Two Mississippi rabbis to shave heads for pediatric cancer research

On March 31, Mississippi Rabbis Debra Kassoff and Matt Dreffin will shave their heads, along with dozens of their colleagues from across the country.

The “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” is in memory of “Superman Sam,” the son of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer of Chicago, who died on Dec. 14 at the age of 8.

Kassoff was classmates with the Sommers at rabbinical school. She and Michael Sommer met during interviews at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

“They’re people I have shared a significant chunk of experiences with,” Kassoff noted. The Sommers had their first child while they were all still in rabbinical school. Then Sam was about six months older than Kassoff’s oldest daughter.

After graduating, Phyllis Sommer started the Ima on the Bimah website about Jewish parenting. “Even though we haven’t been geographically near each other for years, I still feel very connected” through the site, Kassoff said.

Sam was diagnosed with refractory acute myeloid leukemia on June 12, 2012. He received a bone marrow transplant on Aug. 27, 2013.

Nationally, a bone marrow donor drive was held in his honor during the High Holy Days. Through the rabbinic network and Phyllis Sommer’s “Superman Sam” website, word of Sam’s illness spread throughout the Jewish world.

In October, Phyllis Sommer talked about shaving her head in solidarity with him and to promote awareness of pediatric cancer. She and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr came up with the idea for the 36 rabbis campaign, with “36 slightly-meshugene, but very devoted rabbis who are yearning to do something” and a goal of raising $180,000 for pediatric cancer research.

They started getting the word out and signing up rabbis. Kassoff said “Immediately when I saw it I knew it was something I wanted to do, and I needed personally to be a part of it.”

Kassoff serves as rabbi of Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, and goes monthly to Temple Or Hadash in Fort Collins, Col. Previously, she was director of rabbinic services for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, visiting small congregations throughout the region.

Dreffin, assistant director of education at the ISJL, had a different route to involvement in the campaign. He noticed on Facebook that many of his colleagues were changing their profile pictures to a Superman logo. “As an avid comic book reader, I was intrigued and had to know why,” he said.

The Institute’s Education Fellows also heard about the campaign and “came running into my office telling me how I had to do it.”

Dreffin has often grown or dyed his hair for Purim or for other Jewish educational endeavors. “I thought, how much more important to do it for this reason.”

The shaving event will be at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ annual convention, which will be in the Sommers’ hometown of Chicago from March 30 to April 2. It was originally hoped that Sam would be in attendance, but two weeks after the campaign began Sam had a relapse and there were no further treatment options.

The campaign gained momentum at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention in San Diego in December, as participants sported buttons declaring that they were shaving their heads, and to ask them why.

Then word of Sam’s death came during the conference. “I did not have any idea how quickly we would lose him,” Kassoff said. “Now that he’s gone, we’re doing it in his memory.”

As of late January, there were 81 rabbis signed up and $268,000 raised. And it isn’t just Reform rabbis — there is a team called Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for a Cure.

The initiative is also to spread awareness of the special challenges posed by pediatric cancer. Of all cancer research funding, just four percent goes to pediatric cancer. Many treatments that are used to fight cancer in adults are not appropriate for children, and there is little drug research aimed specifically at pediatric cancer.

Kassoff noted an additional issue — “if they survive the cancer, they suffer life-long effects from the treatments.”

Kassoff is not yet certain if she will be in Chicago for the convention. “There will be some rabbis who participate from a remote location,” and if she does not attend, she will have it done in Greenville.

Dreffin will be in Chicago, “which, needless to say, greatly disappointed my staff as they were hopeful that they would be the ones doing the shaving.”

The campaign is being coordinated through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. As of press time, Kassoff had raised over $3000 toward her $5000 goal. Her page can be accessed here.

Dreffin’s page can be found here.