BY MICHAEL RICONDA
PEEKSKILL – Rabbi Hirschel Jaffe has reason to be thankful this passover season, as the “Running Rabbi” known for his participation in charity marathons and advocacy for cancer patients has once again overcome his biggest foe.
Jaffe, who grew up and received his bar mitzvah in Spring Valley, was recently named a candidate for Man of the Year by the Westchester Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for his fund raising efforts. The honor, which came prior to the Passover season is all the more relevant given Jaffe recently overcame another bout of cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy.
“This is a celebration for my liberation from the bondage of my own illness,” Jaffe proudly said.
Having beaten cancer four times, the rabbi is no stranger to sickness. Before his recent recovery from an aggressive form of lymphoma he fought hairy cell leukemia.
The experiences were extremely traumatic, but Jaffe quickly understood he was not completely beholden to cancer. The rabbi’s positive focus came in part thanks to his determination not to let his illness define him. While he accepts cancer as a part of his life, he makes clear its relevance is far outweighed by the joys he experienced through his friends, family and faith.
Faith was critical from the beginning of his battle in the 1980s, when Jaffe announced to his own congregation he would be in the hospital for his first round of chemotherapy on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
“I wrote to my congregation in friends, ‘If you’re wondering what a rabbi is doing in a hospital instead of a synagogue, it’s because our god is a god of life,’” “We have a belief that saving a human life comes above all. That’s why I’m so involved in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to help them discover the drug to save our lives.”
Another part of this understanding came when he was in the hospital. Bogged down by treatment, doctors asked him to use his experience as a rabbi to minister to other cancer patients.
“That made me feel important again and that’s when I realized that my ultimate mission in life would be to be an advocate to cancer patients and to counsel them, which I do all the time,” Jaffe said. “If you can help other people to cope, if you have some knowledge, that’s a good thing to do.”
At the request of a friend and fellow rabbi, Jaffe later compiled the lessons he learned into an award-winning book, “Why Me? Why Anyone?” Though the book was physically difficult to write during treatment, he characterized it as “a goal that kept [him] alive.”
Together with a later work titled “Hanging on to Hope,” the book earned him attention from the Cancer Society and began his career as an activist for cancer research, during which he channeled his love for both the Jewish faith and running into his persona as the Running Rabbi who successfully completed the New York City Marathon.
Even before cancer, Jaffe made it a mission to comfort those pressed into bondage, advocating for the civil rights of African-Americans and Soviet Jews in the 1960s. He was also part of a delegation of clergy who ministered to American hostages in Iran in 1980 and was almost taken captive himself during the visit. For his advocacy of cancer patients and others, he was awarded the Award of Courage from former President Ronald Reagan.
He is now pushing for funding for blood cancer research, but still maintains some of the most important work is the spiritual and personal support for those who remain confined by the pain and fear of such illnesses. Ultimately, Jaffe concluded the vulnerability felt by those with cancer was not shameful, but an invitation to connect with others and become stronger through them.
“In the Jewish tradition, we don’t say that we have the answers to why bad things happen,” Jaffee said. “It’s very mysterious, but what we can do is to comfort one another, and that’s very profoundly important.”
Jaffe also took the opportunity to announce a fundraiser organized by the Westchester Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Donations can be made through Jaffe’s website, www.runningrabbi.org.