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Idea #18: A ‘Day of Empowerment’ for Jews Facing Serious Illnesses

As a two-time breast cancer survivor, I’ve been on the receiving end of the Jewish community’s response to serious illness for almost 10 years. We are an incredibly charitable people; over the years, I have been inspired by the lengths to which we will go to encourage Jewish men, women and children to help the sick. We train our rabbis on sensitivity in speaking with ill congregants. We teach our young ones the mitzvah of bikur cholim, or visiting the sick. We encourage our community members to set up prayer groups to recite tehillim (psalms) and chesed organizations to prepare meals and offer childcare. I am grateful for all that the community has done for me, and for all those facing serious illnesses. But I think we can be doing so much more for ourselves.

Here’s an idea: Let’s use Jewish ritual and tradition to empower the thousands of Jews facing serious illnesses. I envision an annual “Day of Empowerment” — in the model of Limmud — during which organizations of all types, and Jews of all professional and personal backgrounds, come together for a series of interactive workshops.

Workshop topics could include:

• Using the mikveh as a healing ritual for men and women
• What Jewish texts can teach us about illness
• Composing meaningful prayer
• Jewish journaling
• Finding calm in Jewish meditation, yoga, and music
• Cooking healthy, kosher food
• The Jewish holidays as an opportunity for renewal

This new idea stems from our successful experience at Sharsheret, a national organization offering a community of support to women of all Jewish backgrounds diagnosed with breast cancer or at increased genetic risk for the disease. The bimonthly Sharsheret program Embrace connects young women living with metastatic breast cancer and uses Jewish holidays as cornerstones of empowerment — Hanukkah, in exploring the power of miracles; Purim, and the importance of incorporating laughter in healing. Like the Embrace program, a “Day of Empowerment” could bring together those facing illness, and surround them with others passionate about Judaism and knowledgeable about the ways in which we can use Jewish resources to create foundations of meaningful Jewish experience.

For generations, health issues in our community have been shrouded in secrecy. My own grandmother, who died of breast cancer, did not use the word cancer during her lifetime. Still today, Sharsheret is approached confidentially by those who fear that disclosure or discussion of their diagnosis may affect their children’s ability to marry because genetic disorders appear to deem their family unsuitable. As a result of that silence, and the stigma so often associated with serious illness, we have missed an opportunity to engage Jews of all backgrounds. Only when we begin to understand illness as a lifecycle event — akin to marriage or childbirth — will we fully recognize the potential to engage Jews at a time in their lives when they are seeking community, a safe space in which to enhance their individual journeys.

A “Day of Empowerment” will connect men and women who share a common life experience — illness — and arm them with Jewish tools. It will provide thousands who may feel disconnected from, or less than fully engaged with, affiliated Jewish life the opportunity to experience something Jewish and uplifting at a time when they may feel their most isolated. Perhaps most significantly, a “Day of Empowerment” will generate positive (and not pathetic) discourse about illness among Jews, and what we can do to better our own lives.

Jewish values have inspired incredible action on the part of the community to address the needs of those who are sick. We can inspire so much more by empowering those facing illness with the rich Jewish resources of that very same community.

Rochelle Shoretz is the founder and executive director of Sharsheret, a national organization supporting young Jewish women and their families facing breast cancer. A former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Shoretz lectures nationally on health and women’s issues. She is a former Joshua Venture Group fellow and resident of Bikkurim, and is currently a member of the board of directors of the Joshua Venture Group.

This post is part of the series “28 Days, 28 Ideas.” Be sure to check out yesterday’s idea, “New ideas from the Old World” on eJewish Philanthropy and tomorrow’s on FederationConnection, the new blog of the Jewish Federations of North America. You can also visit for the full list of ideas as they progress.

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