A Promise is a Promise: Our Purim Fundraiser to Cure Childhood Cancers

February 18, 2021Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein

A few hours after 8-year-old Sammy Sommer and his parents were told by their amazing doctor in Milwaukee there would be no more treatment for his acute myelogenous leukemia, I met them for French fries at a hot dog stand in Highland Park. When I asked where his dad was, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, Sam’s mom, said, “He’s officiating at a funeral.” With the laser-focus that only a double rabbi’s kid could have, Sam looked at both of us and said words I’ll never forget: “So who’s gonna officiate at my funeral”?

I looked at Rabbi Phyllis, my colleague and dear friend for more than a decade, then took a deep breath and said that I would. I asked if he had any specific requests. Sam, who was quick, said he did: As he nibbled on his French fry, his first request was fireworks, and his second was that he thought we should have carnival games and prizes. 

That was it. Just two requests from a very wise 8-year-old boy.

Fireworks were easy. “Why wait until your funeral?” I said, and I quickly put into motion a firework display that lit up the late November sky a few weeks later. Every year since, we have lit up the sky with fireworks to remember Sam on or close to the weekend of his yahrzeityahrzeitיוֹם הַשָּׁנָהAnniversary of a death. It is customary to recite the Mourner's Kaddish when observing a yahrzeit. . That he was present at the first one makes them even more beautiful with each passing year.

Carnival games and prizes seemed more difficult to deploy for a funeral. It seemed trite to hand them out at shivashivaשִׁבְעָהSeven-day mourning period that begins on the day of burial. for those three days in December when thousands filed in and paid their respects to the entire Sommer family. In my world, carnival games and prizes have always been associated with Purim – and Sam did love the Purim carnival. He dressed up, ran around, and loved to play the games.

We knew his absence at that first big event a few months after we buried him would be difficult for everyone, so we announced that we would partner with St. Baldrick’s to raise money for pediatric cancer research in Sam’s honor; members of the congregation could participate by shaving their heads at that year’s Purim carnival. That year, more than 36 rabbis, friends, and colleagues joined forces and announced that they would also shave their heads together at Central Conference of American Rabbis’ convention in Chicago a few weeks later. It was one more way to keep Sam present at the Purim carnival and to keep his memory alive. 

It was also my way to keep my promise for carnival games and prizes as a way to remember him – and so began a new tradition. This year marks the eighth year since Sam’s death and the eighth time we have raised money and shaved heads in his memory for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. We’ve raised well over a half a million dollars already.

In the shadow of a global pandemic, Purim looms even larger this year. The very last event we had before the world shut down was the Purim carnival on March 8, 2020. That morning we dressed up, ate pizza and cotton candy, shook our macaroni boxes when we heard evil Haman’s name, played carnival games, dunked the rabbi, gave out prizes, and shaved our heads. We debated if we should even have it, as news was breaking fast about the virus – but we did, and as the nearly 1,000 people left the building that morning, we never imagined that they wouldn’t be back for more than a year and counting.

This Sunday, in keeping with tradition, we will read the M’gillahm'gillahמְגִלָּה"Scroll;" One of the five m'gillot (plural) in the Bible: Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation and Ecclesiastes. over Zoom, sing a few songs, dress up in our small little boxes, collect and distribute gifts to give out to those in need, hand out small prizes and hamantaschenhamantaschenאֹזֶן הָמָןTriangle-shaped pastries commonly filled with apricot jam or poppyseed spread (or other fillings) and eaten on Purim; the shape represents Haman's hat or ears , and, yes, raise money and shave our heads on Zoom and via livestream to benefit St. Baldrick’s as our way, each year, to remember Sammy. 

A promise is a promise. It’s the least we can do.

As it says at the culmination of the Purim story in the book of Esther 8:16, “Layehudim haita ora v'simcha v'sason v'ikar,” “to the Jews there was light and joy.” I guess Sam knew that ora v'simcha could also be translated as “fireworks and carnival games and prizes.” In just eight years, he was incredibly wise.

Join Am Shalom for its annual head-shaving event, livestreamed at 9:45 a.m. CST, at amshalom.com/livestream, and donate to the congregation’s Purim fundraiser for St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

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