Ozi v’zimrat yah; Vay’hi li lishua. God is my strength and my song; And will be my freedom.
On the night of July 30, these words began the most unique and meaningful ceremony I’ve ever had the privilege of participating in. That night I facilitated a giluach rosh, a shaving of the head, for a 16-year-old girl in her second round of chemotherapy for brain cancer.
I had met Jessica on her arrival day at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman, near Santa Rosa, two weeks earlier. I remembered her face from last summer, welcomed her back and asked how she was doing. She told me that she was excited to be back, for she was going to shave her head at camp.
I raised an eyebrow. We usually have strict rules about such grand physical changes at Newman.
Jessica proceeded to tell me her story. She was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly before starting her freshman year of high school. Her first round of chemotherapy was unsuccessful, but at least she got to keep her hair. She was now midway through a second round of chemo. Her once thick and luscious hair was falling out. She wanted to take control in a situation where she had very little, and decided camp was the safe space she needed to be in to go through such a transition.
I was stunned by her boldness and bravery, by her determination. I immediately asked if she wanted me to write a ceremony for the occasion. She smiled wryly and said “sure.”
My dear friend, Amanda Winter, a Hebrew Union College cantorial student and Rosh T’filah (prayer organizer), helped me write a ceremony marking the shaving of Jessica’s head. It was a carefully crafted ritual that embraced change, choices and Jessica’s strength. It focused on Jessica’s tenacity, her decision to take control and the love that exists for her at Camp Newman. That night, we invited all the women of Jessica’s eidah (unit), plus a few female faculty members and spouses, to participate.
From the moment we started singing the words above, people began to weep. Fifteen- and 16-year-old girls began crying, counselors wiped away tears, and everyone in that space found themselves sobbing openly, slowly gaining a grasp on what was happening. In that small room — normally a programs location for movies, song-leading, and games — we were able to experience something sacred.
Jessica’s mom, Cheryl, a wonderful rabbi from Bakersfield on the faculty at Newman, said a few beautiful, poignant words. She offered a touching poem. And as she spoke, her tears began to flow. Jessica began to sob as she told her story. And the girls of her eidah embraced her and her mother, welcomed them, and through their body language and embraces made it clear that they supported Jessica fully.
After a series of prayers and songs, Jessica stood up and walked to the chair where Tal, our resident hairstylist, began to shave her head. We all watched, silent, unable to look away, as this incredible young woman sat calmly, taking control of her situation. By the time Tal finished, Jessica was left with a beautiful bald head. She truly looked gorgeous, and everyone clapped.
At the conclusion, five girls from Jessica’s cabin sang a medley of songs — from Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” to “Isn’t She Lovely” to “Stand by You.” Then the entire group offered blessings to Jessica. To stand in a room full of teenage girls extending blessings to their peer — including strength, love, continued support, confidence and faith — was nothing short of inspiring. I stood there with my mouth agape, tears flowing from my eyes, as gems of wisdom and maturity passed through the lips of these campers.
The whole evening culminated with a celebration featuring sparkling cider, fresh fruit and chocolate, and songs of joy. It was done beautifully, and Jessica’s incredible rashim (unit leaders) and madrichim (counselors) did an amazing job making sure it was a joyous event.
This giluach rosh proved the importance of sacred rituals; of embracing change and noting the transitions that mark our daily lives. It created a space in which Jessica herself could mourn the loss of one phase of her life — one identity marker — and celebrate the beginning of another. It enabled the other women of the eidah to understand and accept that one amongst them was different and unique. And it celebrated strength, teaching girls and women alike about conviction, dignity and perspective.
Rabbinical school simply cannot prepare you for this type of event. No amount of training can teach you the appropriate response to give a teenage girl with cancer seeking to totally alter her appearance. Having compassion, respect, and a deep love for the sanctity of Judaism, combined with an open mind and eager heart, can certainly help along the way.
That Jessica felt comfortable enough at camp to do such a brave act is a testament to the significance of Camp Newman, the safe environment. That the people surrounding her openly wept and extended her their support and love is a statement of how much this camp means to people. And that she walked around for days after the ceremony — rocking the most beautiful bald head I’ve ever seen, receiving high-fives, smiles and pats on the back from campers and counselors young and old — exemplifies the uniqueness of this sacred place, this makom kadosh.
Camp is a place where the holy and profane meet; where the simple act of living can be infused with meaning and purpose. It is a place where children come to feel safe, loved, welcomed and nurtured. Camp is a place that teaches all of us how to be good human beings. Those of us lucky enough to work or be involved with Jewish camping have the fundamental principles of our faith to guide us through that process.
Most importantly, camp is a space in which campers, teenage counselors and even grown adults learn how to navigate life’s many peaks and valleys. It is a place where people of all ages learn how to celebrate and mourn, laugh and cry, and experience the holiness life can offer every day. It truly is a makom kadosh, a sacred place, if we allow it to be.
Jaclyn Fromer of Los Angeles was the summer 2011 education director at URJ Camp Newman near Santa Rosa. She is a rabbinic/education student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute for Religion in Los Angeles, and before that worked at Congregations Emanu-El in San Francisco and Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.
A version of this piece first appeared on the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Summer Central” blog. <CLICK HERE>