When I first met Rochelle Shoretz, she was lugging a small, but clearly very heavy roller suitcase up the stairs at a retreat center. I offered to help and she smiled warmly and said, “no thanks.” Later, she would share her embarrassment that her suitcase likely weighed 50 pounds because it was full of work-related documents. She laughed at herself for bringing two weeks’ worth of work to a three-day retreat. Predictably, she didn’t touch her work because she threw herself so fully into her interactions.
We connected easily and quickly despite our differences. She was an Orthodox straight woman living in Teaneck, New Jersey with her two young sons. I was a Reconstructionist lesbian living in Boston with my then-girlfriend. But we grew to adore each other.
We met at the kick-off retreat for the Joshua Venture Group fellowship, a two-year program for young Jewish social entrepreneurs that we participated in together. I, and the six others in our group, were awed by Rochelle, or Rochie, as we soon were urged to call her. At age 28, she was serving as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was married with two young boys. She had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy, she founded Sharsheret, an organization with the mission of supporting young Jewish women with breast cancer. The isolation she felt as a young woman with breast cancer inspired her to found an organization with this singular purpose.
When we met in 2003, her cancer was in remission and Sharsheret was a young but already powerful organization. Rochie would go on to build Sharsheret into a national organization that has helped tens of thousands of Jewish women who have nowhere else to turn.
Sharsheret was the first and remains the only organization that addresses the unique needs of young Jewish women with breast cancer. While one in every 400 women in the general population carries the BRCA genetic mutation that triggers breast and ovarian cancers, in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, one in every 40 women carries it. Rochie faced her initial diagnosis and disease with the support of a loving family and friends but without resources and support from a peer community. She didn’t want another Jewish woman to feel alone with cancer as she did. Now, every young Jewish woman with breast cancer has access to the abundant resources of Sharsheret. Making this support available was critical to Rochie, but she also wanted to raise awareness in the American Jewish community and broader society about the risks faced by Ashkenazi Jewish women and the need for targeted research. Rochelle was appointed to the Federal Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women in recognition of her pioneering vision and accomplishments.
Through all of this success, she remained deeply kind and generous. Rochelle is the only person I’ve ever known who inspired awe while being completely accessible and down to earth. She was fiercely smart and capable, incredibly fun and funny, and profoundly loyal. She was one of the rare people out there who could both command every room she entered and listen to you like you were the most important person in the world.
Yet all of us who were honored to call Rochie a friend knew that the two people most important to her were her sons, Shlomo and Dovid. The first time Rochie and I really talked she told me about them. We were at that first fellowship retreat, treading water in an outdoor pool on a bright, sunny day. She squinted into the sun but I could still see the utter joy in her eyes as she talked about her boys.
I would see that expression on her face so many times over the years—at Dovid’s bar mitzvah, Shlomo’s high school graduation, but perhaps, most of all, at a gathering in her home that she, Shlomo, and Dovid called “Diversity Shabbat.” The guests at Diversity Shabbat included my wife and me, a male friend who was married to a non-Jewish woman, and another friend, a white woman with an adopted son of color. It was so important to her to share the fullness of her world with her children. She loved seeing Shlomo and Dovid thrive in their Jewish community in Teaneck, but, as she grew and changed, she wanted them to feel at ease in the diverse world beyond their immediate community.
Later, she told me that at one point in the kitchen Shlomo said to her, “Mom, I think Diversity Shabbat is going really well!” That made her so happy. Diversity Shabbat would be followed by Diversity Sukkot and similar gatherings.
Rochie really knew how to live. She lived with a spirit that was equal parts intensity and carefree exuberance. In the last few years of her life, when her cancer returned, she talked about “the strength that comes with living with a sharpened sense of time.” She ran marathons, traveled to South Africa, went white-water rafting, served on federal commissions, and inspired audiences of thousands. She was proud to be unapologetically Jewish and feminist. She was irreverent and humble.
She inspired me on every level—as a leader, a thinker, a mother, and a friend. She was such a devoted friend. She stunned all of us at her 40th birthday party by giving each of us a carefully chosen framed photograph that she had taken. I forgot to take mine with me and two days later it appeared in my mailbox in Boston. Only Rochie could make all of that happen.
When I think of Rochie, more than anything else, I think of light. She lit up every room she entered. I miss her so deeply—her warmth, wit, intelligence, vision, her loving heart. I will always feel blessed to have known and loved her. I will always feel her light.