In an August 28, Saturday morning sermon at Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe said: “The beginning of this sermon is going to be very personal, much more personal than any sermon I have given…
“It has to do with something that happened to me a month ago when I was sitting at lunch with a member of the congregation and he said to me, ‘I understand you are going out with so-and-so?’
“I said, ‘What? I am not going out with anyone. I don’t even know who this person is.’
“The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. We are just beginning the separation of our lives. I have a daughter. We are still very close, all three of us.
“Last week, Eli rode a bike 100 miles to raise money for cancer lymphona research because I am in remission from lymphona. In a couple of weeks, she’s running a marathon, also to raise money for lymphona research. One day it might save my life.”
Eliana Wolpe had been running for six hours and fifteen minutes and 26.2 miles when she finally crossed the finish line. Dripping sweat and beaming, she jogged past the screaming crowds with her arms stretched triumphantly over her head. For her, the live rock music that played ubiquitously at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon sounded as good as a victory hymn. After she finished, Eliana locked eyes with the people she was running for — her husband, Rabbi David Wolpe, and their 12-year-old daughter, Samara, who had stood huddled together on the sidelines waiting to embrace her.
Eliana burst into tears, and the threesome collapsed into a tight embrace, gripping one another and sobbing. Then the rabbi kissed her. And as hoards of other runners filed past, the Wolpes celebrated their moment of triumph. This was, for them, a victory over illness, a repudiation of the cancers that have haunted them and destroyed their sense of safety. But even as they sought hope in a new day, they knew their battle wasn’t over.
It began in the fall of 1997, soon after the Wolpes moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey with their 9-month-old daughter to begin a new life. Already an accomplished author and speaker, the rabbi was in demand as a scholar-in-residence at synagogues across the country and had not planned to become a pulpit rabbi. But when Sinai Temple, one of the country’s largest Conservative congregations, offered him a position, the couple decided to accept. Then, three months after they arrived, Eliana was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive reproductive cancer.
The terror of cancer would plague the Wolpes relentlessly. In October 2003, Rabbi Wolpe suffered a grand mal seizure that led to the discovery of a brain tumor. Fortunately, it turned out to be benign. Then, in August 2006, the rabbi was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a cancer he continues to fight today.
These battles with illness played out before a 2,000-family synagogue. Yet if in private the Wolpes felt pain, in public they strove to appear as normal as possible. They treated their congregation like they treated their daughter — putting others’ needs and security before their own, assuring everyone as best they could that life would go on as expected, even when they feared it might not. The Wolpes tried to be honest and open about their cancers, but there were limits: How could they offer comfort about their situation when they couldn’t comfort themselves?
Each coped differently. Rabbi Wolpe saw his coping with illness as a teaching opportunity; Eliana recoiled from the spotlight. The rabbi avoided thinking about it; Eliana pored over medical journals. He wrote books, gave lectures and thrived in his career. She focused on their daughter, scheduled her husband’s medical visits and demanded for him the very best care. “I never cared if I was offending anybody along the way,” she said.
Rabbi Wolpe says: “I would never — when we are taking the first steps to lead separate lives — be going out with someone.”
“I was told that everybody knows this, especially in a certain community.”
“During the past 13 years that I have been the rabbi of this synagogue, numerous members of the Persian group have come to me and said, ‘Please talk about gossip in the Persian community.’
“I’m doing it this morning in part because of what happened this week, because there was a terrible tragedy and a few young people were killed and our hearts go out to their families. I want you to know that if you gossip about it, then you are wounding families who have already suffered unimaginable pain, so don’t do it.”