Rabbi Ruth Adar goes bald to raise funds for cancer research

One week after shaving her head, Rabbi Ruth Adar jokes that she remains “well ventilated” up on top. Her hair has begun to grow back, but the impact of shearing in solidarity with pediatric cancer patients may never wear off.

Rabbi Ruth Adar of San Leandro before getting her head shaved — and during

“I get a lot of funny looks,” said Adar, a San Leandro resident who works as an educator mainly in the East Bay. “But I’ve been surprised by people’s good manners. Unless I wear a button that says ‘Ask me why I’m bald,’ people think I’m sick.”

If people did ask, they would learn that Adar and 72 other Reform rabbis gave up their locks on April 1 for a campaign that so far has raised more than $570,000 for child cancer research. The rabbis were in Chicago for the Central Conference of American Rabbis annual convention.

The funds — more than triple the campaign’s original goal of $180,000 — are going to the nonprofit St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research by staging shave-a-thons. The campaign was originally called “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave,” until participation doubled.

Many of the rabbis, including nine women, were motivated to shave their heads after the death of 8-year-old Sam Sommers, who died in December due to acute myeloid leukemia.

His mother, Phyllis, an associate rabbi at Am Shalom in Chicago, documented her son’s struggle in a blog titled “Superman Sam.” She and Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr came up with the idea for the shaving campaign. Adar was the only Bay Area rabbi to take part.

The nine female rabbis who shaved their heads in Chicago on April 1

“I signed up before I thought about it very hard,” said Adar about the prospect of being bald, quickly realizing it might clash with her sense of vanity. “Then, after people had made donations and pledges, there was no way out.”

As of early this week, she was $500 from reaching her pledged total of $5,000.

In part, Adar participated because Phyllis Sommers is her friend and Sam’s death devastated her. Moreover, Adar’s wife is a two-time cancer survivor, and during her rabbinic training in Southern California, Adar served as chaplain at City of Hope’s bone marrow transplant unit.

A native of Tennessee, Adar, 58, grew up Catholic but became a Jew by choice later in life. Ordained at Hebrew Union College in 2008, she is now an educator who wears many different hats, including that of the Coffee Shop Rabbi, a small business she established to provide information to those curious about Judaism in a relaxed (although highly caffeinated) environment.

Though she will not be changing her moniker to the Bald Coffee Shop Rabbi, Adar is happy she and her colleagues did something to make sense of a senseless tragedy.

“It was a moment of rabbis coming together to mourn and to insist upon making the world better,” Adar wrote on her blog, CoffeeShopRabbi.com. “I feel blessed to be part of such a group. All the nerves were gone; what remained was a holy peace, shalom.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.