Come one day in the spring, Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna will suddenly be bald — but he won’t be alone. He is one of more than 59 rabbis around the country who will shave their heads in memory of Sam Sommers, a Chicago boy known as “Superman Sam” whose life and death galvanized and inspired readers of his parents’ blog about his struggle with leukemia.
The eight-year-old son of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommers of Chicago, Sam succumbed to cancer on Dec. 14. The fund-raiser in his memory for pediatric cancer research has been dubbed “Shave for the Brave.”
Levy considers the Sommerses close friends. Phyllis is an associate rabbi at Congregation Am Shalom in Glencoe, Ill.; Michael is associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Highland Park, Ill.
Levy credits Phyllis with his social media savvy. In a Jan. 3 phone conversation, Levy recalled sitting next to her at a Reform movement convention in Jerusalem a number of years ago and getting into a conversation about social media. When he suggested that Twitter might be a waste of time, she said, “‘Hold it, let me explain.’ She did,” Levy said, “and then she invited me to come to lunch. I met Michael, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Levy, who has set a personal fund-raising goal of $5,000, has already raised $2,000. Temple Shalom will also hold a concert fund-raiser featuring Jewish recording artist Beth Schafer on Sunday, Jan. 26, at 6:30 p.m. Anyone who donates $18 or more to pediatric cancer research will be able to attend the concert as the rabbi’s guest.
Levy remembers hearing the news when Sam was first diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia about a year and a half ago.
“The world came crashing down on all of us,” he said. “How does anyone respond to an eight-year-old being diagnosed with cancer?”
The Sommerses began documenting their journey in a blog, supermansamuel.blogspot.com. Thousands of followers read how Sam completed treatment that led to a short-lived remission. They also followed as, a few months ago, he received a bone marrow transplant and seemed to be heading toward remission when he again relapsed.
Sam had been under home hospice care in the week before his death. “Sam was not alone for a single moment of his life,” Phyllis Sommers posted on Dec. 14. “He died peacefully and calmly and quietly at 12:33 a.m. He was not in fear or in pain. And for that I am eternally grateful.”
Sam was buried in his Superman pajamas and shirt, his favorite hoodie, a Superman blanket, and SpongeBob SquarePants sheets, according to the Times of Israel.
Levy’s voice cracked as he recalled receiving the news and flying to the funeral right from the Union for Reform Judaism biennial in San Diego.
“It’s heartbreaking, and there is no explanation,” he said. During Sam’s illness, he added, “Everyone wanted to do something , but nobody knew what to do.”
Ultimately, through Phyllis, they learned that of all the federal support for cancer research, just 4 percent is earmarked for childhood cancer. Phyllis and a friend, Rabbi Rebecca Shorr, urged people who are committed to the cause not only make donations to support research but to shave their heads in solidarity with young patients.
Even before Sam’s death, they surpassed their goal of recruiting 36 rabbis to the effort. At last count, 59 had pledged to shave their heads. They are aiming to raise $360,000, up from their original $180,000. They have already raised over $244,000.
“We’re just trying to do what we can in the face of a tragic situation,” said Levy. “There’s nothing to do but share love and hugs and hope others don’t have to go through the same pain.”