Monday, March 24, 2014

Telling the Story: 36 Rabbis

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.  There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go into the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say a prayer.”
And again, the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.”
It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.  Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer.  I cannot even find the place in the forest.  All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.

Childhood cancer kills more children each year than any other disease — more than AIDS, asthma, cystic fibrosis, congenital anomalies and diabetes combined. And yet, all types of childhood cancers combined receive only 4% of the U.S. federal funding for cancer research. More than 175,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer each year.[1]

But tonight I want to tell you the story of one of them.

I met his parents at a poker game in 2002. I think it was in their home. I was invited by another player. I can’t shake from my memory that there was a baby in a carrier on the floor most of the evening. It might have been his older brother David, or it might have been any Cincinnati rabbinical student’s kid. I remember that Mike was very funny when he did speak. I remember Phyllis as being there but not playing. Perhaps she was busy with the newborn or her studies. Maybe she just wasn’t into cards. I remember liking them.

His mom and I participated in a Pre-Passover project in 2010 called Tweet the Exodus, along with 10 or so of our colleagues from all around the country. One of the bonuses to being a part of such a project with so many great rabbis is that there were a lot of terrific blogs to follow. It was fun to read the exploits and ideas of my colleagues and learn from their best practices and from their mistakes. Because I liked her style I regularly read Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s blog posts, in June 2012 I was shocked to read the news.

Sam Sommers, second born to Rabbis Phyllis and Michael, had been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a kind of cancer that starts in the bone marrow and attacks the cells that would otherwise make white blood cells. From the little I know about medical terms, “acute” usually means that something is temporary. In this case, it means it appears quickly and attacks quickly.

Sam was a wild kid with a great imagination. He loved magic and superheroes, and very much loved his big brother David and his younger siblings Yael and Solly. He had a great sense of humor, even through all the tests and treatments and tubes and needles and pain.

During the summer of 2012, Sam and his mom had a conversation about all the people saying Mi Shebeirach for him. She told him that hundreds of synagogues all over the country had his name on the list, and thousands of people were praying for him every day. He wasn’t sure if he believed her, so he asked her, “prove it.” She had the idea that people should send Sam pictures of themselves dressed in superhero T-Shirts, since he was already known around the hospital by the moniker, “Superman Sam.” I was at URJ’s Camp Coleman at the time, and I had about a dozen superhero shirts with me. I asked the entire camp to put on their superhero shirts for lunch the next day. I handed out a few, some of the counselors handed out a few, and about 100 of us went out to the lawn and had a big picture taken for Superman Sam. Our ages ranged from 7 to over 70. We represented four states, 16 congregations, and two NFTY regions. It was a moment of great pride to know that we were among the 500 or so congregations who helped his mom “prove it.”

In January 2013 Sam was finished with his treatments. They threw a celebration in the hospital where he got to ring a bell in celebration of the miracle.

By March he had relapsed. They spent the year in and out of the hospital. In late August, Sam had a bone marrow transplant. It looked good for a while, but in November they realized that the cancer was going to win.

During the URJ Biennial Convention this December, on Friday night, after an amazing Shabbat Service, after an evening celebrating and singing and sharing so much joy, word spread that just after midnight for him in Chicago, at home with his family, Superman Sam took his last breath.

Sam Sommers lost the battle, but the war is far from over.

Sam is far from the only child to contract such a horrible disease. He isn’t even the only Reform rabbi’s child to fight cancer. Sam’s inspirational attitude, his family’s openness, and the close-knit community of friends they have all over the country have brought this fight to the forefront, and now it is our turn to do whatever we can to help.

In memory of Sam and in honor of everyone fighting childhood cancer, a group of rabbis has decided to do something a little drastic to call attention to this fight. Started by Rabbi Rebecca Schorr and Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, two very close personal friends of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, the goal was originally to get 36 rabbis to shave their heads publically to raise money. Rabbi Einstein and I were among the first half of rabbis signed up for the project. At first the goal was 36 rabbis raising $180,000. It seemed like quite a difficult task. A short while later there were over 36 rabbis signed up. A little while after that we had surpassed our original goal and had raised it to $360,000. But we have surpassed that too.

To date there are 94 participants, including nearly 80 of us shaving our heads on April 1 during the CCAR convention.  We are $90,000 shy of our latest goal of $540,000. The money goes to an organization called St. Baldricks, which has given grant money for childhood cancer research to 690 projects for 326 institutions in 20 countries.

So how does shaving our heads raise money for childhood cancer? I’m glad you asked. We raise the money through sponsorship.

Three weeks ago at the NFTY SoCal Social Justice Kallah, the teen board asked me if they could buzz my head to get me started for the shave next month. Half thinking they were kidding, I said, “Sure, if you can raise $1000 for St. Baldricks.” They were more than successful. They raised $1500 for 36 Rabbis.  Quite an impressive group of teens!

Now it’s your turn.

I am asking everyone I know to sponsor my shave on April 1. It’s easy to do and can be done at any level.

All you have to do is go to and search for Rabbi David Young or CBT Rabbis, click the giant green button that says “donate” and give a tax deductible donation in memory of Superman Sam. The CBT Team is Rabbi Einstein, Rabbi Schorr, and me. Rabbi E and I are both shaving, Rabbi Schorr is organizing the whole event.  Once you have found the web site, pass the information along to everyone you know. 

Convince everyone you know to give what they can to save lives.

You might not know the place, you might not have the shears, but now you have the story.  Tell Sam’s story.  We can create the miracles that could save thousands of children.

[1] According to the St. Baldricks web site:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

35 Horas en Antigua, Guatemala (35 hours in Antigua, Guatemala)

I landed Saturday at 9PM and I take off today, Monday, at 8AM. Not nearly enough time here, but it was time well spent.  The first thing I noticed was the lights. As the plane landed in Guatemala City, it seemed that the tallest structures were the street lights, so they hugged the landscape, revealing the sparsely populated rolling hills of what I imagined was a gorgeous country. The drive to Antigua was blind but fascinating, allowing me to glimpse trees in the headlights and feel the winding mountain road under the taxi, but the darkness left the mountainous forest to my imagination.

When I arrived at my hotel I was greeted by Alejandro, whose weak English combined with my weak Spanish allowed us to understand one another just enough for him to show me around as if I were staying in his home.  I learned later that the hotel actually used to be two homes. The owner used to keep one as a summer home, and he was able to buy the next door neighbor's home just about a year ago.  After six months they turned their two properties into a beautiful villa with ten rooms.  Mine overlooked a lap pool and a small yard with a picnic table.  The room itself was gorgeous, with a brick archway separating the bed area from the sitting area, and way more space than I needed on my own.


In the morning I finally got to see Antigua. I was out of the hotel by 8, and started walking around the town. Cobblestone streets and closed storefronts greeted me most of the morning, but a large mountain (that I realized later is actually a volcano), provided a beautiful view no matter where I was in the city. I made my way to "Parque Central," which is more of a town square, and started towards the center, where a statue beckoned for a photo. Called, "The Call of the Sirens," it's four sides feature a woman covering her breasts, from which water shoots through the fingers. As I held up my phone to snap a shot, a man walks up to me and says, "Llamado La Leche Clara, (It's called The Clear Milk)." I answered him in my weak Spanish that it reminded me of a story of Sarah from the Bible, and told him the midrash of Sarah producing so much milk that she could feed all the children of the city. He asked if he could show me around the city, and when I politely refused, he offered to at least take me to the marketplace. Since that was one of the places I wanted to go anyway, I accepted and enjoyed chatting on the way there.

Nothing special about the market, so I spent the morning wandering the streets. Around 10 the city transformed. People started roaming with me, and in no time the streets were overflowing with people. Shops opened, carts rolled out with fruits or ice cream, and peddlers shoved cheap toys or candy in the faces of passers-by.

I found a coffee shop that I was drawn to because of the Hebrew lettering on the sign saying "שלום." I went in and asked the woman behind the counter, "¿Hablas Ebreo? (Do you speak Hebrew?)"  She said no, and I was leaving when she walked out of the store with me to point out the owner. He called himself Chaim, and he told me he had lived in Jerusalem for a year, then Miami, but decided to come home to Guatemala and open two coffee shops. Amazed that I too had spent time in Jerusalem and Miami we had many notes to compare, but when he found out I am a rabbi he would not let me pay for my coffee.  It was my first lesson in the high regard people here hold clergy (a belief I did not have time to debunk in 35 hours). We spent a little while chatting until he had to return to his other coffee shop.  I left on a high from making such a unique connection in such a remote place.

The highlight of the rest of the walk was lunch. I saw a sign that said, "The best terrace in Antigua," so I gave it a try. Up a narrow spiral staircase to the roof of the restaurant, I immediately knew the sign was right. The view was the ruins of a Mayan Temple with the volcano looming in the distance. It was gorgeous. The food wasn't too bad, either. I tried a fish called robalo, and a beer called Gallo. The locals I spoke with had told me Gallo was the beer to try in Guatemala. All I have to say about that is: at least it was cold.

I got back to the hotel around 2, and was planning on a nap when the cleaning crew knocked, so that was out of the question. I wandered out to the hall to sit close to the wifi, and saw a family having lunch. I asked if I could sit and introduced myself, to discover that this was the hotel owner and his family, all of whom were to be guests at the wedding.  Though the conversation took my Spanish to the limits, it was wonderful chatting with them and learning about the hotel, the city, and their connection to the bride and groom. I don't know whether it was how slow my Spanish is or how much I enjoyed the con station, but the next thing I knew two hours had gone by and it was time to get ready for the wedding.

The wedding itself was wonderful. The bride and groom are both models, as are most of their friends, so to say it was beautiful is certainly an understatement.  Two things of note during the party that I find particularly memorable. The first was during the hora.  Guatemalan DJs apparently don't have much access to Jewish music, so the hora included Hava Naglia, Mashiach Achshav, an Irish drinking song, Adon Olam, and a Maccabeats (I think) song I didn't recognize. It was the most ridiculous hora mix I had ever heard, and the guests....LOVED it, even if they didn't know how to make a circle.  During the hora the groomsmen decided to make a line to pass David the groom on their hands. Passing quickly became throwing, and soon the groom's feet were over his head.  Thank God he is so light (model), because they caught him upside down just before he ate dance floor. What did he do next? He got right back up on their hands and let them throw him again. It was an amazing display of perseverance and positive attitude.

The second moment was during the toasts. David's father spoke beautifully about his son and daughter-in-law. One thing of note was the pride he had in his son's accomplishments as a model. He expressed how difficult it can be living in Australia when his son is in New York, then told a story of a time he was driving and saw his son fly past his car.  He realized that it was an advertisement with his son's picture on the side of a bus, and said that because of David's success, no matter where he lived he was never far from his son.

35 hours after I landed, I was sad to have to leave early and excited to head home at the same time. Like the father of the groom implied in his toast, nothing is complete without your family close by.  As great as this trip was, I hope that the next time I come to Guatemala I get to have Natalie and the kids with me. As my wife and children always say, "Everything is better when you share."