Samuel Sommer, the Chicago-area Jewish boy who inspired tens of rabbis to shave their heads to raise funds for pediatric cancer research, died on December 14 at the age of 8.
Many people followed Sammy’s battle against refractory acute myeloid leukemia on the “Superman Sam” blog written by his mother, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Word of Sammy’s passing spread quickly, and it was announced several hours later at Shacharit services at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention currently taking place in San Diego.
“I am breathtakingly, heartbreakingly sad. I’m not even that angry right now… I’m simply sad. Desperately sad,” Sommer wrote on December 11, her last blog entry before her son’s death. Sammy was the second of the rabbi’s four children together with her husband Rabbi Michael Sommer.
Family friend Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr told The Times of Israel that Sammy died peacefully at home shortly after midnight with his parents at his side.
“He had been put on hospice at home on Monday, and by Friday he was unbelievably weak and it was expected that it would happen this weekend.” Schorr reported. “His parents said the bedtime prayers with him. He wasn’t scared. He just calmly went to sleep.”
After Sammy died, his mother picked out clothes for him to be buried in: his Superman pajamas; his Superman shirt; his favorite hoodie sweatshirt; a Superman blanket that someone had given him and that he loved; and his Spongebob sheets.
The funeral for Sammy was on December 16 at Am Shalom in Glencoe, Illinois, where Phyllis Sommer is associate rabbi.
“Over his entire brief but meaningful life, Sammy has taught all of us about courage, struggle, strength, and wisdom. But, over the last year and a half, Sam and the entire Sommer family have taught us all about grace, beauty, peace, and acceptance,” read an announcement put out by the synagogue.
Schorr, who has been organizing the fundraising campaign “36 Rabbis Shave For The Brave” with St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a 13-year-old nonprofit that raises money for pediatric cancer research, said it would continue in Sammy’s memory. As of the day Sammy passed away, 48 rabbis (including 10 women) had registered to shave their heads. An additional 11 rabbis will fundraise for the cause, but will not shave their hair off.
One rabbi’s wife is joining the effort by organizing a cap-knitting project. “There’s going to be a lot more bald rabbis walking around beyond the usually follicly challenged ones,” Schorr remarked. “Any extra caps knitted will be sold, with the proceeds going toward our $180,000 fundraising goal—of which we have already raised more than half.”
Schorr is extremely saddened by the fact that the fundraiser will now be in Sammy’s memory, rather than in his honor.
“Phyllis always imagined that Sammy would get better and one day read her blog,” she said tearfully. “Now, he won’t ever read his story.”
In the days since Samuel’s death, rabbis have continued to join the campaign.
As of Monday, 51 rabbis, most affiliated with the Reform movement, have pledged to lose their locks. Another 11 have volunteered to help in other ways.
According to the according to the “36 Rabbis Shave For The Brave” Web page, the campaign has raised $122,808 as of Monday afternoon.
Rabbi Charles Briskin, one of the rabbis who has pledged to shave his head and raised $4,339, said he signed on because he is friends with the Sommers and “felt propelled by the cause.”
“Following Sammy’s death, there’s just greater resolve to get more people on board to prevent more [families] from having to endure this,” he said. “Our goal is to keep the momentum going as we make our way to Chicago.”
The idea for “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” came in late October, according to Schorr.
“Phyllis was talking about St. Baldrick’s and said maybe it was time for her to shave her head,” she said. “I said, ‘That’s a wonderful idea, and we could probably get some of our colleagues to do it.’ ”
The two set a goal of $180,000 and 36 rabbis. “Then we said, we should all do it together at the CCAR conference since it’s in Chicago, and Sammy can come, too,” Schorr said.
Schorr said the shaving is to show solidarity with children undergoing chemotherapy and to raise awareness.
“It’s important for us to educate people about the lack of funding for pediatric cancer research, and we believe that as rabbis we have power we can leverage when we see a need in society,” she said.
According to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation website, just four percent of money earmarked for cancer research in the United States focuses on pediatric cancers.
As a result, the foundation said, physicians must struggle to apply to children protocols that have been developed for adult patients. Treatment that works for adults can be toxic for children because they are so much smaller.