Why I Am Shaving My Head

In honor memory of Sam Sommer, Shmuel Asher Uzziel ben haRav Michael Aharon v’haRav Pesach Esther, November 8, 2005–December 14, 2013

For the last year and a half, Michael and Phyllis Sommer—old friends and former rabbinic-school classmates of mine—have walked a terrible and painful road. Their eight-year-old son Sammy, dubbed “Superman Sam” by his fans, had been battling acute myeloid leukemia (AML). On December 16th, that road came to an even more painful end, and now a more terrible new road lies before them: Phyllis and Michael, accompanied by over 1,000 grieving friends and family members, arrived at the cemetery with Sammy, and left without him. He died two days earlier, on Shabbat.

I’ve spoken of Sammy in our congregation before. I felt so proud of our community in September, when we participated in a nationwide High Holy Days Bone Marrow Donor Drive in Sammy’s honor.

In November, when I learned that Sammy was terminal, I felt I had to do something more. Then Sammy’s mother and our colleague Rabbi Rebecca Schorr announced their “crazy” idea: what if thirty-six Reform rabbis would shave their heads to call attention to the woefully inadequate funding of childhood cancer research (only 4% of federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers) and to raise $180,000 for this essential work? (That initial goal has been surpassed and doubled.) Thus the 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave was born, and I signed up.

Several dozen of us will be shaving our heads in March, on the occasion of our annual Reform rabbis’ conference, in memory of Sam, in support of all the kids and families fighting this battle. I am doing it as a tribute to Sammy, his parents, and his three surviving siblings. This family has had a profound impact on my life and the lives of so many of their friends, not to mention readers around the world who followed their blog, www.supermansamuel.blogspot.com, which is an amazing testament of strength and grace, of love and faith.

I’m doing it as a prayer—of thanksgiving, that it hasn’t been my family’s battle; of supplication, that it should never be; of healing, for those whose it is—and as an acknowledgment that—God forbid—this battle might yet become any of ours, any time. And, though I’m not generally superstitious, as a sacrifice (why not?!), in case theurgy is real, to hurry the day when we find a cure.

So many of you have suffered all manner of afflictions in your families. I have had the solemn privilege of accompanying some of you on these journeys. By joining this effort in memory of Sammy, I do not say that his journey is more touching, his cancer more terrible, or his memory more worthy than any other. We are, every one of us, children of God, created in God’s image, and when any of us suffers, God suffers, and we all suffer. And then we are called to do what we can, to bring healing, to do tikkun olam, to repair the world.

Today, this is what I can do. I hope that besides advancing the fight against childhood cancers, my slightly meshuggeneh action may inspire you to take steps of your own, to make a difference in your world, to choose a place to bring healing, to relieve suffering.

If you also feel inspired to contribute to the 36 Rabbis’ efforts, and my personal goal of raising $5,000, I hope you will follow this link: www.stbaldricks.org/participants/mypage/660886/2014   

The Talmud teaches: save a life, and you save an entire world. We lost a world when we lost Sammy. Let’s try not to do that again.