Jessica Barolsky: Healing Through Faith and Community
— by Caitlin Moyer
December 6, 2021
It was 2016 and an exciting but hectic time for 34-year-old Jessica Barolsky and her husband Michael. They had just welcomed Noah, their new baby boy, into the world to join his big sister, 3-year-old Yael. The former rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills, Wisconsin had also just accepted a new job and was preparing to move her young family across the country to lead a new congregation.
Then, one day, while nursing 6-month-old Noah, she discovered a lump in her breast.
“I’m sure it’s nothing”
“I’m sure it’s nothing” is the phrase Jessica remembers hearing often in the days after finding the lump. First, from her OB-GYN, then the ultrasound tech, the mammographer and, finally, even from the radiologist as her biopsy was sent off to the lab.
The cancer was in one breast and her lymph nodes.
“Obviously it was not nothing,” Jessica said. “I’m glad that I went in.”
A new path: the road to recovery
Cancer doesn’t care about your age or your gender. It doesn’t consider your family, your job, or your plans. It’s non-discriminatory in the worst way possible.
“It definitely changed my path,” Jessica said.
So she turned down her new job, halted the move, and began treatment.
There were 20 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy as well as oophorectomy to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes because she learned that she tested positive for BRCA1. Then, a few weeks after surgery, she developed an infection which led to another surgery and finally, six weeks of radiation.
Thanks to her amazing treatment team at Froedtert Hospital, along with the great support she received from her family, friends and the community at-large, today, five and half years later, Jessica is not only cancer-free but thriving. She’s even training for a triathlon with Team Phoenix, Aurora Health Care’s cancer survivorship program, which, she says, provides even more support, along with the motivation needed to stay active and connected during a global pandemic.
Finding her people
Given her role as a spiritual leader, pre-diagnosis, Jessica understood the power of community and was more attuned to others’ needs than most; however, she says that this experience has amplified those attributes, given her a new perspective and brought her closer to a lot of people.
“It’s an experience that, unfortunately, a lot of us share. And so, I think to that extent, there are people who are more comfortable talking to me about their own, or their loved one’s experiences, because they know I’ve been there. And I think in some ways it has made me more attuned to people’s needs both going through cancer and other things… and the ways that a community can support folks going through hard things in a lot of different ways,” she says.
From meal trains and rides to check-in phone calls, Jessica knows that even the simplest gestures can mean so much. And, while her diagnosis changed her path in life, it did not derail her journey.
She began working part-time at Milwaukee Jewish Day School and found that having more time in her day has freed her up to be able to connect with many other Jewish organizations and groups over the last few years, such as the Jewish Community Pantry, where she volunteers every Thursday morning.
Currently, in addition to her volunteer efforts in the community, Jessica has found her way back to Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun where she served as the Sabbatical Rabbi intermittently from 2019-2021.
“I feel very lucky, in that sense, to be able to work in the larger Jewish community and to get to know the larger Milwaukee community in a way that I hadn’t previously,” she said. “So, it’s been, in many ways, a great opportunity that I never asked for.”
The experience has put a new lens on her faith as well.
“I notice different things in ancient texts than I used to…. especially any text that has anything to do with community support. Those scream at me now for attention because, the way I read them is very much like, ‘Look, our people have been doing this and uplifting each other and taking care of each other for centuries at this point. And so, this is what we do.”
For example, in October 2021, the synagogue held a Pink Shabbat for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Jessica was speaking about that week’s Torah portion, the part in the Book of Genesis where God tells Abraham to go on his journey. She explained that the text reads that Abraham and his wife took all of their “people,” a term which has sparked debate as to its meaning, with some ancient rabbis interpreting this as servants and others as the people who they had converted to their monotheistic belief.
“But I read it and I say, ‘No, they took their people. Like, they took the people they needed, those who would support them through their hardest times, through everything they were going on, this unknown journey that they never asked for. They didn’t know what was waiting at the other end; they didn’t know what it was going to look like, or how long they were going for, or anything else. So, they took their ‘people’ because that’s what you do. You bring your community with you. Because that’s how you get through the hardest times.”
Paying it forward
While Jessica says she knew about ABCD during her treatment and recovery, she did not reach out to the organization during that time because she felt so well-supported by her own “people.”
However, a couple of years later, she was encouraged by her friend, Ellen Friebert Schupper, who had recently become the Executive Director of the organization, to go through its Mentor training program.
“Ellen kept saying, ‘Unfortunately, we need more young Mentors,’” she recalled. “So, I did the Mentor training and I remember sitting in training thinking, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t do this as a Participant.’ I should have. I should have done it because I made friends in Mentor training with some of the other Mentors who are my age and, as wonderful support as I got from my friends, which was incredible, they haven’t been through it. Thank God.”
“Forming those relationships with others who have been through this nightmare has been just so good for me and so healing in a lot of ways,” she continued.
Buoyed by her faith, the support she received during her own cancer journey, her training and her new relationships with other mentors, Jessica was well-poised to help others who had deviated from their own path, sent out on an unknown journey they never asked for, those who may not have as many ‘people’ readily available to turn to.
Since becoming a Mentor, Jessica says she has been matched with dozens of Participants and their relationships have varied from simple text message conversations to longer, regular phone calls, and even a potential in-person meeting should the pair ever find themselves in the same city together.
“I love this organization. I think it’s incredible,” Jessica said, recounting her experience a couple of years ago attending one of ABCD’s major fundraising events.
“I was there with my friends who are also Mentors, but then I also saw people I know from the community in various ways. People who have no personal experience with breast cancer in many cases, who are just there to support a good cause.”
Jessica also saw several of her doctors at the event.
“It was wonderful to see all of these people come together to support people who are going through breast cancer… not just from the clinical side of things, but also from the personal side. For me, seeing my own doctors there means that they understand that it’s important…. Not just medications and surgery and all of that, but also supporting us as people, going through a really complicated, difficult time. That made me feel really good about the care that I’ve gotten and about the organization. ABCD really does bring together so many different types of people in the community.”