Debra Kassoff | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Debra Kassoff

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong state for the address of Indiana University and named Debra Kassoff as the organizer of the rabbi group instead of Rebecca Schorr and Phyllis Sommer. We apologize for the error.


Courtesy Debra Kassoff

On Tuesday, April 1, more than 70 rabbis at the Central Conference for American Rabbis in Chicago, Ill., got together to shave their heads as part of a fundraising event for the St. Baldrick's Foundation. St. Baldrick's, which raises money for childhood cancer research, has held more than 1,300 head-shaving events since the year 2000. Among the rabbis with a newly bald head is Jackson resident Debra Kassoff.

"The shaving gets people's attention and is a powerful visual image that reminds anyone we meet of what cancer patients have to go through," Kassoff said.

Kassoff, 43, grew up in Columbia, Md., and first developed an interest in becoming a rabbi from her rabbi during high school, Stephen Fuchs. She attended Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., were she majored in English with a focus on women's studies. She later entered a graduate program at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. While there, Kassoff joined a local congregation that was in between full-time rabbis at the time.

"The congregation in Bloomington gave me the opportunity to meet many rabbinic students my own age," Kassoff said. "Meeting them helped me understand that I could do it, too. I could become a rabbi and still be myself as well."

Kassoff studied to become a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was ordained in 2003 and moved to Jackson later the same year. She moved back to Massachusetts for a time three years later and returned to Jackson in 2010.

The rabbi first became involved with childhood cancer research after Sam Sommer, the son of her friends and fellow rabbis, Phyllis and Michael Sommer, became ill and died.

"Sam had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia," Kassoff said. "What started as a plan to raise money for research in his honor became a project in his memory when he passed away in December last year."

Kassoff joined a group organized by Rabbis Rebecca Schorr and Phyllis Sommer that originally planned to find 36 rabbis willing to shave their heads for St. Baldrick's and initially set a fundraising goal of $180,000. The number 18 is significant as the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for "life." Over the last five months, Kassoff and the more than 70 rabbis who joined the effort have continually surpassed the target amount. The group doubled the goal to $360,000 after surpassing the initial target and has currently reached $580,000. The current donation goal is $613,000, in honor of the 613 commandments in the Torah.

"This is what it means to be a rabbi," Kassoff said. "We stand for and live out our values, and we help those who need it. A lot of people tell me it's brave to shave my head, but for me, it feels like it's the least I can do to bring attention to the tragedy of childhood cancer. The head shaving is a statement of solidarity and an effort to raise awareness of how underfunded childhood cancer research is. Only 4 percent of the money for cancer research goes to child research, and two-thirds of sufferers have lifelong side effects from treatment like loss of vision or learning disabilities."

Kassoff and her husband, Alec, have two daughters: Sylvia, age 7, and Mariel, age 5.

Learn more about Kassoff's fundraiser by visiting her Facebook page or the St. Baldrick's website.

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