Bar mitzvah project puts focus on breast cancer

Ezra Reiter, center, wanted to honor his grandmother, who died of breast cancer the day before he turned 12. (Photos courtesy of Rachel Weintraub)

The day after Ezra Reiter turned 12 in 2016, his grandmother died of breast cancer.

Wanting to honor her memory, Ezra decided to dedicate his bar mitzvah project to breast cancer.

“My grandmother had breast cancer and she lost that battle,” the Washington teen said recently. “And ever since then I wanted to make a difference, because if I can help prevent breast cancer it will mean that many more people will have the opportunity I didn’t to have their grandparents longer.”

Ezra went to his mother, Rachel Weintraub, with his idea. They decided to collaborate with fellow Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue congregant and family friend Andrea Wolf. Wolf heads the Silver Spring-based Brem Foundation, which works to increase early detection of breast cancer.

“I was incredibly touched and honored that he wanted to do this,” Wolf said. “I mean, I’ve known Ezra for a long time and so I wasn’t totally surprised — he has a heart of gold.”

In his email inviting people to his bar mitzvah in June, Ezra included information about the Brem Foundation, along with an opportunity to donate. In his bar mitzvah speech, which was devoted to the idea of second chances, Ezra talked about breast cancer and the foundation.

“The response was incredibly positive and really surpassed what our expectations were,” Weintraub said. “This was a cause that really resonated with people.”

Ezra raised $5,000 for the Brem Foundation, Wolf said. But he wanted his project to include a more tangible, service-oriented component. So last month, he, Weintraub and Wolf brought a mobile mammography unit from George Washington University School of Medicine to Ohev Sholom so anyone in the surrounding community could take advantage of it.

Ezra is helped with putting on tefillin by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue.

Weintraub said it was a learning experience for her and Ezra. It made them realize how many systemic barriers there are for many women to get care. Only a handful of women were able to take advantage and get screened, but “I think it’s something we both feel like we want to do again,” she said.

“Definitely,” Ezra echoed.

One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. Ezra’s grandmother, Pauline Reiter, was one. So were Wolf’s mother and grandmother. When Wolf’s mother was 12 years old, Wolf’s grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and given months to live. But she beat the odds and lived for 43 more years.

“It had a profound impact on my mother, who decided to go to medical school to become a doctor,” said Wolf, whose mother, Dr. Rachel Brem, is the foundation’s namesake.

Then, when Wolf was 12, her mother found she was a carrier of the BRCA genes, which meant she had a much higher likelihood of developing breast cancer. She took the then-unusual step of scheduling a double mastectomy. Just two weeks before her surgery, Wolf’s mother was testing a new piece of equipment on herself and found early stage breast cancer.

“I was very aware of my family history and so, at 22, I got tested and found I was a carrier [of the BRCA genes],” Wolf said. She was 30 when she had a double mastectomy and became “the first woman in my family not to have breast cancer in my 30s.”

Both Wolf and Weintraub expressed great pride in Ezra taking on breast cancer.

“I thought it was going to be a difficult task for a 13-year-old boy to concentrate on this,” Weintraub said. “But also really courageous.”

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