December 04, 2006

Raising More Money

Yesterday culminated months of work for my synagogue -- we raised $112,000 for our operating budget! The room was colorful and crowded, the food tasty, the film moving and the program went smoothly, starting and ending on time. I was the keynote speaker and got to tell my story about how being rediagnosed with cancer helped me find community.

Here's what I said:

Good morning. My name is Jill Cohen, and this is my Beth Shalom story.

Four years, three months and 13 days ago, on the day I got the news that my breast cancer had returned and spread to my bones, I went home on crutches, lost my balance, fell and broke my leg.

It takes a long time to recover from a pathological fracture. Almost five months went by before I was able to put enough weight on my injured leg and walk with a cane.

I was overwhelmed by my cancer’s spread to more than 20 sites of bony metastases in the back of my skull, my sternum, my spine, my humerii and my femurs. The drugs I take to control my cancer put me into early, and permanent, menopause. I had three surgeries. I had radiation in five places.

I experienced significant losses. At age 42, I had to retire on medical disability from my career in the Jewish community. I tried to accept that cancer had finally cheated my husband and I out of ever becoming parents. I cried buckets of tears with Rik, with family, and with friends.

But I had help from an unexpected source – the members of Beth Shalom.

I had not been a frequent shul-goer. At one time I was involved with the Keruv Committee to reach out to new members, but that was it. Still, something had drawn me to Beth Shalom and I became a member.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t active. Rabbi Z encouraged me to write for 15 minutes a day, to help me find meaning in my cancer experience. Rabbi G assured me that I wasn’t alone in suffering. Mitzvah Corps volunteers fed us three times a week for months and drove me to doctor’s appointments and to daily radiation treatments.

But my epiphany came on Rosh Hashanah, just after I broke my leg. I didn’t feel ready to go out in public yet. Harvey N offered to come over and blow the shofar. People from Beth Shalom and other friends filled our home to capacity with folding chairs, prayer books and food. I was lying on the couch, watching the hubbub, when I realized that I had been given a glimpse into the future. This is what my shivah minyan would be like: community and friends, giving support in a time of need.

I knew that I had to give to this community that had given me so much.

Once I was mobile, I began to attend Shabbat morning services. They gave structure to my week. Our connection to the Divine is evident in every beautiful note we sing together.

Steve P asked me to serve on the board, and I said yes, if he would let me try to raise money for the shul my way. So far it seems to be working!

And I always offer to make a meal when the Mitzvah Corps calls.

Involvement in our synagogue gives me a connection with the spiritual and an attachment to community, things we all need in our fast-paced, 21st century lives. Once I looked outside my own personal “four walls,” I found community waiting for me.

Here’s a quote from my favorite science fiction author, Robert Heinlein:

“The banker … pulled out a single credit note. "Eat first — a full belly steadies the judgment. Do me the honor of accepting this as our welcome to the newcomer."

Don’s pride said no; his stomach said YES! He took it and said, "Uh, thanks! That's awfully kind of you. I'll pay it back, first chance."

"Instead, pay it forward to someone else who needs it."

(Adapted from “Between Planets”)

I can’t possibly repay all that I owe. I can’t pay back; but I can pay it forward. I invite you to join me in this mitzvah today. Pay it forward to Beth Shalom.

Get involved in a committee. Come to a class or lecture. Invite someone to your home for a meal.

If you reach outside your personal space, you’ll find community waiting right there for you, the way it was for me.


  1. Anonymous9:31 AM

    Your speech is awesome. Thank you for sharing your story. The way you ended your speech was an ah-ha moment for me. Paying it forward is a great practice to do on a daily basis. You are an inspiration and a source of strength. Thank you for coming into my life!
    Kathy Barron

  2. Hi Jill, what a treat to "meet" you through your blog! I have been "listening" to you on the mets list for a long time and am so impressed with your ability to articulate what those of us with cancer feel and can't necessarily express. To think when I started my online experience (between my second and third recurrence of breast cancer) the online support scene was a brand new phenomenon (late 90s) and now to have a true support system is just more than I ever could have hoped for. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with others in Seattle and beyond. For many (including me) the Internet community is the primary support system we have.