Breast and ovarian cancer support group Sharsheret expands to Israel

The opening of an Israel branch was first delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by the Oct. 7 attacks; group's CEO says it will offer counseling, support and education for English-speaking Israelis

Sharsheret, the American Jewish breast and ovarian cancer organization, has expanded its operations to Israel, providing educational programs, counseling and support to women affected by these cancers and their families. 

The organization marked the expansion with an official launch event in the central Israeli town of Ra’anana on Wednesday night.

Elana Silber, the CEO of Sharsheret, told eJP that the organization had been considering an expansion into Israel for several years. Initial plans were waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2022 the organization returned to the idea. 

“We started the conversations, and it turned into reality,” Silber said. “And then we were set to launch on Oct. 18, 2023.”

After the Oct. 7 terror attacks, “everything was put on hold,” she said.

This was something of a twofold blow for the organization. “October is breast cancer awareness month,” Silber said. “Usually there’s a lot of reminders to check your health, a lot of support, but all that was really put to the bottom [of our priorities] because of the urgency of what was going on.”

In January, the organization decided to press ahead with the expansion. “The need for Sharsheret was greater than ever despite the war, maybe even because of the war,” Silber said. “There was a need for mental health [care]. Women facing the dual trauma of war and serious illness is overwhelming. Preparing, taking time for yourself, all these things that had to be put on hold with so many women raising families on their own. Maybe they themselves are involved in the police or the army.”

Sharsheret Israel will focus on the country’s English-speaking population, women who have been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, survivors of the diseases and those carrying the BRCA gene mutations or are otherwise at a far higher risk of developing them. 

It will offer a smaller suite of services than it does in the United States, focusing on offering one-on-one support and counseling, developing a peer support network, providing kits before and after surgery to improve quality of life and creating education programs. Unlike in the U.S., Sharsheret’s Israel initiative will not offer financial assistance, though Silber said it will direct women to other Israeli organizations that do.

The organization, which has roughly 40 employees in the United States, will have two staff members in Israel: Liora Tannenbaum and Pnina Mor. The Israel initiative also has its own medical advisory board and community advisory board.

Tannenbaum, an art therapist by training who is herself a BRCA1 carrier, will focus on the emotional and mental health support. Mor, a certified nurse midwife at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center with an expertise in BRCA gene mutations, will focus on providing medical counseling and education. 

As the organization is focusing on English-speaking Israelis, many of them recent immigrants, Mor will also offer advice on navigating the Israeli medical system.  

Sharsheret anticipates that it will help between 100 and 150 women and their families in the first year. 

“There’s tremendous, tremendous interest, probably more than we expected, which is good, but also hard. We have to meet that expectation,” Silber said. “And it’s a hard year. It’s a very, very hard year… But we have a very dedicated team, very passionate and really just ready to do good work. So I’m excited for it.”

Silber said the organization raised $200,000 for this project and also set aside funds from its own reserves. This will keep the project going for at least the first 18 months. 

The primary donors for the Israeli initiative are Joel Koschitzsky, Sue and Jacques Gorlin, the Schanzer family, Ariella and Jonathan Eltes (who hosted the launch event in Ra’anana), Naava and Jeffrey Parker and Harriet Seif. There was also a large donation made by an anonymous donor.

Silber said the organization was looking for additional funders for the Israel program and for its operations in general. “Sharsheret does not have any significant institutional funding from the Jewish community and we rely heavily on individual donors,” Silber said. “Right now Sharsheret has about 16,000 donors a year and the average donation is under $1,000. So you can imagine how exhausting that is to raise $9 million or more.”

The expansion to Israel is Sharsheret’s first foray beyond the U.S. border, but possibly not the last. Silber said the organization is next looking to extend to Canada.

At the launch event, the few dozen attendees schmoozed and noshed on a charcuterie spread, before hearing video testimonies by the husbands of BRCA carriers, who discussed their families’ journeys. 

Mor stressed the importance of women not just knowing that they are supposed to have breast cancer screenings — “knowledge is not power,” she quipped — but of actually scheduling and attending them. (In Israel, the recommendations are due to change from mammograms every other year after age 50, to every year after age 40, she noted.)

After taking questions from the audience — for example, how early should people be tested for the BRCA gene (25, otherwise it’s just added anxiety with no clear benefit) — Mor said the main takeaway was: “We’re here for you. We’re here for you — that’s my message.”