How Lung Cancer Led Me to GTJ


My mom and I when I was 9, and in my tom-boy phase.

Support GTJ’s Sara and Rachel as they walk in memory of their mothers at Breathe Deep DC, an event to promote lung cancer research.

The doctors diagnosed my mom with lung cancer when I was sixteen years old.  It was May of my junior year of high school- by August she was gone.  At the time, I did not know that every 2.5 minutes someone in the US is diagnosed with lung cancer, and that every 3 minutes someone in the US dies from lung cancer.  At that time, I did not know that the 5-year survival rate for lung cancer is only 16.3%, and that number goes down to 3.5% when the cancer is found after it has already spread to other organs as my mom’s had.

My mom was the type of mom who knew all my friends.  She knew who was dating who, who was upset with who, and who had done something embarrassing that weekend.  My senior year of high school, between my friends, their families, my youth group, and my teachers, I had an amazing support group.  That changed when I went to college and all my friends went off to different schools;  I struggled through my first year of college.  On the outside, I still had stellar grades and was a social butterfly, but I could not come to terms with my loss.  I tried grief counseling and talking to a therapist, but none of it really helped.

It was not until I found the Chabad house at the University of Delaware did I finally start feeling more like myself.  Although I went to Hebrew school until my bat mitzvah and joined a Jewish youth group, my family celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas and led a mostly secular life.  Despite my secular lifestyle, I was craving a Jewish connection, thinking it would connect me more to my mom and comfort me in her loss.  At first I was wary of Chabad: they were much more religious than I was used to.  However, the summer after my sophomore year I went on a birthright trip led by the Chabad rabbi.  I had an amazing time learning about Israel and being around my Jewish peers, but it was my visit to the Kotel that changed the course of my life.

I was filled with apprehension as I slowly approached the Wall, but as soon as I touched the stone a feeling of calm swept over me.  In that moment I knew, that although things in my life were not going as I had imagined and although I still struggled with the loss of my mother, that everything was going to be okay.  While I still think about my mom every day, after my trip to the Kotel, I decided it was time to be the strong, resilient, and independent young woman my mother raised me to be and to take charge of my life.  I still craved a Jewish connection, and over the next two years I spent my Friday afternoons at the Chabad house helping prepare for Shabbat and serving on the Chabad board.  The rabbi’s family became close friends, and my rebbetzin at Delaware has been one of the most influential people in my life the past few years.

So how did lung cancer lead me to Gather the Jews?  The loss of my mom and my subsequent journey for a Jewish connection led me to the Chabad house at the University of Delaware.  As fate would have it, one Shabbat my senior year, Aaron Wolff came back to his alma mater for a visit and we sat across from each other at the Chabad house.  I told Aaron that I was looking for jobs in the international relations field, and he assured me as we exchanged emails that he knew people to put me in touch with.  When I emailed him the next week, he responded with quite a different idea: Gather the Jews was hiring.  Finding a Jewish connection was a turning point in my life, and I loved the idea of helping others find their connection whether it be through services, sports, or social events.  I applied for the job, and a few weeks later I found out I had been chosen as Gather the Jews’ Director of Operations.

Losing my mom has been the most influential experience of my life.  At first I let myself play the victim, thinking of all the moments and events in my future the cancer had ruined when it took my mom.  After my trip to the Kotel, I realized that life is what you make it.  I have decided to live my life to the fullest and take advantage of every opportunity.  This mindset has led me to some of the best experiences in my life, as well as to my first job at Gather the Jews.


3 replies
  1. Simcha
    Simcha says:

    Beautiful story Rachel. Here is a moving song about the kotel, I don’t know if you heard it.

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