women of Ashkenazi descent carry mutations in these genes compared to 1 in 345 in the general population), making us a critical group for research studies and generating a series of questions for families affected by BRCA1 and 2 mutations. Wearing a wig, which is commonly associated with marriage in Orthodox communities, can make chemotherapy even more trying for women who are not married or of a different Jewish background. Jewish holidays, like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, can be challenging times to reflect on life and death. And the significance of fertility in a community that places tremendous emphasis on family and parenting becomes heightened when compromised by the effects of breast cancer treatment.
CB: Of your many outstanding programs -- outreach, education, etc -- which do you think has been the most successful or inspirational?
RS: It's difficult to identify one program that is the "most" successful or the "most" inspirational because every program at Sharsheret is borne of personal experience. We create each program in response to the needs of our callers, and therefore each breast cancer survivor or family member who finds Sharsheret praises the success of the program that meets his or her critical need. I would say that the most gratifying element of all of Sharsheret's programs is that the breast cancer survivor herself can become a source of support for others through the organization, turning what was once a devastating diagnosis into an empowering opportunity to help others.
CB: I think all of us know someone touched by breast cancer, so how can we become involved in Sharsheret or help out with the organization's efforts?
RS: During the past seven years, we have had a tremendous outpouring of offers to volunteer - so much so that we created a position at Sharsheret to help match volunteers with our programs. Our Volunteer Program Coordinator, who can be reached toll-free at 866-474-2774, will identify meaningful opportunities for anyone - men, women, and children - to become a part of Sharsheret's efforts. Whether it is organizing "Team Sharsheret" in a local breast cancer run, distributing brochures at local hospitals and cancer centers, or organizing a Bar or Bat Mitzvah project as part of a family celebration, there are so many ways those across the country are helping us share Sharsheret with others.
CB: It seems that Sharsheret is an ever-growing organization, what do you see as the future of the program?
RS: We are currently in the midst of a critical strategic planning process, working with an outside consultant, our staff, our constituents, and our Board of Directors to shape Sharsheret's growth over the next three to five years. Sharsheret has been such a success that we are asked often to expand in many directions. We're all as excited as the rest of the community to help identify the most meaningful path for growth in the years ahead.
CB: What to you has been the most rewarding part of founding Sharsheret? What would you like our readers to know about the organization that might pique their interest amid the High Holiday season?
RS: Personally, the most meaningful aspect of founding Sharsheret has been the impact it has had on my own children -- teaching them, firsthand, that we can use life's challenges as opportunities to help others. And I think that's the part that resonates with the rest of the Jewish community as well. Together, we've grown a small group of committed breast cancer survivors into a national organization helping thousands of women and their families, educating communities, providing critical resources to those who, before Sharsheret, did not have a meaningful avenue for support. I think the High Holiday season and Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October each year) couldn't be more perfectly timed. Both are opportunities for deep reflection and prayers for happiness and continued health. The entire Sharsheret community thanks you all -- the founders and supporters of PopJudaica.com -- for all that you have done since Sharsheret's founding to aid in our efforts to support Jewish women and families facing breast cancer, and we share our best wishes for happiness and health during this meaningful time.
To find out more about Sharsheret, visit Sharsheret.org and to support this incredible organization, and Shop for Sharsheret at PopJudaica.com!
Rochelle Shoretz was interviewed by Chavi Edwards.