Listening to Susie Rosenfeld recount the saga of her life reminds me of the children’s game Follow the Leader. When you agree to play the game, you commit to following the leader—even if he takes you places that you don’t want to go. Susie Rosenfeld adds a new twist to an old game: she follows her Leader with an inner peace that most of us would envy.

“I never had the chance to mourn my loss,” says Susie Rosenfeld, her dark eyes widening with the pain of the memory under her brown bangs. “I was too busy dealing with the demands of the two babies that we adopted shortly after the surgery.”

Susie Rosenfeld adds a new twist to an old gameI look around Rosenfeld’s tastefully decorated apartment in Ramat Beit Shemesh in central Israel. Antique, dark wood furniture segues into the beige walls; cream drapes shield out the winter wind and rain; a toy poodle (beige to match the color scheme) sits quietly on the couch. It’s hard to image that this attractive, put-together woman was ever overwhelmed. As Susie begins the story of her life, I sense that when she and her husband, Hillel, opted for adoption, they were setting a precedent for life: roll with the punches.

Born in 1944, Susie grew up in Detroit, Michigan, together with her two sisters, in a close-knit family. “We had a strong Jewish identity, due in great part to my mother’s grandfather, the proud patriarch of a family of nine children, who had been Orthodox. I grew up feeling spirituality within, and at the same time longing for something more than what my parents were giving me. But I couldn’t move forward, because I didn’t know what my choices were,” recalls Susie.

One of the first things Susie did when she enrolled in Stephens College, a private college in Columbia, Missouri, was to form the Jewish Worship Services. This did much to enrich her Jewish identity. During her second year in college, in 1964, Susie met and married Hillel. Shortly after her marriage she graduated with a degree in elementary and physical education, a degree that was to serve her well in the future.

A few years later, Susie discovered that she was expecting. But instead of developing normally, the pregnancy turned into a molar pregnancy. In this rare condition, tissue that is supposed to develop into the placenta develops into an abnormal growth. In Susie’s case, the tissue developed further into a fast-growing cancerous mass. A year of surgeries and aggressive chemotherapy treatments followed. “After one of the surgeries, I lost so much blood that my life hung in balance. I remember feeling a white light coming into me, and I so much wanted to follow the path I saw leading to a warm, serene place. I was conscious of getting a blood transfusion that pulled me back into this world. That little touch of death made me feel closer to G‑d,” recalls Susie. Despite all the treatments, the eventual outcome was unavoidable: At twenty-four years old, Susie underwent surgery to remove her uterus.

Raising My Children

“We had been married five years, and we wanted a family. Adoption was the way to fulfill our dream,” says Susie. “We didn’t mind if the baby had a Jewish mother or not—the child would be raised with the same Jewish consciousness that we had.” After registering at a Jewish agency, a state agency, and the Baptist Children’s Home, which was a social service that dealt with adoption, the Rosenfelds settled down to wait.

Less than two months later, the paperwork had been completed, and the baby was theirsBut the wait was almost nonexistent. “My childhood friend, Ruth, had recently died of ovarian cancer. Six months after registering for adoption, on the anniversary of her birthday, we received a call from the Baptist Agency that a white, three-week old baby girl was available for adoption,” says Susie. Less than two months later, the paperwork had been completed, and the baby was theirs. “We held a naming ceremony at our Reform temple, where we named her Stephanie Ruth, in memory of my best friend. We didn’t think becoming Jewish involved anything more.”

Fourteen months later, the Rosenfelds were offered another non-Jewish baby by the same agency: Jeremy Raphael came into their lives as a six-week old baby.

When Stephanie was three months old, Susie, influenced by her schooling is physical education, once again began to dance, exercise and teach in community colleges and centers.

Despite their parents’ efforts, over the next almost twenty years Stephanie and Jeremy never connected to the Reform temple that the family belonged to. This lack of Jewish identity came to the fore in 1985, when the children were already in their late teens. The Rosenfelds were planning a trip to Israel, but their children were unwilling to join them. “That was when we realized that the children had to make their own choices,” says Susie, revealing the fortitude that helped her accept a future different than the one she had envisioned while raising her children. “Over the years I’ve learnt to let go of the pain, and I’ve been able to build a different, but beautiful, relationship with them, by turning them over to G‑d and letting them take on their own lives as adults, to become their own people.”

The Rosenfelds forged ahead with the plans for their trip, never imagining that the trip was going to take their lives in a new direction. “My husband, who had already begun to search for a deeper Jewish connection, suggested that I speak to an Orthodox rabbi whom he knew, in preparation for the trip,” says Susie. “I had never met an Orthodox Jew, but I was willing to meet him,” she says. Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg explained to the couple that going to Israel wasn’t like going on a vacation to any other place in the world. He spoke about G‑d and about what they’d feel in Israel. Susie decided to keep a journal to record their thoughts.

While the entire trip was inspiring, Susie notes two incidents that were to influence her future profoundly. The first was Shabbat. Susie recalls, “We spent Shabbat in the Old City. It was our first time observing all the laws that pertain to Shabbat. I was so taken by the candles and the warmth of our host family. I felt the peacefulness entering my soul.” The second was her visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall. “As I stood next to the Western Wall, I heard a voice saying, ‘You’re home.’ For the first time in my life, I felt that G‑d, Judaism and I were one.” Susie stops talking for a moment, as she recollects the powerful moment. “My last entry in my journal reads, Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll retire and live here.”

Shortly after their return to Michigan, the Rosenfelds started learning with Rabbi Goldberg once a week. Just before Passover, they koshered their home, and it wasn’t long before they were keeping Shabbat.

“My last entry in my journal reads, Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll retire and live here.”One Shabbat, while Susie was waiting for her husband to come back from synagogue, she fell asleep and had a vivid dream. Although the couple had never spoken about it, Susie dreamt that they were going to adopt more children. Luckily, when Susie told Hillel about her dream, he supported her decision. Since Stephanie and Jeremy had already left home, the change wouldn’t affect them directly.

Susie contacted Chabad Rabbi Bergstein, who told her about two girls in need of foster parents. Susie was adamant: “We want to adopt one boy, not foster two girls,” she told him. Then she laughs. “Well, G‑d had different plans for us. A few weeks later, the night after I had taken the Hebrew name Sara Rina, the rabbi called to tell us the girls were available for adoption.”

Once again, the Rosenfelds followed the path down which their Creator was leading them. Four months later, after an intensive course designed to equip parents adopting older children, eleven-year-old Elisheva and eight-year-old Miriam Nechama left their Christian foster home and came into the Rosenfelds’ family. “I needed my first adoptive children,” Susie says. “This time, I was coming from a more mature place: the children needed me.”

When the Rosenfelds decided to register their daughters in a regular Jewish Bais Yaakov school, they knew that they would need to make more changes in their own lifestyle. Home values had to match school values. One of the most noticeable changes was that Susie began to cover her hair. The girls’ schooling was supplemented with special-education teachers and a rabbi who tutored them. “It was a learning experience for me too,” says Susie. “As the girls learnt to pray and make blessings before and after eating, they taught me.”

These years, too, flew by. After her marriage, Miriam moved to Israel. “In 2003, we came to visit our daughter in Ramat Beit Shemesh. We decide to look for a retirement home at the same time,” says Susie. “On Yom Kippur I looked out of the synagogue window over the hills surrounding Miriam’s neighborhood, and it became clear: this was where we were going to retire.” Back home in Detroit, a representative from the Jewish Agency “just happened” to be in town. “Why wait to retire?” he asked. He suggested a plan for financial stability that included Susie opening an exercise studio. In 2004, the Rosenfelds moved to Israel.

The Battle with Cancer

Two years later, just before a trip back to the States, Susie discovered a lump under her arm. “I was at the doctor’s office the day after I arrived in Michigan,” Susie says. Dr. Sherman, who had treated Susie 40 years earlier when she battled the tumor in her uterus, was on hand to help again. He told her that she had very aggressive breast cancer. It had spread to her lymph nodes, and was already at stage three. “I was very, very angry,” recalls Susie. “I couldn’t believe I had breast cancer! I felt perfectly healthy. Physically, I took good care of myself: I exercised regularly and ate well. Spiritually, I felt I had some merits too: I had adopted four children, had changed my entire life when I became religious, and had moved countries, to top it all. I couldn’t believe that G‑d was doing this to me. I simply couldn’t understand it.”

He told her that she had very aggressive breast cancerThe Rosenfelds prepared to spend a year in the States, so that Susie could undergo surgery and treatment. “We moved into my mother’s home, and the first thing we did was kosher the kitchen so that we could eat there. Then my friends in Israel packed up and shipped our winter clothes to us.” Logistics taken care of, Susie had to face her emotions. “I knew that breast cancer isn’t painful, and that the medication that I would receive that would make me ill. I was tempted to give in; to take the quiet, easy way out; to let the cancer take over and to die.”

Rosh Hashanah arrived, and Susie went to synagogue with a cold heart. “On the first day, the prayers meant nothing to me,” she recalls. “On the second day, the blasts of the shofar opened up my heart. As I allowed the sounds to enter my heart, I was finally, finally able to cry. Suddenly, I felt G‑d’s presence, and I knew that it was going to be okay. I knew that there must be a reason that I was still alive after battling cancer 40 years earlier. I understood what my husband had said when he told me that there was a reason for my cancer.”

Once again, Susie followed her Leader, even though this wasn’t where she wanted to go. With the acceptance, Susie was able to let go of her anger. “I decided that I would fight the disease. I would accept the chemotherapy as a warrior. I began a regime that included massage and reflexology, I changed my diet. I used focused imagery to imagine G‑d’s healing powers coming through the tubes I was hooked up to. More exercise.”

Susie made it through the chemotherapy, but the prospect of a double mastectomy petrified her. While mastectomy is a challenge for any woman, Susie faced a double hurdle. “As an exercise teacher, my body is tied to my profession,” she says. “I was terrified of being left without breasts.” Finally, in March 2007, Susie underwent surgery. Radiation treatments followed, and after that, the painful process of reconstructive breast surgery. “Thankfully, I have total range of motion,” says Susie, lifting her arm high, “but I still suffer from pain caused by the implants and expanders. It’s a constant reminder of the battle I fought.”

Empowering Other Cancer Patients

When Susie eventually returned to Israel, she was ready to redefine her mission in life. “My husband had been right: there was a reason I had fought cancer. I had always felt that G‑d loves me very much . . . enough to test me with my children and with cancer. I felt that the tests had brought me closer to Him. As a cancer survivor, I was sure I’d be able to help others fighting the disease,” Susie says. Sadly, within a few months, she was supporting her two best friends, who had both been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Today, Susie has mentored many women who have been newly diagnosed with cancerToday, Susie has mentored many women who have been newly diagnosed with cancer. When in Michigan, using her extensive physical education background, she gives workshops at the Cancer Thrivers Network for Jewish Women, and in the Sharing and Caring program run through the Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. In Israel, Susie works for Tishkofet (a Hebrew word meaning “perspective”), an organization that was founded six years ago to address illness and the end of life, by transforming an anguishing experience into one that encourages growth. She is also busy giving classes in Ramat Beit Shemesh, in her exercise studio, to a group of over one hundred women, including those suffering from chronic illnesses and cancer.

“In my classes I teach the women about mindfulness, how to live today with hope for tomorrow. Life has taught me that we have no control over the future. We do our best, but the outcome isn’t up to us. I feel very blessed to share my passion for living with other women. By using exercise, guided imagery and the correct food choices, I’m able to empower women to live through a war against cancer with serenity,” she says.

It can happen, if we follow our Leader.