Working Through the Pain

May 9, 2009

10 min read


A relentless activist for special needs children now faces her own bout with cancer.

courtesy of The Jewish Week -

Rochelle Shoretz, a chic, black beret perched atop her auburn wig, is waiting curbside in front of her Tudor house, as the yellow school van, its red lights flashing, appears down the block one fall afternoon. Shlomo, her 6-year-old son, is returning from yeshiva.

Shoretz waves to Shlomo, sitting by a window, as the van backs up, making a three-point turn. The vehicle stops and Shlomo steps into his mother's hug. "Hel-LO HAND-some," she gushes. Shlomo returns the hug, running inside for a snack. Upstairs, his 3-year-old brother Dovid is playing. Shoretz checks the answering machine in the kitchen. Twenty-one messages.

Later comes Shlomo's karate practice. Shoretz drives him to the lesson at a nearby recreation center in Teaneck, N.J. She stays there for an hour, watching Shlomo kick and bow.

A typical day in the life of Shoretz, 29.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard and early admissions graduate of Columbia University School of Law, she has switched -- temporarily -- from the fast track to the eema ("mommy") track after completing a clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago.

Anxious parents, who don't know how to navigate the legal/educational system, hear of her via word-of-mouth.

These days are saved for the kids. And for advocacy work she started doing, after deciding to postpone her fulltime law career, for parents of special needs children. Her volunteer work is a one-woman show, based in a study in her carpeted attic.

Anxious parents, who don't know how to navigate the legal/educational system, hear of her via word-of-mouth.

Last spring the American Jewish Congress heard about Shoretz. The organization was putting together a dinner to honor five prominent Jewish men and women who had achieved distinction in their respective professions. Each honoree was asked to designate one young person in his or her field, to be jointly honored as an emerging leader in the Jewish community.

The AJCongress gave one of its awards to Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her choice as a young leader was Shoretz, Ginsburg's clerk in 1998-99.

Shoretz received a $10,000 prize at the dinner. She's using it to support her advocacy work.


Rochelle Shoretz -- "Rochie to friends and family" -- first thought of becoming a journalist. "I loved fiction writing."

Growing up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, she attended Prospect Park Yeshiva and Shulamith High School, before enrolling at Barnard. "Once I got to college I thought I might want to be an English professor.

Then Tani suggested law school.

Tani is Jonathan Mirsky, former student at Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore and now a hedge fund manager. Introduced by common friends, they were married during Rochelle's first year at Barnard.

Tani read a notice about an early admissions program at Columbia's law school. Shoretz was interested. "I didn't want to be a lawyer... it was not my calling," she says. "I wanted a law degree. It opens career doors. I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. Law school afforded three more years to decide what I wanted to do."

After summer jobs as a legal intern, in addition to stints as a speechwriter for Mayor David Dinkins and a reporter for Business Week, she applied for a post-graduate clerkship at the Supreme Court.

I was professional woman. By the time I got there I didn't remember I had a son.

Thousands of young lawyers apply each year for the three dozen Supreme Court clerkships. Shoretz' resume and letters of recommendation caught Ginsburg's eye. They met in Manhattan, before a speech by the justice to a Columbia alumni group, a few months after Shoretz gave birth to her first son. Shoretz put on a power suit. She put on her game face. "I was professional woman," she says. "By the time I got there I didn't remember I had a son."

"Mazel tov," Ginsburg said when they shook hands. "I heard you had a boy." Then they spoke about law and law school. "The last thing she said, when she walked me out," Shoretz says, "was ‘Enjoy your son.'"

With no immediate clerkship openings, Ginsburg offered Shoretz one that began in two years. In the interim, Shoretz clerked in Lower Manhattan for Amalya Kearse of the federal Second Circuit and worked as a litigant for a Manhattan law firm.

By the time she went to Washington, Rochelle and Tani had two sons.

"I think," Shoretz says, "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."

"I never felt in any way I was disadvantaged by her situation" of leaving early on winter Fridays to get home by sundown, of spending time to arrange daycare for Shlomo and David, Ginsburg tells The Jewish Week. "She's just a take-charge person... not in any way shy. She takes every challenge in stride."


The clerkship ended.

"Then I stayed home," Shoretz says. The family settled in Teaneck, which has a large and diverse Orthodox community.

"My kids needed me," she says. Working at the Supreme Court had required long hours. "It took a lot out of the family ‘bank account' -- I needed to put something back in."

One day a call came from a woman who had a son with a physical disability and needed to get state-funded early intervention therapy for him. The woman had heard that Shoretz could help people with such problems.

Shoretz helped.

More calls followed from parents whose children have developmental problems and autism and attention deficit syndrome and similar medical conditions. About three-fourths of the calls are from Jewish parents, but "I don't ask," she says.

Shoretz has represented the families pro bono at hearings, made phone calls for them, arranged government benefits for treatment and admission into educational programs. She gives advice and loans her books.

People are not asking for a lot of my time. How could I not help?

"A lot of it is just making sure these families get what they are entitled to," she says. "When people call me, they're really not asking for a lot of my time. How could you not help somebody?"

Shoretz offers her help on a daily basis, says Suzanne, a Tenafly, N.J., resident, with an autistic son, befriended by Shoretz. "She's a person. She's very clear. She's very thorough," Suzanne says. "She has a name. People know if they need good advice, Rochie knows what's available. When she opens her mouth, everyone listens."

Shulamith High School will honor Shoretz for her public service work as alumna of the year at a dinner in January. "She's a self-starter, a self-motivated person," says Susan Katz, Shulamith principal. "She's always been a leader. People naturally turned to her."

It's a matter of empathy for families "who are struggling to secure needed medical services," Shoretz says. "It's affected my family."

She reluctantly calls her volunteer work advocacy. "I don't want to advocate for anything. I just want to do it and get it over with."


One day last July changed Shoretz' life.

"I found my own lump." Breast cancer, stage 2. A lumpectomy in August. Chemo since September -- it's supposed to end in three months. No radiation treatments. "Not yet."

"I'm on active treatment. I feel great," Shoretz says, sharing a turkey sandwich and fries with Tani at a kosher restaurant in Teaneck. "I swim 30 minutes of laps a day... on good days."

The couple went to Paris, in the 10 days before her surgery, on an impromptu vacation. "We had been saying for 10 years," since they were married, "wouldn't it be nice to fly to Paris for the weekend?" Shoretz says. "So we flew to Paris for the weekend." They stayed at a hotel in the heart of the city. "We held hands and strolled the streets. We went shopping. We bought a lot of cancer-related stuff ‘distractions' -- scarves, berets, jewelry."

Including her favorite beret. "Every time I put on my beret I think of Paris."

I have two children. The option of collapsing is not available to me.

Chemo has cost Shoretz her hair. She has the treatments every three weeks; she's knocked out for five days -- on her good days afterwards, still lethargic and sometimes nauseous, she makes the family meals and shleps the kids around town and does other errands. "I don't have a choice," she says. "I have two children. I need to live. The option of collapsing is not available to me."

Shoretz' newest project is Sharsheret. That's a Hebrew word for chain. Sharsheret is a national, mutual support organization she's formed, since being diagnosed with cancer, to link up young, Jewish women who have breast cancer and can share their experiences.

"There are issues we share in common, that are to our group," she says, such as observing the laws of family purity, handling the reproduction pressures, which are especially strong in traditional Jewish communities.

Support groups introduced Shoretz since her treatments started, to breast cancer survivors -- not Jewish or past child-bearing age -- who did not understand her concerns. "It's very common," she says, "to pair up people by similar medical experience, not by common life experience."

Through networking in breast cancer circles, she made contact, on the phone, with a few women who fit her own profile. "If I met two or three women like me, there must be 30" in greater New York. "Who knows how many nationally?"

Her greatest skill is that she's relentless. The fact that she's ill is almost irrelevant.

Sharsheret was born "when I saw how difficult it was to find someone my age with children who was going through [cancer]."

The non-profit organization already has a Web site ( and a toll-free telephone number (866-832-9909). Its address: PO Box 3245, Teaneck, NJ 07666.

"This will be funded by me," Shoretz says. "There's no such group" among the scores of cancer support organizations. "There's a real need for it."

In addition to the calls from families with special needs children, she's now in contact with fellow cancer survivors every day. "I'm not going to wait till this [chemo] is over to start" working on Sharsheret, Shoretz says. "There's no time. The need is immediate. This is my calling."

"Her greatest skill," Tani says of his wife's outreach work, "is that she is relentless. The fact that she is ill is almost irrelevant."

What's next for Shoretz?

"My career plans are up in the air," she says. "There's part of me that wants to return to law. But there's part of me that doesn't want to make that commitment. I'm still not sure what I want to be when I grow up."


The streets of Teaneck are dark by the time Shoretz drives Shlomo home from karate class.

He's in the back seat of the family SUV, a seatbelt across his chest. Shoretz keeps glancing in the rearview mirror, making sure her son is comfortable.

"I love you," mom whispers.

"I love you," Shlomo says.

Back home, she checks the answering machine for calls about her health, about her advocacy work, about Sharsheret.

The number is up to 36.


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