On Sunday, March 8, 18 Jewish women gathered at the Tucson Jewish Community Center for brunch, inspiration and guided schmoozing. Most of the women were not strangers. Some have been meeting regularly for nearly 13 years; others have joined the group more recently; two were attending for the first time. They varied in age, interests, talents, skills and experience. What they have in common is cancer.
I still remember when Bryna Zehngut asked me if I would like to join her in forming a Jewish women’s cancer support group. Thinking that cancer and religion are distinct, I blurted, “Why Jewish?” She explained that she envisioned a group, like a sisterhood, which would feel a comfortable bond. Bryna’s indomitable spirit as she faced life with ovarian cancer could only be admired and supported. Everyone she contacted said “Yes!” Now, 13 years later, her legacy continues.
I can attest to the warmth and compassion of our group’s members. We inspire each other with good news, collective wisdom, and everyday practical information. We laugh, cry, “kibbitz” and help each other as needs arise. Meetings remain confidential. “What’s said in the group stays in the group.” We are the CHAI (Cancer, Healing and Inspiration) Circle, a unique support group that is a program of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona.
We meet once a month at the Tucson J from 10 a.m. to noon, usually on the second Sunday. Many active members appreciate “time out” from their routines and the open environment for frank discussions. At the conclusion of meetings, we have a ritual of joining hands to sing the “Mi Shebeirach” prayer for healing, then ending with a joke to raise our spirits.
One of our missions is to help Jewish women living with cancer gain perspectives on healing and spirituality. Rabbis volunteer to facilitate the beginning of our sharing sessions and at alternate meetings, speakers from the community present their expertise. Over our dozen plus years, CHAI Circle’s programs have included varied topics: integrative medicine, journal writing, meditation, arts, nutrition, intimacy, marijuana, fitness, reiki, yoga, qi gong, you name it. This year Param Dedhia, M.D., spoke to us about the power of sleep. Instructor Gary Matteucci introduced us to Dancing Tai Ji, and Holly Sack led a Nia dance movement class at our retreat. We received nutritionally sound advice from Sylvia Haskvitz, author of “Eat by Choice, Not by Habit,” and we had a rousing drumming circle with Sinde Rubiner.
In addition to meetings with speakers, each year we enjoy a Chanukah party at a private home and our complimentary retreat at Canyon Ranch. The retreat is a daylong opportunity for healing and delving into topics of importance to group members. We are grateful to our JFCS staff coordinator, Andrea Siemens, who takes suggestions from the advisory board and creates well-planned, beautiful programs for us. We also are fortunate to have volunteer, professional facilitators Alice Steinfeld and Helene Rothstein, who help keep us on track.
When considering whether a woman would benefit from participating in CHAI Circle, we believe that the biggest advantage of a support group — particularly for someone with a new cancer diagnosis or treatment — is the realization that she is not alone. Knowing that others have had the same concerns can be a tremendous relief. While it may feel uncomfortable at first to talk to a group of strangers, the women in CHAI Circle empathize and welcome new members. If you, or a woman you know, would like to attend a meeting, please contact us at jfcstucson.org/services/cancer-support/.
Evelyn Varady has been a member of the CHAI Circle and advisory board for 12 years and has lived as a cancer patient for 15 years. She is a retired teacher and is a docent at the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center.