Jenessa Schwartz, Bay Area day school teacher and cancer ‘thriver,’ dies at 41


SAN FRANCISCO (J., the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California via JTA) — Jenessa Schwartz wore many hats: wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend and educator at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, California. Many also knew and admired her as a courageous, self-described “cancer thriver” determined to spread awareness of the disease through her unflinchingly honest blog “My Colon Cancer: Semicolon, Not Full Stop.”

“When life gives you cancer, make a punctuation pun,” she joked on the site. Humor infused her posts, even those that exposed her rawest, most painful struggles.

Schwartz succumbed to the illness on Nov. 1, a month after making the difficult decision to stop all treatment and enter hospice, and less than two weeks after standing on the bimah as her daughter, Ramona, became a bat mitzvah, a celebration Schwartz was determined to attend in person. Schwartz was just 41, though she lived longer than predicted early on by her doctors, who told her it was unlikely she’d live to see 36.

“She didn’t do anything just because,” said Jamie Zimmer, director of Jewish life and learning at Yavneh. “It came with meaning. It came with resolve to make the world a better place.”

A native of the South Bay area of Northern California, Schwartz grew up in Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, California. She was active in her local BBYO chapter and graduated from Yavneh in 1993. She returned to the Jewish school as an employee in 2015, serving first as a middle-school language arts teacher and then as the middle school’s dean.

“There’s not a kid who wasn’t in awe of the kind of teacher that she was,” said Zimmer. “She meant every single word she said, and she took her passion for grammar and language and building confident writers and musical theater and imbued it in every student, and inspired her colleagues, too.”

She also excelled as a Jewish educator, Zimmer said. In 2022, Schwartz won the Ruby Award from the San Francisco-based Jewish Learning Works for excellence in Jewish youth education and engagement.

Her Jewish identity “came from her kishkes. Her Judaism came from a place of heart,” Zimmer said. Prior to working at Yavneh, Schwartz served as director of Jewish life at the Addison-Penzak JCC, next door to the school.

It was at Yavneh that Schwartz met her husband, Trevor Davis, who taught physics there at the time. The two shared a close friendship before becoming a couple shortly after  Schwartz was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in March 2017, when she was just 34.

Schwartz and Davis wed in their San Jose backyard a few years later, in a small ceremony held at the height of the pandemic and streamed over Zoom. The bride and groom wore blue, for colon cancer awareness, as did Ramona and son Solly, her children from a previous marriage.

“It’s going to sound trite and a little cliche, but I’ve cultivated this seize-the-day attitude,” she told CNET before the wedding. “We decided we can’t put off joy.”

Though colon cancer can strike at any age, it typically impacts older adults. Schwartz noticed  irregular bowel habits, fatigue, nausea and anemia, but initially attributed the symptoms to her pregnancies: In addition to her two kids, she carried twins as a surrogate for a gay couple, Israeli natives Gil Shlamovitz and Tomer Mendelson.

“She’s the most amazing, loving, compassionate woman we know,” Shlamovitz said. He and Mendelson, who live in Los Angeles, stayed in close contact with Schwartz after Ben and Maya were born in 2015, generally seeing her twice a year. The twins refer to her as their birth mom.

“She’s a super important and meaningful person in their life story,” Shlamovitz said. “She gave many gifts to the world. Ben and Maya are just two examples.”

Another is the way she shared her colon cancer journey publicly in hopes others could get diagnosed, and treated, sooner than she did. The disease is on the rise among people under 50.

“Her writing helped her students, family, community and countless others learn how to live life fully and with compassion,” Yavneh said in its online memorial.

Schwartz wanted to document her experience “partly because I’m a middle child and need the attention, but mostly because colon cancer deserves some air time,” she wrote in an introduction to her blog. “It is incredibly treatable when caught early, but devastating once metastasized.”

Schwartz knew that devastation all too well. She wrote about enduring more than 100 rounds of chemotherapy, several surgeries and clinical trials. Her decision to enroll in hospice followed scans that showed extensive new tumor growth in her liver and lungs, a progression that led to her being released from a medication trial she considered her last hope.

“I’m bloodied, I’m bruised, but no one can say I lost my battle with cancer,” she wrote in her final post on Oct. 1. “I get to choose how things end, and that sounds like winning to me.”

Yavneh Day School closed on Friday, Nov. 3 so members of the Yavneh community could attend her morning funeral at the JCC and grieve for their friend, colleague and teacher.

Schwartz previously asked that donations in her memory be made to Yavneh.

Schwartz is survived by her children, Ramona and Solly; her husband, Trevor; parents Allan Schwartz, Cyndi Sherman and Stephen Schleimer; siblings Jon (Brittany) and Josh (Danielle) Schwartz, cousin Quelise Schroeder, and aunts Jodi Sherman (Ed Markowitz) and Suzie Sherman (Emily Saltzman).

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