Lori Schlakman has helped plan the annual Chai Lifeline Shabbaton at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah since it began five years ago. This weekend, 50 to 100 girls in 9th–12th grade with serious medical conditions will enjoy a Shabbaton designed to give them a respite from the challenge of living with illness. Ms. Schlakman is not only organizing the Shabbaton, but this year she will be a part of it. At Seudah Shlishit, she will tell the girls how they inspired her to make it through the diagnosis and treatment of a rare head and neck cancer with an optimistic outlook.
“The teenagers look forward to the Shabbaton every year; it takes them out of their communities and allows them be part of something larger, to expand their universe of friends, and to share their experiences with others of similar ages,” Ms. Schlakman said. “It’s a shining light, something fun. It gives them and us added strength and hope to fight with positivity.”
The girls are being hosted by Englewood families, and come with their volunteer trained counselors. Nurses and doctors also come with the group. Englewood girls in the same grades, from all the area day schools, help to run the meals and programs the guests will attend. Shabbat dinner will be held at Ahavath Torah. On Shabbat day, the entire community is invited for Kiddush following davening. Lunch will be at Ahavath Torah followed by an oneg for all community women at a private home, and then the girls return to Ahavath Torah for Seudah Shlishit. “The Shabbaton offers tremendous value from both perspectives,” Ms. Schlakman noted. “The kids come and have a wonderful weekend and the girls in our community share their understanding that no matter what challenges you are given in life, you can face them with simcha.”
The chizuk Ms. Schlakman gained from years of volunteering with the Chai Lifeline Shabbaton enabled her to face her own illness. “They gave me the strength to approach a serious case of cancer with a real understanding that I could do this,” she said. “God had a purpose for me being involved, busy as I was.”
Ms. Schlakman was a constantly-on-the-go mother with several jobs and the launch of a new product she created: Tabooze, a no-calorie cocktail mixer composed of natural flavors in tablet form. Her stint as a bartender in college had given her an appreciation for well mixed drinks. But those drinks are expensive; it takes expertise to mix them well and imitations on the market are not palatable, she said. After selling the entire stock to a co-promoter, Ms. Schlakman started a round of parties to introduce Tabooze publicly. At one of these parties, she cornered a radiologist friend and told him she was having a little trouble swallowing, and had an unusual mass in her neck. She asked if he could prescribe antibiotics for what she thought was a virus. He asked if she had any other of these lumps and she told him that there was one under her arm but that she was told over a year ago that it was nothing. That red flag made him insist she come to his office the next day for tests and said if she didn’t, he was going to tell her husband. She didn’t show up. He told. Her husband made her go. That night, the radiologist came to her home with the results: She had two malignant tumors.
After surgery, tests, and consultation among several physicians, she was diagnosed with a rare head and neck cancer caused by a virus that is becoming more common. Her specific diagnosis was case number 13 in this country. She was also told she would have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation, in and out of the hospital for over six months. She asked about immunotherapy trials and was told no money was available for that kind of research.
Some women might have opted to keep the condition under wraps. Not Ms. Schlakman.
“Man, was I sick. But I wanted people to know, especially my children, that you can’t control what challenges you are given by God, you can only control your attitude in how you handle these challenges. It’s a Jewish perspective to keep positive and give back to the community. All of the Chai Lifeline children are faced with these overwhelming challenges. Some are given a very difficult prognosis, not to mention the constant hospital and doctor visits. But they approached their situations with hope and positive spirit. I was so impressed, that I internalized that inspiration. And I was able to inspire others.”
Friends rallied to her side and she did something every day to give herself and everyone around her hope. She would dance with the IV pole and include everyone on her hospital floor. She put a blackboard in the room where people could fill in the blank in the sentence, “C is for _____.” And instead of cancer, they would write nurturing or upbeat words like community and courage. A video collage of the dancing and signing went viral.
When her friend Susan Greif saw the pole-dancing video, she suggested creating a social media campaign. “I thought this would be cathartic and healing for Lori as well as inspiring for women with similar challenges,” Ms. Greif told JLNJ. She created the Facebook page, Lori Schlakman: C- is 4 ___, where more people could participate. “I loved that she was so open. When my mother had breast cancer, she kept her illness a secret. I believe it’s important to open up and get support.”
Ms. Greif knows something about how to help women face their challenges. A professional counselor and inspirational speaker with a practice called Art Mends Hearts, she uses the creative arts to help women and children work through emotional and physical distress. Ms. Greif says that expressive arts, like drawing, movement and keeping a journal bring subconscious, often repressed thoughts into consciousness more quickly than talk therapy, to begin the process of self-healing. She developed her approach by combining all her training: She has certification from Columbia Teacher’s College in Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, certification in the Orton-Gillingham multisensory approach for dyslexia and certification from the New School in Creative Arts and Health, as well as training in art, dance, photography and meditation. She also helped Schlakman to control her anxiety before debilitating radiation treatments that would require being pinned down without being able to move.
Ms. Schlakman finished treatment a number of weeks ago, and while not 100 percent back to her previous energy level, she does more than most people who have never been sick. She has created a social media campaign for Tabooze, #cocktails4acure, and is donating 10 percent of all profits from sales to help find a cure for cancer. She is looking forward to the Chai Lifeline Shabbaton, where she can share her journey with girls who are on the same path, and who led the way.
The Shabbaton is being dedicated to the memory of Evan Levy, who was a student in the Moriah School’s early childhood program before he passed away from cancer last December. The Planning Committee—Rivka Goldin, Lori Schlakman, Deborah Berger and Arlene Horowitz—said in a statement, “We have all been affected by the loss of Evan and want, as a community, to continue to show our support in any way we can. Remembering Evan provides our community with an opportunity to help other children with serious illness.”
C is for Chai Lifeline.
By Bracha Schwartz