Eden, an eight-year-old with a long, chestnut braid, stood in front of the hairdresser’s mirror, holding her hair in one hand and peering at her mother over her shoulder.
“I’m not sure she’s quite ready to cut it off,” her mom told Ophir Hashmonai, the salon owner, who was ready to snip off the hank of hair.
While Eden had been growing her hair for this purpose for nearly one year, she was still hesitant.
Hashmonai told Eden: “I’m here whenever you’re ready.”
The hairdresser in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka cuts hair for donations nearly every day, he said, mostly from teenagers and girls.
They find him through the website of Zichron Menachem, a cancer support organization that makes wigs for cancer patients, among the many other services it offers for patients and their families.
His salon is one of 480 across Israel that offer the haircut service for free.
“I call it the network of beautiful Israel,” said Chaim Ehrental, who founded Zichron Menachem with his wife, Miri, after their son Menachem died of leukemia at age 15, having been diagnosed 13 years earlier, at the age of two.
“That’s a lot of people out there who stand on their feet all day,” said Ehrental, referring to the hairdressers. “And thousands of girls who grow their hair and give it up.”
Noam and Inbal donated their hair to make wigs for cancer patients. What a beautiful act of kindness ❤
Israeli women, teenagers, girls and the occasional guy who donate their ponytails to Zichron Menachem post pictures of their former ponytails on social media, showing their experience in the hairdresser’s chair. There are schools and even army units of female cadets that host haircutting days, gathering all those who have been growing their hair for this very purpose.
They do it for the mitzvah, the good deed. In fact, this year, there has been a significant increase in the number of braids and ponytails donated, according to a spokesperson for the hair donation program.
What they don’t always realize is that not all the hair donated to Zichron Menachem is used for wigs.
According to the Hebrew version of the Zichron Menachem site, it’s fine to donate colored hair, but any hair that’s undergone chemical treatment, or that is not a full foot (30 centimeters) in length once braided, can’t be used toward a wig. The site also specifies that hair that can’t be used for a wig will be sold and the proceeds will go toward the making of other wigs.
Those stipulations aren’t as clear in the English version of the organization’s website.
Zichron Menachem is trying to clarify the stipulations for hair donation, noting the 30-centimeter length of donated ponytails and braids repeatedly in its Hebrew advertisements.
During the organization’s recent January 2020 drive for hair donations, which including sending the Zichron Menachem haircutting van to locations around the country, the length and quality of the donated hair was better than previous years, said the program’s spokesperson.
It’s just realistic that not all donated hair can be used to make wigs, said Dee Shottland, one Jerusalem wigmaker who is also a cancer survivor and runs her own organization, Wigs for a Cause, out of her Jaffa Road shop, collecting new or used wigs that are refurbished by her and given free to women undergoing treatment.
“They’re not hiding anything,” said Shottland of Zichron Menachem. “But people have to understand that if you have 1,000 ponytails, you don’t need all 1,000. If you care [about what’s done with your donated hair], don’t donate; but if you don’t, then they do other things with it.”
Zichron Menachem offers after-school activities, therapies for parents and children, hair salons, a gym, exercise classes and special consultations with oncologists, as well as a cannabis pharmacy for those using medical marijuana to offset the effects of chemotherapy.
One hundred children can walk through the Jerusalem center on any given day, and there are generally around 300 families each year utilizing the facility, which has been open for 15 years, said Ehrental.
And many of those visitors come to get fitted for a wig while undergoing chemotherapy and suffering the hair loss that usually accompanies treatment.
Five years ago the organization paired with the Israeli offices of Pantene, the shampoo made by multinational company Procter & Gamble.
The local staff of Procter & Gamble had read an interview in an Israeli paper about Zichron Menachem and its wig services along with the scarcity of hair donations to make wigs for all of their patients.
At the time, Zichron Menachem only made wigs for patients aged 25 and younger, because they didn’t have enough hair or money to fund wigs for all who needed.
The two organizations clicked and joined forces, said a Procter & Gamble Israel spokesperson, and within three years, there was enough hair donated to make wigs for all Zichron Menachem participants, of any age.
The Procter & Gamble group in Israel was surprised that it worked, and elated. While Procter & Gamble in the US had its own hair donation program, Beautiful Hair, the Israel outfit had no connection with that non-profit group.
In fact, Pantene and Procter & Gamble ceased the American operation of Beautiful Hair in 2018, after deciding that artificial hair wigs were a better option for cancer patients.
There are no plans to stop the Israeli program, said the Procter & Gamble spokesperson.
“It’s moving for us to know that year after year we succeed in bringing a real change in the lives of so many women, girls and children,” she said. “It’s no less emotional for us to know that we’re part of a nation that shows how big its heart is, standing strong by those who need our help. We believe in the campaign and will continue to invest resources, ideas and love in it.”
The multinational giant gives a lot of money, said Ehrental, including covering all advertising for the hair donation campaigns. In January, it sent a haircutting van to seven locations around the country in order to cut ponytails grown for donation.
“Many people donate because of the Pantene campaign,” he said.
Zichron Menachem has its own team of wigmakers who process the hair donations and painstakingly turn them into wigs.
There are tens of hair donations every month and hundreds in a year, said Bosmat Braitman, the head wigmaker at Zichron Menachem, who works out of a small, well-fitted wig salon in the Kiryat Moshe headquarters.
Braitman, like Shottland and many other wigmakers in Israel, is religiously observant and wears a wig to cover her own hair. She first began making wigs for other religious women, and understands exactly how a good wig should feel and fit.
The donated hair is washed, sorted by length and color and straightened. The work is done by hand, said Braitman.
“This is the world around cancer,” said Ehrental. “The first question a person with cancer asks is, ‘What will I look like?’ That’s where the wig idea came from.”
“We wanted to help people with all our knowledge,” he said.
At Zichron Menachem, patients are asked if their medical insurance covers a wig, which it often does, and that money is used toward making or providing the wig. But patients are never asked to pay anything out of pocket, said a Zichron Menachem spokesperson.
Wigs for girls up to age 25 are made according to their head size, which can still be changing at that age. For anyone over 25, Braitman often takes existing wigs and fits them to the customer.
She works closely with the patients, using pictures of what their hair looked like before treatment.
“It’s a very close connection that I have with them,” she said. “I’ve seen everything. There are people who relate to it very practically and there are women who fall apart and I become their social worker.”
Braitman figured that nearly 70% of her donors have donated their hair previously, or are following in the footsteps of their mothers, aunts or cousins.
Still, some donors have gotten cold feet because of the fact that Zichron Menachem doesn’t use all donated hair.
Shira Pasternak Be’eri, a Times of Israel blogger, wrote about her hair donation process, which took four years.
She wanted to be sure that her hair would be used only for a wig, and not for operating expenses. She ended up donating to Shottland’s Wigs for a Cause, where her hair was found to be long enough to make several wigs.
Hair donations aren’t easy to process, said Shottland. Each ponytail contains many different lengths of hair and some can be unusable, or with split ends.
She buys her own wig hair lengths from a few different agents, keeping to Russian and Uzbek hair that is generally rich and lustrous. She commented that one never knows what they’re getting with hair donations, which is why she spends considerably on her skeins of hair.
“Pretend this hair is from a woman who ate lamb chops in the mountains and her hair is luscious and strong,” she said, running her fingers through one skein.
It costs more to deal with a donated ponytail, said Shottland. Donated hair is considered to be raw material, as it needs to be separated into different lengths, which she pays other people to do for her. It’s then threaded into a cap in a process that can take six to eight weeks for a custom-made wig.
She tends to make wigs for cancer patients out of donated wigs, or the occasional donated ponytail.
The hair donations are often part of a bat mitzvah project, done together with friends, sometimes more than once throughout school years.
Elah Frank, 15, said it took her about eight months to grow out her wavy dark brown hair, but she wasn’t immediately ready to let it go.
“I didn’t want to, it was weird to chop it off,” she said. “But I was thinking about doing it for a long time, and I wanted to do a big mitzvah and I decided it’s good to have something new and change something.”
When she finally did do it, Frank said she felt a sense of freedom from the weight of all that long hair.
Now she’s waiting for her hair to grow to do it again. And many of her friends followed her lead.
Shaked Gojman, 30, from Kibbutz Sde Boker, recently cut off his long ponytail, after growing it for six years following his army service.
It was his second time donating his hair, having done so before he went into the army. He said he would happily donate his beard as well, if they would take it.
“What else can I do with all that hair?” said Gojman, who got the idea to donate his ponytail after seeing the Pantene and Zichron Menachem ads.
Ehrental likes to tell stories about other hair donations, including one older woman who recently donated for the third time. When she donated the first time, it was in honor of her 70th birthday and she unknowingly headed to her surprise birthday party just after cutting her hair off.
“It’s not a simple thing to cut your hair off,” said Ehrental. “It’s the crowning glory of your head, and when you cut it off, you look different.”