Jessica Knight was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in September 2013. Married to a marine, Knight and her family moved around every couple of years. At the time of her diagnosis. they were living in Vienna, Virginia, and Knight hadn’t yet connected with a synagogue.
Facing a cancer diagnosis with four young children, Knight felt a strong urge to connect with the Jewish community. She called the nearest Reform synagogue. As it happened, the synagogue’s membership director answered and told her that they ran a breast cancer support group. She invited Knight to come meet with them that evening.
“By the end of that day, there were 25 women at this table answering questions for me,” Knight recalls. “They just circled the wagons and supported us through what was about a year and a half of treatment. They would bring us dinners for Shabbat.”
This feeling of being unquestionably supported by a community is what inspired Knight to found the Jewish Women of Phoenix Breast Cancer Support
Group. Also known as Shalva (the Hebrew word for peace and serenity), the group meets once a month at Temple
Chai, connecting newly diagnosed women with others who understand what they are experiencing, and offering practical advice and emotional support.
The Knight family relocated to Arizona after Jessica’s husband retired from active duty and accepted a position with Arizona Public Service. Knight completed her chemotherapy, radiation treatment and her double mastectomy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. She received reconstructive surgery from the Mayo Clinic after relocating to the Valley.
Initially, Knight attended a support group organized though that hospital. However, she missed the Jewish and spiritual components of her old support group back east.
The family began attending services at Temple Chai. Knight also became involved with a program of the Women’s Jewish Learning Center called the Women’s Leadership Institute.
Established in 2010, the WJLC offers classes and events that promote Jewish learning for women. Each year, approximately 10 women participate in the leadership institute, which consists of three main components: monthly group studies, regular meetings with a mentor and a community service project.
“The young women visit with different agencies to see if there’s one they want to do their project with or, if not, they come up with a project of their own that doesn’t exist,” explained Rabbi Elana Kanter, the director of the WJLC and one of the New Shul’s co-rabbis.
Knight had been unable to find a group like her old one in Virginia and decided to start one for her project. She met with rabbis and Jewish nonprofits from across the Valley, finding that there seemed to be a real need for the group in the community.
“Jessica had this wonderful idea that sprung out of her personal experience,” said Ora Zutler, Knight’s Institute mentor. “She understood firsthand the value that this type of support group could bring to our community and that there was perhaps a dearth of this kind of group in the Jewish community.”
Knight, Kanter and Zutler spent a lot of time researching and planning for the group and its rules of engagement.
“I definitely knew what I wanted it not to be, because I had been part of certain groups that maybe were a little bit negative or stressful,” Knight explained. “The structure of the meeting is first welcoming everyone and going over ground rules as far as listening, respect, confidentiality and also that it’s not medical.”
Temple Chai donated space for the group, which meets on the third Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. The group has had two meetings so far.
“The exact person the group was meant to support was there,” Knight recalled. “She was experiencing the same feelings that I had as a young mother facing cancer. This person is right in the middle of chemo. She has very young twins and a younger child also. She’s right in the middle of things and it was really great to be able to support her and have her ask questions.”
The group featured a prayer led by Kanter and showcased Jewish themes, though Knight stresses all women are welcome, not just Jewish ones.
Though the meetings are still small, Knight hopes the group will grow and be able to offer more women support. Though she knows support groups aren’t for everyone, she hopes people will try the group at least once to see what it has to offer.
“Everyone is welcome,” Knight said. “I think the most important thing is knowing that it’s a safe place to share and that everyone there has been through it or is in it or understands. It’s nice to have that common understanding with people and that I hope to create a safe environment for people to come and share.” JN