A rite of passage, honoring a ‘Superman’

Noah Levrant was just a kid approaching his bar mitzvah, that time when according to Jewish tradition a 13-year-old boy accepts his religious responsibility and steps through the door of manhood.

A bar mitzvah includes a religious ceremony and a celebration, but as Noah’s big day approached, the cancer illnesses of his grandmother and his family friend Sammy Sommer weighed heavily on his heart.

Noah was healthy. It would have been understandable for a boy his age to put such weighty life thoughts out of his mind. Sammy and his parents, Chicago Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, lived in the far-off Midwest.

Noah was coming to a symbolic crossroads, but he was determined to make his bar mitzvah something more than a well-meaning metaphor. He decided to act.

With help from Rabbi Phyllis, Noah prepared for his bar mitzvah reading and added a special project: a Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry collection drive to honor his grandmother and Sammy, who was suffering from leukemia.

When Noah briefly led the worship at Congregation Ner Tamid as part of his bar mitzvah, he read from the Torah scroll and gave a synopsis of the chosen passage. He used the mention in Leviticus of the holiness of blood to raise the issue of the importance of being a blood and bone marrow donor.

“He did it in honor of both Sammy and his grandmother,” says Noah’s father, Rob Levrant, who is understandably proud of his son. “It’s overwhelming. He’s always been an old soul and a very empathetic person. … It was important to him to really do something to make a difference and bring relevance to what he had been studying.”

On the “Superman Sam” blog kept by his parents, Sam Sommer was described as “a sweet and funny 7-year-old with refractory acute myeloid leukemia” who on Aug. 27 received a bone marrow transplant. The blog reminds visitors that AML is the second-most common form of leukemia and that cancer is the No. 1 disease killer of children in the United States.

Shortly after Noah’s successful bar mitzvah and bone marrow drive, the Levrant family learned that Sammy’s leukemia was no longer in remission. Despite the best efforts of doctors, he again fought for his life.

Samuel Asher Sommer, age 8, died Dec. 14 after an 18-month struggle.

In their tribute, his parents wrote, “In those brief but meaningful years, he was a son, brother, grandson, nephew, schoolmate, student, friend. He never failed to see the smallest creatures and all the beauty in the natural world. Sam was bright, creative, curious, and lively. Leukemia took his life but did not define him. His sparky and silly nature will forever inspire all who knew and loved him.”

Instead of retreating into their grief, Phyllis and Michael Sommer created a fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which annually raises millions for childhood cancer treatment and research through a series of head-shaving events. Their “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” is not only a successful fundraiser, but a wonderful tribute to their son, Superman Sam.

This year in Las Vegas, the St. Baldrick’s fundraiser is set for March 1 at McMullan’s Irish Pub, where my cancer-fighting daughter, Amelia, shaves my head, and a growing number of other wonderful local venues. For more information, visit stbaldricks.org.

A father grateful for a healthy child, Rob Levrant says, “We as a society are just not holding up our end of the bargain. We’re not holding up God’s expectations. … Childhood cancer has to be defeated, and I want to do everything I can to make that happen.”

That’s how it happens: The Sommer family’s fight in the Midwest became the Levrant family’s cause. Slowly, the word gets out, the voices are joined, the battle is waged.

In the real world of childhood cancer, there are no magic pills or silver bullets. There are only tireless efforts, slow progress, and hope against hope.In Henderson, a boy becomes a man and reminds all of us by his actions to step up and join the worthy fight.

In Chicago, a young life lost reverberates with meaning.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.