By Sandy Eller
She may have lived on this earth for only 42 years, but in that relatively short time, Rochelle Shoretz, founder of Sharsheret and the first Orthodox Jewish woman to clerk for a United States Supreme Court Justice, accomplished more than most do in a life twice as long.
Ms. Shoretz, known to her friends as Rochie, grew up in Midwood, where she attended Bnos Leah Prospect Park and Shulamith High School before going on to graduate from Barnard College, Phi Beta Kappa. Shoretz married her first husband, Tani Mirsky, during her first year at Barnard, and while she had originally considered becoming a journalist, Shoretz went on to pursue a degree in law, becoming an early-admissions Kent Scholar graduate at Columbia Law School.
Shoretz took summer jobs as a legal intern while in law school and utilized her talents as a writer to work as a speechwriter for then-mayor David Dinkins and as a reporter for BusinessWeek. But it was her post-graduate application for a clerkship at the Supreme Court that really propelled Shoretz into the first major career move of her life. Among thousands of applications for just 36 positions with the nation’s highest court, Shoretz caught the eye of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While Ginsburg had no immediate openings, she offered Shoretz a position two years down the road. Shoretz waited for her clerkship to begin, working both for a judge in lower Manhattan and as a litigator for a Manhattan law firm, before finally moving down to Washington DC with her husband and two young sons, Shlomo and Dovid.
“I think I was the first Orthodox woman law clerk to serve at the Supreme Court and the first woman to serve while raising two small children,” said Shoretz, who noted that Ginsburg was always accommodating of her religious needs.
When Shoretz’s clerkship ended, the family moved back north, settling in Teaneck. Having worked full-time for several years, Shoretz looked forward to spending more time with her two little boys. Using a $10,000 prize she had been awarded by the American Jewish Congress after being nominated as a young emerging Jewish leader by Ginsburg, Shoretz began doing pro bono advocacy work for parents of special-needs children. But Shoretz’s second major career change occurred when she was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer in 2001, six years after her grandmother died of the disease.
Shoretz quickly discovered that while Ashkenazic women were far more likely to develop breast cancer, there were no resources for young women in the Jewish community dealing with the disease as well as the challenges of dating, motherhood, and fertility. Always one to rise to a challenge, Shoretz founded Sharsheret to address the unmet needs of Jewish women, and their families, facing breast cancer, with the goal of linking women with breast cancer in a virtual chain, or sharsheret, so they could share their common experiences. Sharsheret quickly grew by leaps and bounds and is today a national organization that has responded to over 40,000 inquiries, has a national peer-support network, and has presented hundreds of programs all over the United States.
Shoretz’s breast cancer returned in 2009, this time as stage-four metastatic breast cancer, which was treatable but incurable. In a YouTube clip recorded by Cure Today, Shoretz noted that women should continue to live well even when faced with stage-four cancer.
“If there is one message I hope to get across to younger women who are diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, it is that there is life, living with breast cancer, even at stage four,” said Shoretz. “I really do believe I am living with a chronic illness, not a death sentence, but a chronic illness that will let me watch my children grow for as long as I can, continue my career, have dinner with my friends, see a movie, and go to the theater.”
True to her words, Shoretz continued to live her life fully, finally succumbing to breast cancer on Sunday in her Teaneck home. As word of her passing spread, tributes began popping up on social media as friends recalled a woman who lived her life to help others.
“When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was Rochelle who was the person I leaned on,” best-selling author Brad Meltzer, who attended Columbia with Shoretz, posted on Facebook. “She held my hand through all of it. And it wasn’t just me. When she was first diagnosed at the young age of 28, instead of giving up, she started Sharsheret to help other young women with breast cancer. It became so big by the time my mom was diagnosed, Sharsheret pamphlets were on the doctor’s main desk. To this day, if you need help or advice, Sharsheret is there.”
Meltzer’s inspirational children’s book, Heroes for my Daughter, profiled 60 outstanding individuals, including Shoretz. “Rochelle was a lion,” wrote Meltzer. “She was funny. She did the New York City triathlon with stage-four breast cancer. She was unstoppable. .Â .Â . Strong. Fearless. And always herself. That’s what great women are made of.”
Shoretz, who was extremely organized, carried two separate calendars: one to keep track of her business appointments and another with her sons’ schedules.
In a 2010 newspaper interview, Shoretz said she was grateful to have a relationship with her ex-husband’s new wife, knowing she would play an important role in her sons’ lives should she die before they are grown. She said she felt fortunate to be “able to hug that person and say thank-you so much for helping raise my boys. It’s indescribable.”
Close family relationships were of paramount importance to Shoretz. “She worked very hard to keep the family close and she always wanted to have the family Chanukah parties at her house,” said Shoretz’s cousin Elisheva Elefant. “She was very, very close to her boys and did whatever she could to give them a normal life.”
Shoretz was also blessed with the unique ability to make everyone feel like they were members of her family. “She was like a superwoman,” said Elefant. “Yet she was so down to earth, very genuine. She never realized how much of an effect she had on other people.”
Over 500 people turned out to honor Shoretz at her levayah on Monday in Hackensack. Among those who eulogized Shoretz was Elana Silber, Sharsheret’s director of operations. “Working with Rochie was the ride of a lifetime, challenging me and the amazing team at Sharsheret to accomplish more than we could have ever imagined,” said Silber. “She made the unthinkable a reality.”
Silber recounted how Sharsheret’s board members tried to describe the experience of working with Shoretz. One described her as a magnetic field that drew in everyone around her. Another expounded on her ability to be persuasive while still respecting those who disagreed with her.
Shoretz’s positive nature rubbed off on everyone around her, and in addition to making sure that every eâ€‘mail, text, and Facebook message received a response, she was meticulous about showing her appreciation to everyone.
“Rochie was passionate about expressing gratitude,” observed Silber. “If you ever received a personal note from Rochie, you have likely saved it. She knew just the right words to say thank-you, to make you understand that you truly made a difference.”
In his eulogy, Shoretz’s rabbi, Rabbi Shalom Baum of Congregation Keter Torah, recalled Shoretz as a courageous, moral person with impeccable middos. “When you walked into her home, the first thing was always ‘What can I get you?’” said Rabbi Baum.
Rabbi Baum, who learned with Shoretz during the last year and a half of her life, described her eâ€‘mails as “masterpieces in etiquette, friendship, and a refined life.” Rabbi Baum recalled that even in his most recent visit with Shoretz in her final days, her thoughts were not on her own situation but her obligation to see to the needs of others. “One of the last things she said to me was, ‘Rabbi, I am sorry that I can’t walk you out.’”
While Shoretz is being remembered as a mother, a daughter, and a sister, the thousands of women whose lives have been enhanced by Sharsheret are also feeling a tremendous sense of personal loss in the wake of Shoretz’s passing. In a 2012 Kveller.com post, titled “Mom, Lawyer, Jewish Breast Cancer Crusader,” Shoretz noted that her work with Sharsheret for Jewish women is perhaps her greatest accomplishment of all.
“I’ve done a lot of amazing things in 40 short years–I clerked for the Supreme Court, learned how to kayak in class 4 white water, took an impromptu trip to South Africa with friends when I was diagnosed for the second time with metastatic breast cancer. But as someone living with a sharpened sense of the value of time, I appreciate that nothing has given my life more meaning than sharing Sharsheret’s unapologetically Jewish message worldwide. Nothing.”
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.