Along with the rest of the world, particularly, the interconnected collective family known as “the Jewish community,” our hearts broke when we heard that the 8-year-old boy known as Superman Sam had died.
Our prayers are with his family.
Our anger at cancer is shared with all.
And some of the concrete actions we can take, even from down here in the Deep South, will be personal and direct.
Two rabbis connected to the ISJL – Rabbi Matt Dreffin, our current Assistant Director of Education, and Rabbi Debra Kassoff, our first-ever itinerant rabbi, will be participating in 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave.
As the 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave fundraising website describes, Rabbis Phyllis Sommer and Rebecca Schorr had a crazy idea: 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? Two weeks after this conversation, Phyllis and her husband, Michael, learned that their son, Sam, had relapsed with AML (acute myelogenous leukemia) and that there are no other treatment options for him. And just this past Shabbat, as my Rabbis Without Borders colleague told us, Sam left this world.
36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. That’s who we are. Thirty-six slightly-meshugene, but very devoted rabbis who are yearning to do something. We can’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 that the doctors can do to save his life.
Rabbi Kassoff has already shared an initial post on her participation; both Rabbi Dreffin and Rabbi Kassoff’s journey to raise awareness, raise money for children’s cancer research, and share hope by shaving their heads will be chronicled here. We applaud all of the #36Rabbis taking this on, and encourage you to support them.
L’shalom – to peace, and to the end of childhood cancer and all cancers. Amen.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
This post continues our December series on the life and work of AIDS activist Chuck Selber.
Chuck was, as his mom Flo Selber puts it, “ahead of his time.”
In Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Selber family had a clothing store for men, women and children. Chuck was in charge of the fashion show and included black citizens as models. This was one of many times when Chuck stood up to discriminatory norms.
In 1988, he wrote a letter to his family: “In the event that I, Charles Paul Selber, predecease my father and my mother, I would appreciate that upon both my parents’ death…. [my nieces and nephews] shall be asked to donate volunteer time to a human rights organization other than a Jewish one on a regular basis.”
He was never one who cared only for “his own” group. Chuck was an AIDS activist and a human rights advocate and he often tried to engage others in this holy work too.
Chuck did attribute his deep commitment to human rights to his Jewish upbringing. He was, as he explained, taught to never forget the Holocaust, and to never let it happen again. “I took that Judaic instruction very seriously, and I have based my entire consciousness on it,” he wrote. In addition to regularly attending religious school, Chuck was First Vice-President of the Southern Federation of Temple Youth, SOFTY (now NFTY-Southern), a regional Reform Jewish teen network, and took his role very seriously. He served alongside Macy Hart, founder and President of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Chuck was a writer, and like many writers, he wrote with the goal of bringing about social change. Chuck clearly believed in the power of writing. According to his mother Flo, he was always at his typewriter—feverishly writing. In 1990, he wrote to Dr. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, requesting that he consider certain medical expenses to be approved as itemized deductions. In a collection of his writing, a pile of responses to letters he wrote to people in positions of power demonstrates his commitment to bringing about systemic change.
Chuck used his writing skills, his experience as a director, and his work in the entertainment and film fileds to advocate on behalf of people living with AIDS. He wrote a play, “In Defense of the Committee,” based on the premise that if policy makers were affected by AIDS, the treatment of AIDS would be a greater priority. In the first scene of his play we learn about “the committee” that went around infecting the sons and daughters of politicians with the AIDS virus. The message is clear: when we feel that we are being treating unjustly, we take greater responsibility for bringing about change.
Complacency, he seems to say, is the outcome of having little, if any, connection with the issue. He distinguishes people with AIDS from people who retired and infers that people who have retired receive more generous benefits because every congressman knows that they will be in the position of a retiree one day. It’s inescapable when it’s personal.
Do you have ideas about how to raise awareness among people who are not directly impacted by an issue? What are your ideas?
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
For many years, social activists and academics have pontificated on the role that anger plays in the pursuit of social justice. Is it possible that until injustice leads to an escalation of anger, the status quo will be maintained? Do we really have to get angry to be in a position to make a difference? And once we are fired up and ready to make a difference, is it the people with the most anger who can make the greatest impact?
There are no absolute answers to these questions. However, it is clear that anger has its place in the process of social change.
In honor of World AIDS Day, marked on December 1 each year, I wanted to share some words from an activist who was energized by his anger and was able to make a difference. Often, activists hide their anger for fear that it may negatively affect the outcomes they are trying desperately to achieve. But sometimes, anger cannot be hidden – and perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Charles “Chuck” Selber, a Jewish man from Shreveport, Louisiana, didn’t keep his anger inside. He wrote a play, countless letters, and newspaper articles as he repeatedly tried to explain—never defend—the anger that he embodied as an AIDS activist in the 1980s. Chuck was one of three individuals who founded ACT-UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power). In a letter Chuck wrote to his dad in 1990, he stated “ACT-UP has succeeded because of people who are angry and because of people who get mad.”
In the 1980s there was no shortage of reasons for someone living with HIV/AIDS to be angry. Chuck’s mom, Flo Selber, explained to me that in all of Shreveport, there was only one pharmacy that sold AZT (then the only “cocktail” for treating HIV/AIDS). Dentists would not take patients with AIDS. Their ophthalmologist would only see Chuck after office hours, when other patients wouldn’t know about it. Regarding medicine, Chuck wrote “We won’t allow toxic poisons into our community. We don’t want gangs or drug pushers or neo-Nazis in Shreveport. Why don’t we want life-saving medicine?”
Chuck Selber passed away December 22, 1991 at the young age of 43. One of the many obituaries published at the time of his death provides a glimpse of the reach Chuck had during his short life: “There is hardly an effort in this community involving AIDS victims that did not bear the imprint of Mr. Selber’s activism.”
Anger, it seems, was one of the tools he used to raise awareness and find his voice. In honor of World AIDS Day, and with permission from Chuck’s mother, Flo Selber, we are going to share two more blog posts with excerpts from Chuck’s play, In Defense of the Committee.
Though World AIDS Day is today, throughout the month of December this social justice topic will be explored deeply, through Chuck’s words and legacy of righteous indignation at a world not willing to grant him the help and dignity he deserved.
On World AIDS Day, how is your community acknowledging the impact AIDS continues to have on the world? Are there specific injustices that make you angry, and if so, how do you channel your anger?