From the opening words of the opening event of the Women’s Campaign of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, you could feel intense connections in the room. The event, held at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains on Oct. 27, focused on breast cancer.
Giving the evening’s prayer, Rabbi Randi Musnitzky of Temple Har Shalom, the Reform congregation in Warren, quietly mentioned that she herself is “a veteran of the breast cancer battle, winning it, thank God, so far.”
The keynote speaker was Rochelle Shoretz, the founder of Sharsheret, the organization that provides support for young Jewish women with breast cancer. Sharsheret is Hebrew for “chain,” Shoretz explained, and when someone with cancer turns to the organization, almost the first thing they do is connect her with “a link,” a person who will be there for her — to help navigate the maze of emotions, medical options, and life issues brought up by the illness.
Shoretz stressed that as frightening as the subject can be, if one in nine women gets breast cancer in their lifetime, “that means eight out of nine don’t.”
Eight years ago, when she found out that she had breast cancer at the age of 28, she said she felt isolated. Though that one-in-nine statistic is documented, most women who get the disease are post-menopausal.
Now she is dealing with a recurrence, but things are very different. Shoretz, a lawyer and divorced mother of two sons, is at the very heart of a support network. The people she has brought together have fielded 19,000 calls for help in those eight years. As strong as she was to begin with, there is no mistaking what she has gained from the wisdom and resilience that comes from such sharing.
Sharsheret, Shoretz said, is “not about illness; it’s about healing and helping.”
For young women with breast cancer, she said, communication can be crucial to extending their lives. Orthodox women especially might feel a taboo against talking about either their bodies or their illness. They might also have anxieties about going to the mikva, wearing a wig if they are still single, and the impact on their marriage prospects and those of their siblings if they have an illness with genetic implications.
Strengthening the chain
Speaking afterward, Adina Abramov, director of marketing and communications for the federation, said, “I think that if Rochelle had asked who in the room has had some personal connection with cancer, hands would have gone up everywhere.” She would have been among them. Both she and her husband have dealt with the disease and now provide support for others who have it.
As Maxine Schwartz pointed out, the chain of connection stretches much further than that room. “All of you are saving lives and you don’t even know it,” she said.
Schwartz, the chair of the Women’s Campaign, described a situation she encountered on a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina last year. She was introduced to a program funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that receives funds from the Central federation. The program — headed by Nela Hasic, a Jewish Bosnian whom the JDC helped survive the war in her country — runs breast cancer education events in the capital, Sarejevo. Women there were accustomed to having to wait nine months for a mammogram, and the mortality rate from breast cancer was almost three times higher than in the United States.
Last year, working with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Hasic’s program, the Women’s Health Empowerment Program, ran the first major conference in the country to openly tackle the subject, and the response was enormous. Hasic expected 1,000 attendees; 2,400 doctors and lay people came.
The linkage between the federation and Sharsheret is about to be strengthened. Shari Bloomberg, a social worker with Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey and chair of this year’s Super Sunday as well as next year’s Women’s Campaign Main Event, announced that the Teaneck-based organization is teaming up with JFS to run education and support programs out of the agency’s Elizabeth office, in response to a need expressed in the Orthodox community there.