A Queens rabbi gets a little goofy for a good cause.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, and particularly if you’re on Facebook, as I am, you’ve no doubt been (wait for the pun!) deluged with brief videos of people like me pouring buckets of ice water over their heads, or, more commonly, having someone else do the pouring. Were I to stop here, and you were, indeed, unaware of this phenomenon, you might simply think that it was some kind of fraternity initiation rite, or maybe a practical joke that had caught on.
But the reality, of course, is that what has come to be referred to as the “Ice Bucket Challenge” is a wildly successful fundraising project for the foundation that funds research in the fight against ALS, or what is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It is also one of the great examples of the power of viral videos on social media to impact the lives that we lead.
ALS is, according to the ALS Foundation’s definition, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. People with ALS gradually lose control over their muscles, to the point where they are paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, and incapable of communicating, eating, or taking care of their bodily needs. It is an awful illness, even within the pantheon of awful illnesses, and the research to find a cure deserves to be generously funded.
I’m not sure what marketing genius conceived of the Ice Bucket Challenge, but essentially, those challenged to do it are bid to contribute to the Foundation, or, within twenty-four hours, pour a bucket of freezing cold water over their heads. Almost everyone so challenged both contributes and takes the challenge, and in so doing, is empowered to challenge selected others to submit themselves to the same deal. As of this writing, the ALS Association has raised close to $23 million dollars from the challenge. By any standards, that is a lot of money, and the project has been a huge success. Not only has it raised enormous amounts of money; it has also increased awareness of the disease, and the need to find a cure. A true win-win.
Having been challenged by a wonderful young woman who grew up in my synagogue in Forest Hills (I guess I should say “her” synagogue!), I was delighted to comply, both with the video of my dousing, a donation to the Foundation and an invitation to a few colleagues and family members to do the same. This is all good.The word is spread, the money comes in, and the project continues.
But the truth is that I was well aware of the ravages of ALS long before the Ice Bucket Challenge. A good friend from both Forest Hills and the Camp Ramah in the Berkshires family, Charley Braunfeld, was diagnosed with ALS four years ago. Since then, with his health steadily and seriously deteriorating, his wonderful family created what they call “Charley's Angels,” and have worked tirelessly and creatively to stage events raising money for the ALS Foundation. Charity walks, ice cream get-togethers, Charlie’s Angels t-shirt sales, anything to bring in money to fight this disease. Before the Ice Bucket Challenge became “the thing to do,” Charlie’s Angels had raised more than $22,000 this year. If you’d like to see what one dedicated family has done without fanfare, check out their site.
In my own rabbinate and in my private life, I have never been a big fan of programming “shtick.” I’m sure it’s a product of my very Litvak upbringing, and that often drier-than-dry Jewish education that informed my Jewish identity in its most formative years. I like to keep it real, and I want people to encounter authenticity and tradition when they find their way to Judaism. As you might imagine, this makes me something of a dinosaur in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, where so much effort is devoted to making Judaism appealing to the alienated populations of the community.
But even the most hard-wired Litvak is obliged to learn the lessons of social media, which is the 21st century version of what Stephen Sondheim famously referred to as “the art of making art.” It’s not only the product that matters; it’s getting people to buy it, and support it.
Having been re-awakened to the importance of supporting the effort to find a cure for ALS via the Ice Bucket Challenge, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to pay tribute to people like the Braunfelds, and all the family members of those suffering from ALS, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, and every other devastating illness whose research arms are desperately in need of funding. You do your great work outside of the bright glare of celebrity spotlights, but you are truly the stars of those stories yet to be written: How the cures to these terrible diseases will ultimately be found.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.