As part of our month-long series dedicated to Women, Work & Money, Rochelle Shoretz tells us how she went about founding Sharsheret, an organization for Jewish women facing breast cancer.
I decided to study law because I thought it would open doors.
I was a second year college student in New York City, spending most of my time thinking about those doors–worrying about what was behind each and what I would forego when I had to choose just one. And so I simply wouldn’t choose. I entered law school not for the law degree, but for the skeleton key I thought I would find there for almost any other profession.
With years, I surprised myself and began to enjoy lawyering. I had the honor of serving as a law clerk to Judge Amalya Kearse of the Second Circuit and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court. I worked at a prestigious New York law firm. And I was finally ready to exchange my skeleton key for one that would unlock a lifetime of service as an attorney.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28, and I hung up my key during chemotherapy and radiation treatments that I balanced while raising two young children. I also took five years to establish Sharsheret, a national organization supporting young Jewish women facing breast cancer. I used the skills I had honed as an attorney to set up a corporate structure, negotiate contracts, and cultivate national partnerships. But truth be told, during those five years, I barely thought about the practice of law, working through the night at times to grow the organization that had taken on such an important role in my healing.
As the founder of a national cancer organization with an expertise in Jewish families, people are often surprised to learn that I didn’t grow up with a deep involvement in the Jewish community. Yes, I went to yeshiva, we observed Shabbat and the holidays, my friends called me Rochie for short. But my parents were not particularly involved in Jewish communal life, and I never saw myself as a Jewish communal professional. I never considered that my skeleton key could fit in a door I didn’t even recognize.
But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time, my focus turned to the Jewish community. We seem to have an organization to address every malady. And we seem to be so hard hit by breast cancer–the aunt on Long Island, the cousin in Chicago, grandma in Miami. Why didn’t we have a Jewish response to breast cancer? I founded Sharsheret to fill that void, not recognizing at the time that Sharsheret would fill a void in my own life, too.
I’ve done a lot of amazing things in 40 short years–I clerked for the Supreme Court, learned how to kayak in class 4 white water, took an impromptu trip to South Africa with friends when I was diagnosed, for the second time, with metastatic breast cancer. But as someone living with a sharpened sense of the value of time, I appreciate that nothing has given my life more meaning than sharing Sharsheret’s unapologetically Jewish message worldwide. Nothing.
Of course, there are challenges that unite people the world over–poverty, injustice, disaster. And yes, cancer affects women and families of every background. But our unapologetically Jewish voice on all of these issues can both enhance the lives of those in our community and create models that we share with those beyond our community.
My key fits in another door these days–a door that I didn’t recognize when I was younger and blessed with so many incredible choices. I’m learning to let some of the other ones close softly behind me.
This series was brought to you by a generous grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. JWFNY encourages women to make change. Learn more at JWFNY.org.