The editors at MyJewishLearning.org posted a question on its website a week ago Monday. Commenting on an article the death of “Superman Sam” Sommer, they asked, “What do you think about publicly sharing a loved one’s illness and death?”
Anyone who resides under the expansive tent created by Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, and Phyllis’ powerful and poignant blog, Superman Sam, know heart-achingly well of the struggles, early triumphs, later set-backs, and the awful, awful path along which they have had to travel. One stage of their journey ended very early Shabbat morning, December 14 when their beloved, precious Sam took his final breath, not long after Phyllis recited the bedtime Sh’ma to him.
The reason why I, a friend and colleague, but far from their inner circle, know these details is simply because Phyllis and Michael bravely chose to share their family’s story with us, publicly. Yes, I was moved to tears, often, because of their willingness to share intimate details of their family’s anguish.
I do feel somewhat self-conscious writing about the Sommer family in this forum. Any rabbi following Facebook recently has read far better reflections from people much closer to them. After all, I am not a close friend, I do not live in their community, I have not yet met their children, nor did I have an opportunity to meet Sam before he died.
Yet despite my geographical distance from the Sommers, I feel very close to them. That is the power of their story, of using a blog as catharsis, as communication, and as a way of forming a larger community that can provide essential unconditional love and support.
Jason Rosenberg, Chuck Briskin and Michael Sommer at a recent CCAR Conference
Sam’s story has touched thousands of people simply because his parents chose to share his life and his death with us.
On Shabbat at the URJ Biennial, a small handful of us who were moved by Sam’s story to join Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s and Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” campaign gathered at the CCAR Oneg Shabbat.
L-r: David Widzer, Chuck Briskin, Elizabeth Wood, Alan Cook, Paul Kipnes, David Levy at the URJ Biennial
As we enjoyed a light moment among colleagues, and friends—new and old—little did we know that 1500 miles away from us Sam had died.
When we learned of his death the next morning, we found one another. We held one another. We cried together. Many words offered throughout the Biennial morning service made us think immediately of Sam. We read a Torah portion called “and he lived” which is really about death, blessing and memory. The Sommers’ loss was our loss too. A vastly different loss, but a loss nonetheless. I selfishly wanted to hug my children who were home in Los Angeles. More than anything, we wanted Phyllis and Michael to be able to hug Sam.
It seemed strangely fitting then, if Sam’s was to die, that he would die on Shabbat, at the same time as the URJ biennial, where so many people touched by his story were gathered. It was a gift he gave us. Those of from different circles of relationship with the Sommers could find each other, and draw strength from one another. We are friends, colleagues, acquaintances; some were classmates with Phyllis and Michael, others knew them from conventions, several from the world of social media. Many have never met Phyllis or Michael but feel a close connection nevertheless.
Those of us gathered at that oneg Shabbat, and dozens more are doing something small and relatively inconsequential. Hair grows back. It is our small way to restore some power and control since we’ve felt so powerless. We can’t return Sam to his parents’ loving embrace, but we can raise funds to try to make sure that there are fewer families who will have to travel along the same path as the Sommers.
Rebecca and Phyllis hoped that 36 rabbis would raise $180,000. More than 60 have signed up, and the initial $180,000 has been met. God willing we will double, even triple our goal. It’s the least we can do, to honor Sam’s valiant fight, and to help others fighting today.
To answer MyJewishLearning’s question; the answer is an unequivocal yes. Share, draw strength, use social media to bring people into this tent. Because of Phyllis and Michael’s sharing, so many know of Superman Sam. And as long as we keep talking about Sam, and sharing his story with others, his memory will endure.
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin serves Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA.