Each January I take the opportunity to reflect on my time leading our Jewish Federation. This marks my 4th anniversary. While there is much to celebrate in our accomplishments together over these past years, my reflections at this moment are a bit more personal.
Being a Jewish woman has its perks. We follow a long line of proud and accomplished heroines (although not talked about enough in our texts) like Miriam and Deborah, Gloria Steinham, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We learn from our mothers, our sisters and our daughters; we carry on traditions, customs, recipes and inspiration from generation to generation.
When I was 13, I lost my grandmother to ovarian cancer. At the time, we didn’t talk about the fact that her two sisters had died of breast cancer. We never mentioned that the previous generations of four sisters had lost two to breast cancer and two to ovarian cancer. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when, at the age of 50, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
That began an awakening of awareness in our family as my mother fought and won her battle; she then went on to participate in a confidential study at Dana Farber Cancer Center. Those were the days when the slightest mention of a pre-existing condition in a medical record could jeopardize insurance. Although we were very cautious speaking about our situation, my sister and I began our immersion in cancer culture, screening and consultations. We were in our 20s and assured that while we should be monitored, we really didn’t have to worry until a decade before Mom’s diagnosis in our 40s. So when my sister, then in her early 30s and the mother of two young children, happened to brush the side of her breast one morning while making pancakes and felt something odd, she didn’t worry too much. That proved to be premature as she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She began the same arduous travails our mother had gone through with surgery, chemo and radiation.
At about this time, Dana Farber revealed that our mother was BRCA 1 positive. Being a Jewish woman of Ashkenazic dissent, that was not such a perk. I was, as a very young mother of two myself, confronted with a choice; I knew I had to know for myself if I carried the gene. As I waited for results that I had convinced myself would be negative, I also researched my options should that not be true. Ovarian cancer scared me the most. There was no good screening mechanism and diagnosis often came too late to do anything. But if I were to remove my ovaries and begin hormone replacement therapy as such a young woman, couldn’t that stimulate tumor growth in my breasts? Yes was the answer.
My children were so young at only four and six. I wanted to watch them grow up. I wanted to see them graduate from college. I wanted to walk them down the aisle and hold their children. I knew what I had to do. It was January 2000 and I was happily working as the campaign director for the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. I resigned my position and, over the course of the next two months, underwent a hysterectomy followed by a double mas¬tectomy. I chose life.
It’s now 20 years later. My life took wonderful twists and turns, including a stint as a baking entrepreneur, volunteer, coach and return to my first love, Jewish communal service. My children are grown. I saw them graduate high school and college. I walked my son down the aisle. I am about to welcome my first grandchild. I am so grateful and I want to share my gratitude with you, my community, my extended family.
I had planned to talk this month about the power of the collective that is so central to our Jewish Federation. I wanted to share incredible stories of the lives we are saving, changing and helping overseas. I wanted to thank you for your support, which enables us to leverage your donations to make miracles happen for home-bound elderly existing on $2-a-day pensions in Kiev and Tiblisi. I wanted to thank you for investing in our Jewish future as we witness a reawakening of Jewish spirit in young people across the former Soviet Union. But I will reserve some of these stories for a later column.
Thank you for all that you do for the Jewish people; but really, thank you for all you do for me personally. I am honored to helm this incredible organization. I am beyond grateful to be healthy and strong, which enables me to share myself with you as we do this most holy work, together. May you enjoy a happy and healthy New Year and may we all go from strength to strength.
In celebration of this milestone, I am hosting the musical brunch-and-learn with my son Noah. He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College and a musician who is set to inspire Jewish living through his music. This event is open to all donors to the 2020 Annual Campaign. Please join me on Sunday, January 12, at 11 a.m. at the Beckerman Lender Jewish Community Building.
By Judy Alperin