The Fire Inside that Compels Us to Celebrate Life
by Marsha Mathis and Sheryl Blechner
One person can make a difference; it is true, it is fact. In the mid-1980s, in an effort to raise money for the local American Cancer Society office and to show support for all of his patients who had battled cancer, Dr. Gordy Klatt spent 24 hours circling the track at Baker Stadium for a total of more than 83 miles while friends, family, and patients watched. Throughout the night, people donated $25 each to run or walk the course with him for 30 minutes – and the now-popular Relay for Life was born.
Once again, one person has seen the need to make a change and make a difference, this time for our Jewish community. Realizing that many Jewish supporters were restricted from participating in the annual local Relay because it fell on Shabbat, a member of our congregation approached the American Cancer Society with the idea of a separate Relay that, while not faith-based, would consider and respect the needs of those in the Jewish community who could not participate without compromising their religious beliefs. After four months of research and due diligence, it was determined that there was no precedent for this anywhere in the world – and thus, the Relay for Life Ruach Atlanta was born. Ruach, spirit, is the very essence of what the Relay is about: life, survival and remembrance.
The current Steering Committee includes representatives from three Atlanta-area Reform congregations (Congregation Ner Tamid, Temple Beth Tikvah and Temple Kol Emeth) and one Atlanta-area Conservative congregation (Congregation Etz Chaim). However the three-year plan for Atlanta Relay for Life Ruach will include the entire area Jewish community and move the event to a larger venue in the third year. The local Jewish community’s desire to participate in this life-changing, life-affirming event – without compromising our religious beliefs – was intense. From this burning desire to be a part something that could give so much to a worldwide community came our event logo – a flame.
Ritual fires are part of almost all world cultures. An eternal flame has been a part of Jewish ritual since Moses oversaw the construction of the original menorah for the Tabernacle in the desert. In modern Jewish tradition, the ner tamid, everlasting light, symbolizes God’s eternal presence. As Jews, we light candles in our homes on Sabbath and festivals; the brightest flames communicate strength, vitality, vision and warmth. It is through the flames of these candles that we find a connection with the past, with each other, and with our own spiritual being. The combination of these aspects of our tradition is what led us to the use of the flame as part of our Ruach Relay logo.
Rabbi Akiba taught that the Hebrew word for man is ish, spelled aleph, yod, shin. If the yod is removed, aleph, shin or esh – meaning fire – remains. He taught that the Hebrew word for woman is ishah, spelled aleph, shin, heh. If the heh is removed, esh – meaning fire – remains. From this, Rabbi Akiba says, we learn that there is a consuming fire in the heart of every man and woman. The torch or flame is used to refer to a valuable quality, principle, or cause that needs to be protected and maintained. There is comfort in the warmth of togetherness and connection, joy in the accomplishments of human beings, and a commitment to humanity. The fire inside each of us compels us to celebrate life, to remember our past, and to fight to ensure our future.
The kick-off for this ambitious event will be on October 14 from 1:00 PM to dusk and, in keeping with the integrity of the original, will maintain the key components of the Relay, including an opening ceremony, a survivor walk, and a survivor dinner. The original goal was to have 20 teams, but as of this writing, 31 teams have registered, and we are $3,266 over the $30,000.00 goal we set for ourselves. For information on creating a team and signing up for this inaugural event, please visit www.RelayForLife.org/ruachga.
Sheryl Blechner and Marsha Mathis are both longtime members of Temple Beth Tikvah. Sheryl is Chair of the Steering Committee; it was her vision that gave birth to this Relay and presented it as a gift to the community. Marsha is one of the founding members of Temple Beth Tikvah and is serving on the Steering Committee as Publicity Chair.