Another lesson from Superman Sammy

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

By now, most of you reading this have probably heard the incredibly tragic story of the loss of a phenomenal young boy named Sammy Sommer. His parents, Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer were both in Rabbinical School at the same time as I was in Cincinnati and I am blessed that our paths crossed and we became friends.

supman sam

Like countless others, I was so moved by Sammy’s battle with leukemia. I stayed up to date on his progress by reading his parents’ blog, by making sure to read his name aloud from  our meshbayrach list at my congregation, by buying a tshirt he helped to design, and simply by praying. Along with a number of my colleagues (including a few who have written for this blog- Rabbi Adar and Rabbi Winnig), I decided to join #36rabbis “Shave for the Brave” and commit to shaving my head. At first I signed up hoping to honor this amazing young boy…and then sadly and far too quickly my commitment became one of memorializing a hero, as Sam departed this earth back in December.superman sam ribbon

When I signed up to shave my head of course I had a few reservations. How would my congregation react to seeing their rabbi bald, especially at major events such as B’nei Mitzvah?  Or how would one of my best friends feel if I had to wear a wig at her wedding while I was serving as both a bridesmaid and the rabbi? Truthfully, after a little ponderance and a few conversations, I wasn’t so worried anymore.

My next concern came about with what to make as my fundraising goal.  Should I make it something I knew I could easily reach…or should I “reach for the stars?” After a little “back and forth,” I set my goal as something I know is rather high.  Over the last few days I’ve thought about changing my goal to make it something that I can more easily attain.

However, upon reflection on the life of Sammy Sommer, I know I must reach for the stars. I know that my goal may be a little high, but I also know that I’ll either meet it or at the very least I’ll work REALLY hard to get as close as possible.  I’m already so proud of the students at my congregation who helped by putting on a talent show to raise funds. I’m also incredibly grateful to my friends, friends of friends and even strangers who’ve donated on my behalf.

No matter how much I personally raise- whether I hit my goal or not, I know that an additional legacy of Superman Sam will be for me- and hopefully others- to set our goals high and constantly reach for them.

I pray that Sammy’s memory will always be for a blessing and that his legacy will be for a better world. I pray that through our fundraising campaign- a campaign that to date has already raised over $349,000, a cure for childhood cancer will soon be found.shave for brave badge

If you are so moved, please feel free to sponsor me (click here) , Rabbi Adar, Rabbi Winnig or any of the rabbis participating in this campaign to eradicate childhood cancer.  Together we can truly make a difference!

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi of Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, New York. 

A Heartfelt Request

On April 1, 2014, I and more than 50 other rabbis are going to shave our heads:

  • in solidarity with children and their families who suffer through cancer and cancer treatments
  • in protest against the lack of options available to those children and their healthcare professionals
  • in memory of Samuel Asher Sommer z”l, who died last December after an 18 month struggle with cancer
  • and to raise funds for research so that future cancer sufferers will have more and better options than did Sam.

Did you know:

  • Worldwide, a child is diagnosed with cancer every three minutes.
  • Most childhood cancers are not related to lifestyle factors – they can’t be prevented by “living well.”
  • In 80% of children, by the time the cancer is discovered, it has already spread within the body.
  • More than 90% of survivors of childhood cancers will have lifelong conditions from their cancer treatments.
  • Only a tiny percentage of federal cancer research funding goes for treatments for childhood cancers.

We can’t save Sammy, but we are raising funds to bring about better treatments for the children who will be diagnosed in the future. Current treatments are brutal and too often ineffective.  Research dollars go to look for more effective treatments that do less damage to children.

I am asking you, my readers, to participate in this drive by donating through my page at the St.Baldrick’s Foundation. Even the smallest donation will make a difference; I checked, and the website will accept a donation of even $1.

St. Baldrick’s, by the way, is not a religious foundation. “St. Baldrick” is a combination of “bald” and “St. Patrick’s,” a reference to the fact that the first fundraising head-shaves took place on March 17, 2000. St. Baldrick’s Foundation is a good steward of the funds you donate; Charity Navigator gives it a coveted 3-star rating.

If my words have ever been useful to you, or if the story of Superman Sam has touched your heart, I beg you to give, if not through my page, then through the page of some other rabbi you know. In these months of Adar, when “joy increases” let’s do something concrete to increase the years in young lives, and the joy in the lives of young families.

To donate through my page at “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” and to donate to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, please click here.

Questions, not Answers

Samuel Asher Sommer, z"l

Samuel Asher Sommer, z”l

Judaism is in many ways a religion of questions, not answers.

We have two Creation stories that contradict, neither of which is likely to be literally “true” as most 21st century people understand that word. The message seems to be “wrestle with it” or simply, “ask questions.”

In another story in our scripture, one of our patriarchs wrestles with a figure who is not identified: God? An angel? Himself? Our sages disagree. We are left to wrestle with it, and to ask questions.

At the worst of times, we do not offer or accept easy answers. Today we buried one of our own, an eight year old boy, the son of parents who are beloved leaders in our community. No one connected with Sammy Sommer “deserved” to suffer, or was “improved” by his or their suffering. There is no reason, no answer for such suffering. We are left to wrestle with it. We are left with questions.

As Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr wrote, Sam is not “in a better place,” he did not “pass,” and today’s funeral did not “celebrate” anything. He died, and we mourn. We do not have any answers, only questions and memory. No one whose life was touched by “Superman Sam” will ever forget him.

In the end, what we have is the stories: memories of Sam, just as we have memories of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, memories of all the fathers and sons and mothers and daughters who have gone before us. Torah is not history, it is memory. It offers not answers, but stories.

And we, the living, will remember.

We, the living, will also wrestle with the questions, as we embrace the mourners in our midst. We accept the sorrow and we do not minimize it. As we stand with the mourners, we will ask ourselves, what could be different, in the future?  What can we do? In the face of this terrible grief, what must we do?

And those, finally, are the questions we can answer.


Friends and colleagues of Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer are working to raise funds for pediatric cancer research as a memorial to Sammy, and as an answer to the question, “what shall we do?” To contribute or to participate in 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, follow this link.