Happy and hair-free: JCHS students, teachers don bald caps for cancer fundraiser

On Oct. 22, a group of students at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco lost their hair.

No, it wasn’t in a freak Bunsen burner mishap in chemistry or the result of losing a bet.

From left, Ariel Applbaum, Aviva Herr-Welber, Maddy Zacks and Sophia Wilkof sport their bald caps at school photo/rose gluck

Twenty-two students, plus two teachers, temporarily donned bald caps to honor cancer patients and raise money to fight the disease. A third teacher volunteered to shave his head for the cause. Together they accumulated roughly $3,600.  

JCHS senior Sophia Wilkof spearheaded the project in honor of her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer this past summer. On the day she wore the bald cap, Wilkof said the resemblance to her mom, who has lost her hair because of chemotherapy treatments, was a light-hearted moment in an otherwise serious situation.

“My mom was so excited for me,” 17-year-old Wilkof said, noting her sister also wore one to her classes at Brandeis University. “She’s strong and this empowered her. We took pictures and she couldn’t wait to hear all about my day.”

Wilkof’s team was part of a nationwide effort that beckoned individuals to stuff their hair into bald caps for Be Bold, Be Bald!, a fundraiser organized by Boston-based nonprofit Small Army for a Cause. The group launched the annual event in 2009, collecting an estimated $100,000.

Instead of asking for sponsors for a walk or bike ride, individuals and teams raise money to wear a bald cap, T-shirt and balloon while going about their daily activities.

Money raised is then donated to national cancer charities, among them the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. Participants have the choice of where their fundraising proceeds go.

Wilkof, the student body’s head of communications, announced her intentions to start a Be Bold, Be Bald! team during a school assembly in September. E-mails flooded her inbox, and soon she had recruited 21 students from all grade levels and two teachers to join her cause. Even those who didn’t sign on were inquisitive about the project and wanted to learn more.

For those who did agree to sport the bald cap, Oct. 22 turned into a memorable day.

Junior Aviva Herr-Welber of San Anselmo was apprehensive at first about how the cap would affect her day. On the schedule was a history test, an audition for the school play and Shabbat dinner with her family.

Turns out, the cap was not itchy during her test, other “bald” students tried out for the play, and the cap catalyzed a conversation about cancer awareness during dinner. Herr-Welber, 16, also learned to appreciate her hair, an “important part of my identity,” she says. 

“There are a lot of ways to honor people who have died from cancer or are fighting it,” she added. “This was special because it’s an experience for you.”

For 17-year-old Maddy Zacks, joining the Be Bold, Be Bald! team was a way to not only help Wilkof, but also honor her grandfather who died of cancer and her grandmother whose cancer is in remission.

“It’s a powerful cause,” said the San Francisco 12th-grader. “Sophia’s idea to honor her mom brought back memories for me. I was nervous in the morning to come to school, but everyone was super supportive. I would do it again.” 

Even with his short hair, Ariel Applbaum of Oakland noticed a “huge difference” in how he looked when he put on the cap. He said it was a “strange experience” to have people stare.

“I didn’t even recognize myself,” said the 16-year-old junior. “But I would do it again. For six hours in one day, it had that much impact on me. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be to have no hair for six months or a year.”

Wilkof’s math teacher, Kim Schneider, wore the bald cap during an off-campus conference. Aaron Pollack, who teaches history, sported one, and fellow history teacher Lee Carter is scheduled to get his buzz cut at the upcoming all-school Shabbaton retreat. 

As for Wilkof, she stood hairless in front of her English class to give a poetry presentation. She walked through the halls and slapped high-fives with other cap-wearing teammates. At lunch, she spotted an entire table of “bald people.”

“I was amazed by their willingness to participate,” said Wilkof, who wore the cap until she went to bed that night. “I knew my friends would do it — we’re seniors so we don’t care how we look. If I were younger, I might not have had the courage. It’s a big thing to wear a bald cap to school.”