By Barbara Trainin Blank
Nancy Mehlman likes to tell the story of the time she and her daughter saw a stranger on the street with hair down to her knees. “I remember my daughter begging, ‘Please, Ma, don’t ask her to cut her hair,” she says.
Mehlman, a Silver Spring resident, is always looking for women with long, healthy tresses who would be willing to part with them. For the last decade, she’s been coordinator of an annual hair drive to benefit Zichron Menachem, an Israeli organization serving children with cancer.
“Zichron Menachem makes free wigs for the children who lose their hair,” she says. “It strives to make each child a free wig just like their actual hair.”
Judaism has two traditional hair cutting days: Lag B’Omer, which falls after Passover and, not long after that, the Tuesday following Shavuot. Both days are breaks in the period when traditional Jews don’t cut their hair. And on those days, two Rockville-based hair salons, Progressive Salon Spa Store and Style Salon, offer free haircuts to those wishing to donate their hair.
But not this year. The coronavirus pandemic forced salons to close their doors, so the homebound just let their hair grow — or cut it themselves.
Somehow, the hair drive still received about a dozen donations this year. Mehlman says the lockdown was “beneficial” in that it enabled girls and women to grow their hair longer than usual without, perhaps, the temptation of cutting. The minimum hair length required by Zichron Menachem is 12 inches. Hair that’s more than 10 percent gray — even dyed — isn’t accepted.
In spite of COVID, the drive managed to elicit 12 or 15 hair donations. Since about 2010, when Mehlman took over as coordinator, that number has totaled 200. She was inspired by the passing a few years earlier of her mother, a cancer patient who lost hair during treatment.
COVID was “beneficial” in that enabled girls and women to grow their hair longer than usual without, perhaps, the temptation of cutting. The minimum hair length required by Zichron Menachem is 12 inches. Hair that’s more than 10 percent gray — even dyed — won’t be accepted.
Even so, the ages of donors are all over the map. Alyssa Kardon is 15 and is entering 10th grade at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. She started donating when she was in 2nd grade and has had her hair cut every two years since.
Her inspiration the first time was her older sister, now 21. Since then, donating her hair has taken on greater importance.
“We should do it,” Alyssa says. “It’s a really good thing to do, and it certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Esther Lindell, 34 and the mother of two, has donated hair every few years since she was in her early teens — about eight times, she says.
“I couldn’t ask for an easier way to do a good deed,” she says. “I’ve had long hair pretty much my whole life, so growing my hair is more normal for me than getting frequent haircuts.”
Mehlman’s enthusiasm for hair donation isn’t always shared by potential donors. Even if they lack a Samson-like aversion to haircuts, girls and women may be too attached to want to cut their tresses. Other women and girls are glad to donate, however — including Mehlman’s daughter and granddaughter, who did so together via Facetime.
The drive began at Berman Hebrew Academy. Locks of Love, a U.S. charity, was the recipient. At first, bowls were set up outside the school to catch hair. Professional salons came later.
Jennifer Yavener, a hairdresser at Progressions, suggested to Mehlman that if girls and women were “doing something so important” as donating their hair, they should leave with a proper haircut and style.
“Since 2012 my teammates and I averaged 15-18 donations in a three-hour period,” on the two designated days, Yavener said.
Sometimes family members pair up to donate hair. For Ranee Lewison Ahdut and her daughter Ariella, that was part of the fun.
“Ariella was in kindergarten when we donated the first time,” Ahdut said. Ariella is now 20; her mother is “too gray” to donate.
On a trip to Israel, pair took donated braids for Zichron Menachem in their carry-on luggage.
“Zichron is a good cause,” Ahdut said. “It feels good to know that the hair you worked hard to grow is being cut to make wigs for children with cancer.”
Shana Schopf, 8, and entering third grade in the Torah School of Greater Washington, is a newcomer to the drive.
“This is my first time to do it,” she says of her haircut last month. “I had long hair already, and decided to grow my hair to donate. It felt good.”
To donate, email Mehlman at [email protected], with “hair” in the subject line. For information about Zichron Menachem, visit zichron.org.
Barbara Trainin-Blank is a Washington-area writer.