As I think back on the past 20-some-odd summers at camp, there are probably about a dozen programs that I remember—really remember. I think back on them not only in that I can remember what we did or what we created, but I remember how they felt: the moment of insight, the powerful conversation, the unique energy that was created through the experience.
Tuesday night was one of those programs. Except instead of being at camp, this program happened at a convention of rabbis. But I think that it’s no coincidence that nearly all of the rabbis that participated in this particular program were camp rabbis. Experiential education is so much a part of our thinking that we can’t help but create these moments for ourselves—and use those moments to live out the values that are inherent in the Jewish camp experience.
Tuesday night, I was one of about 53 rabbis who shaved my head. On stage. In front of the rest of the convention. And on livestream.
And like the programs from various summers that I remember, it was a night that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was an experience that really changed me—more than just my hair.
Not only that, it was an experience that enabled me—and the other participants, as well as everyone who supported us—the chance to change the world, and to use the values that we preach and teach.
It was a little over 4 months ago that we became the 36 Rabbis Who Shave for the Brave. But the story really started in June of 2012, when Superman Sam Sommer, son of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, was first diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. While Sam’s life ended with his death in December, Sam’s story has continued (and will continue) for a whole lot longer than the 8 years during which he lived.
Through sharing and reading about the experience of Sam and his family, so many of us have realized so much. Seeing their pain, struggle, and grief, we have understood reality in a different way. Seeing that reality, we’ve learned about the devastating facts about pediatric cancer: Only 4% of federal funds for cancer research goes to childhood cancers; 13,500 children each year are diagnosed with cancer; 40,000 children undergo treatment for cancer each year — treatments that, because of the need for more research for childhood cancer, are out of date and dangerous; and every day, in America, 7 children die of cancer.
Because of what we’ve come to understand, we realized we needed to take action. And so, we joined Sam’s parents in a campaign for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that provides funding for childhood cancer research. We started with the goal of raising $180,000—the week of Sam’s funeral we surpassed that; we’ve increased our goal a few times now and have raised (as of this writing) $574,724. Our current goal is $613,000—I’m not the only one who hopes (and believes) we will surpass that goal…and the next.
Which brings us to Tuesday night, when we shaved our heads as the culmination of this experience. And really, it was a lot like camp. We even made t-shirts. First, we took a ton of pictures. Next, we had a service of healing—praying and singing through tears, as a community. Then, we had an intense, transformative experience—as we took action on an issue we feel is important, and stood in solidarity with our friends—with more tears and much laughter. Then, we put our arms around each other and sang Shehecheyanu.Then, we took more pictures. Finally, we stayed up way too late, talking about the experience we had just shared.
At camp, we talk about Jewish teachable moments. This experience has been a Jewish teachable couple of months. We’ve used our experience and our actions in order to teach others—raising awareness and inspiring others towards action. At camp, we learn that every individual makes a difference. Looking at the donations, most of the shavers and volunteers have raised small amounts; more people participated in this project by donating money—at least according to my own experience, most of those donations are small donations; even more people participated by telling our story, and telling Sam’s story, and helping inspire others—and inspire us.
I am a camp rabbi for many reasons. One of those reasons is that camp gives me experiences like this one. Another is that the things I learn at camp translate to the rest of my year. Another is that I know how much of a difference a really good program can make.
And so, if your rabbi has a new—and much shorter—haircut this summer. Ask them about it—they have a story to tell.
Rabbi Elisa Koppel is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, TX. Her experience with Jewish camp started at age 10 at her first summer at Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, PA and continues each summer (currently as visiting faculty at Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX). To support her effort on 36 Rabbis, click here. Follow her on twitter at @rabbiisa and check out her personal blog, Off the REKord.