This weekend, observant Jews will celebrate the festival of Lag b’Omer with bonfires, parades, archery contests—and haircuts. The holiday, which interrupts the traditional period of mourning that follows Passover, is traditionally an occasion for 3-year-old boys to have their baby locks ritually snipped and for their parents or older siblings to sneak in their only trim until Shavuot three weeks from now, when the counting of the Omer ends and its restrictions on haircuts are lifted. For many, this involves a quick stop at the salon on the way to celebratory activities, but some Jews are making their holiday cuts mean something more by donating their hair to charities that provide wigs for ill children who have lost their hair.
This Sunday morning, stylists will be on hand before a holiday concert at Congregation Har Shalom, in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Potomac, Md., to provide free haircuts to anyone with enough hair to make a 10-inch braid, the minimum required for wig-making. The braids will go to the Florida-based organization Locks of Love, which donates hairpieces to children suffering long-term hair loss caused by a range of conditions, from cancer treatment to alopecia.
“It makes Lag b’Omer, which is an easily forgotten holiday, into something relevant and poignant,” said Adam Raskin, Har Shalom’s rabbi. “It signifies hope in the midst of uncertainty, and hopefully the donations can be a source of hope to kids.”
Lag b’Omer is a holiday of commemoration as much as celebration. It falls on the 33rd day after Passover, in the 50-day stretch before Shavuot, which stands in for the break between the Exodus from Egypt and the receipt of the Torah at Mt. Sinai—but which also has associations with a plague that is supposed to have killed thousands of students of the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Akiva. The date is also associated with the death of Akiva’s student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah, whose burial site at Mt. Meron in northern Israel attracts hundreds of thousands of worshipers every Lag b’Omer—including many young Orthodox children, who are given their first haircuts, along with their first kippot, in a ceremony known as upsherin.
Har Shalom’s Locks of Love event isn’t the only example of a charity-minded spin on this holiday tradition: A handful of other synagogues, Hillels, schools, and Jewish-owned salons around the country have put on similar hair-raisers. Organizers at the Melvin Berman Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Rockville, Md., are in their ninth year of Lag b’Omer hair drives. The school’s event was started by a teacher, Sharon Roberts, whose daughter Yael had participated in non-holiday-related hair drives for Locks of Love as an elementary-school student. “I used to think my hair was the most precious thing to me, so it was like the ultimate tzedakah,” Yael explained. “It was the most sacrificial thing, more than money, because it was giving a part of my body.”
As a high-school junior, Yael took over planning Hebrew Academy’s hair drive, which has become an integral feature of the school’s annual Lag b’Omer picnic, with salons sending barbers armed with scissors and spritzer bottles to slice braids in front of the school. “People would get it chopped and then go to a salon later in the day,” explained Yael, now a junior at Stern College in New York. “So they could donate and not worry about someone they didn’t know cutting their hair.” When Yael graduated, she handed the event to Nancy Mehlman, a parent who had donated her own hair twice in tribute to her mother, who suffered hair loss while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. “It took me three years to grow 10 inches,” Mehlman said. “So, I jumped on it like a vulture, because growing my hair takes too long, and this is something I can do in my mom’s memory.”
Last year, the Hebrew Academy took in 44 Lag b’Omer donations from students and parents, including one from a 3-year-old having his first haircut. This year, because the holiday falls on a weekend when school is closed, Mehlman has arranged for free hair appointments at local salons. But, she said, eager participants have been sending braids to the school’s office since before Passover, when the religious prohibitions on hair cutting go into effect. “People who are growing their hair to donate get really antsy at the end,” Mehlman said. “One woman called me before Pesach, and I said, it’s only another month, you can do it!” Even Mehlman’s own daughter, who began wearing a sheitel when she married, wound up cutting her hair and sending the braids to Locks of Love. “She lives in Florida and when she wears a sheitel it gets very hot,” Mehlman told me. “She said, ‘Hey, I couldn’t wait for you.’ ”
Those who held out will have the option of participating on Lag b’Omer or of waiting another few weeks until Shavuot, when Mehlman has arranged for another round of hair appointments for people whose hair needs an extra few weeks to grow the requisite length. “If it’s not 10 inches, it doesn’t get used for a wig,” Mehlman explained. “It gets sold.”
This year’s event will benefit Zichron Menachem, a Jerusalem-based organization that offers activities as well as custom wigs for children with cancer. Each hairpiece requires at least five braids of donated hair, and what can’t be used is sold to wigmakers, with the proceeds used to underwrite picnics and other activities for sick children and their families in Israel. “To provide a check is not as big a deal as donating hair you’ve grown for a few years,” said Ester Kelen, the group’s American office manager. The Israeli office sees an annual uptick in donations around Lag b’Omer, Kelen said, but she consistently takes in roughly two dozen donations a week year-round from American donors—though, she added, salons in Orthodox areas often send in post-holiday collections, including one in New Jersey that often offers Lag b’Omer appointments. “One day we’ll just get a big box of hair,” Kelen said.
And not all donations from American Jews pass through Kelen’s office in New York. Last year, Mehlman tasked one of her sons and her brother-in-law with ferrying hair collected at Hebrew Academy’s event to the organization’s headquarters in Israel. “I didn’t want to send it, because I didn’t want to risk losing all that hair,” Mehlman said. This year, she plans to carry them halfway around the world herself, after school lets out in June. “I’m going to carry it on,” Mehlman told me. “They give you a letter saying you’re bringing this hair, and that it’s OK, because who knows what could happen in security.”
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