Rabbi Daniel Plotkin, education director of Temple Beth Shalom is bald. Bald as a bowling bowl. And he isn’t alone. He is among 70 other Reform (as well as a few Conservative) rabbis across the country, including Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation, who shaved their heads to raise money for research on pediatric cancers.
The mass hair-shaving fundraiser came about after Samuel “Superman” Sommer, the 8-year-old son of Plotkin and Sharff’s dear friends fellow Reform Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Samuel fought valiantly, but he lost his battle with AML in December 2013. His illness focused Plotkin’s attention on the surprising fact that only 4 percent of cancer research is spent on pediatric cancers. The Sommers decided to do something about it.
Last fall, they joined forces with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that raises money for pediatric cancer research. St. Baldrick’s was founded in 2000 and is an all-volunteer charity committed to raising money for childhood cancer research grants.
St. Baldrick’s raises money through its Shave for the Brave head-shaving events that take place all over the country. Participants shave their heads to show solidarity with child cancer patients who often lose their hair from chemotherapy. The “head-shavers” are sponsored by friends and family members, who make donations to the foundation in their honor.
“Phyllis decided to try to find 36 Reform rabbis who would be willing to shave their heads at our annual Central Conference of American Rabbis on April 1 in Chicago,” said Plotkin. Instead, more 70 rabbis participated. Including Phyllis Sommer, Plotkin said that about 12 women rabbis were among the shorn.
“Some of the women had such long hair that they were able to donate it to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program, which creates wigs for women cancer patients,” said Plotkin.
Plotkin engaged his congregation in the cause too.
“In February, we raised $700 from our religious school students as part of our February tzedakah collection,” he said. The rabbi made the students’ collecting efforts into a contest.
“I offered the first swipe [of hair] to a representative from the class that raised the most money. We had a tie, though. On March 30 at the beginning of religious school, a representative from the fourth grade and the preschool swiped me,” said Plotkin. “They created a reverse Mohawk. Not a good look. It’s much better now that it is all shaven.”
Plotkin raised another $1,000 from religious school families and almost $1,000 more from his own friends and family.
“Now, I’m just shy of $3,000,” he said.
The Chicago event raised a whopping $593,000. Plotkin said the original goal for the CCAR hair-shaving event was $180,000. The rabbis hope to raise $613,000 by December.
Sharff was at first reluctant to have his head shaven and to get involved in a fundraising effort.
“Har Sinai is presently in the middle of a capital campaign,” he said, “and some fundraisers thought that an additional fundraising project might not be a good idea.”
When he arrived at the CCAR, Sharff planned on supporting the event from the sidelines. “Then it dawned on me,” he recalled. “Every one of my closest friends were up there. Much to my surprise, and to the surprise of everyone else, I went up and had my head shaved too.”
Since then, Har Sinai’s rabbi has been making up for lost time with an “after-the-fact” fundraising project.
Sharff is very glad he did it.
“I should have done this from the beginning,” he said. “It would have been a tremendous regret. No one should have to go bald alone.”