January 16, 2019

Fundraising to prevent cancer? It’s easy as pie

With the approach of Thanksgiving, a national nonprofit called Sharsheret is once again holding its Pies for Prevention fundraiser to raise awareness of and support for ovarian cancer programs through sales of holiday pies and cakes.

The fundraiser, founded eight years ago by sisters Adeena Sussman and Sharon Wieder in memory of the mother and grandmother they lost to ovarian cancer, has grown steadily. It now has 17 bakers in six states mobilizing for this year’s pre-Thanksgiving baking effort.

“Each baker spends their own money and time to set up their sale and pay for ingredients so that every penny raised goes to the programming,” Sussman, a recipe developer and cookbook author who has had two books on The New York Times Bestseller List this year, told the Journal in an email. “We provide a kit with suggested recipes, advice, timelines and other info gleaned through experience.” 

The deadline to order pies in Los Angeles is Nov. 16. Orders can be made on the Sharsheret website (sharsheret.org) or by calling the group’s L.A. office at (310) 409-2330.

Jenna Fields, Sharsheret’s Los Angeles Regional Director, said that since the Pies for Prevention program began, it has raised about $300,000. In 2015, the Los Angeles operation sold 50 pies and raised close to $3,000 out of about $50,000 nationally. 

Every person who orders a pie or cake also receives information about ovarian cancer and Sharsheret’s programs to support young women who are diagnosed and their families. 

Jewish women’s risk of contracting hereditary breast and ovarian cancer is increased by the presence of the BRCA gene mutation, which occurs in 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews. (In the non-Jewish population, the risk of having the mutation is 1 in 400.) 

“For the Jewish community, this is an urgent concern,” Elana Silber, executive director of Sharsheret, said by phone from New Jersey, where she is based. “If women speak to their doctors and are aware of the risk, cancer can be detected in the earlier stages or in some cases even prevent it.”

The baking is a family-and-friends effort. Sussman and Wieder and their “adopted sister,” Anat Abramov Shimoni, bake more than 1,000 pies or cakes for people in New York City and Teaneck, N.J., alone. In Los Angeles, the baking is spearheaded by Rachel and J.J. Wernick. This added social component, Sussman said, “makes the baking madness extra fun.” 

Sharsheret, Hebrew for “chain,” began with a focus on breast cancer. It offers a community of support for young Jewish women and families facing breast cancer at every stage — before, during and after diagnosis — by fostering culturally relevant, individualized connections with networks of peers, health professionals and related resources.

Silber joined as a volunteer and was director of operations for 13 years, serving under Sharsheret’s founder, Rochelle Shoretz, who lost her battle with cancer in 2015. After Shoretz died, Silber became executive director.

Sharsheret aided more than 1,000 women in its first year and now serves almost 65,000 women and family health care professionals. 

“The message is really out there that this needs to be addressed by the Jewish community,” Silber said, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized the organization as a model for culturally relevant support for young women facing breast cancer, enabling them to “bring the Jewish voice to the table when they talk about research for breast cancer on the government level.”

“The need in the community is tremendous,” Silber said. “I’m proud that we’re addressing the need. Not a day goes by that we don’t get an email or a letter that says, ‘Thank you, you changed my life.’ ”

“I’m always so moved with the way people share the news of the sale on social media, the journalists that have written about us, and, of course, the compliments on our desserts,” Sussman said. “We still sweat the details, like whether the crusts are overdone or the pecan pies are perfectly jiggly in the center. Also, hearing from Sharsheret that the dollars actually work — hundreds of women have been supported by these ‘dessert dollars.’ ” 

“There are a lot of cancer support organizations, but when you call Sharsheret, you’re the only person in the room,” Silber said. “We continue to develop and evaluate programs with the feedback from the people we serve. From undiagnosed to survivorship, we believe in the personal connection. It’s 2016, so it’s important to have technology, but it’s also important to have a person there for you who knows what you’re going through.”

Sharsheret expanded to South Florida in 2013 and opened a Los Angeles office this summer. Since the L.A. office opened, Fields has been connecting with community organizations and synagogues in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The L.A. office has supported 12 events, Fields said, ranging from a pink challah bake to a discussion of an article about Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy because she was a BRCA carrier. 

“It’s great to see how partnering organizations are using different strategies to bring the community together and educate people about these issues,” Fields said.

As a result of information distributed by Sharsheret, Silber said, some women are getting tested for the gene: “If we can save one life from this program, it’s like saving the world.”