Six hundred forty-four dollars.

That’s how much money one yeshivah student managed to raise for charity in a single afternoon. And all he had to do was get a haircut.

When the first wave of COVID-19 hit, Eli Orenbuch – a Queens teenager – did what most high-schoolers did during lockdown. He played videogames during class, ate lunch during shiur, and most consequential of all: He decided to grow out his hair. Once school resumed, Eli suddenly realized he had a golden opportunity to channel his laziness into something useful. Instead of getting a haircut before graduation like his mother desperately wanted, he would continue to grow out his hair until he could donate it to cancer patients in need of wigs.

Initially, he was only going to donate his hair to Zichron Menachem, an international organization dedicated to providing support to cancer patients, but as time went on, Eli realized he could do so much more.

From a very early age, Eli’s life was filled with people dedicated to helping those with special needs. His mother worked at HASC for five years, and both parents served as regional coordinators for Yachad. Every summer, the family would go up to Camp HASC and take part in their annual Experience Day. In high school, he was co-president of the Yachad Club and had also been attending various Yachad programs since eighth grade.

“This is something that’s a part of me,” Eli told the Queens Jewish Link.

So, when a friend jokingly suggested people might actually pay for a chance to cut his hair, the wheels in Eli’s head started to turn. Soon thereafter, he began organizing a fundraiser where the opportunity to cut his hair would be auctioned off. All proceeds would then be donated to HASC and the hair that was cut would be donated to Zichron Menachem.

However, most organizations require the length of donated hair to be at least 10-12 inches. Growing that much hair can take upwards of 24 months. While it may seem simple enough to avoid the barber for two years, there were nevertheless difficulties Eli endured in attempting to reach the requisite donation length. Most significant was the stigma he faced as a long-haired man in the Modern Orthodox community.

“[A man having long hair] makes people in the Modern Orthodox world uncomfortable.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “I can see why, but it’s not necessarily something I agree with.”

Despite being fully religious, people would still sometimes assume Eli wasn’t a “good Jew,” just because he didn’t fit their preconceived notion of what a “good Jew” was supposed to look like. They would call him a girl or claim he was violating the biblical prohibition of Beged Ishah. None of this would be enough to deter Eli from his goal. Years spent in Yachad, HASC, and even yeshivah gave him a strong social support network and the confidence to not care what others think. He didn’t mind stepping off the beaten path of what society expected him to be. He knew himself and valued his own independence.

“I don’t want to be another cookie cutter Modern Orthodox Jew,” Eli explained. “I want to forge my own way and be myself.”

Weeks before he was set to get his haircut, invitations for the “upsherin of Eli Orenbuch” were sent across a bevy of WhatsApp group chats. The festivities would be taking place on a warm Sunday afternoon outside of the Orenbuch residence, with dozens of friends and family members scheduled to attend.

When the day finally arrived, guests waited with bated breath as Eli’s mother meticulously began braiding each and every lock of hair as per Zichron Menachem’s instructions. Eventually, after much anticipation, the fundraiser was set to begin.

Almost immediately, a fierce bidding war broke out between attendees regarding who would get the privilege of being the first to cut Eli’s hair. After an intense, seemingly never-ending back and forth, the honor would eventually be sold for more than $80. The auction then continued for over an hour, as more and more attendees competed in good fun and for a good cause.

Now, after two years and $644 raised for HASC, the only thing remaining on Eli’s head is his big, light-blue and white kipah. His once-luscious mane sits in a small plastic baggie, waiting to be woven into a wig, which will bring comfort to someone in need.

Despite everything he has gone through, Eli has no regrets. He even plans on growing his hair out again and donating in another two years. By then, he hopes Modern Orthodoxy will become more tolerant of those who don’t conform to the social expectations of their community – not for his own sake, but for everyone without the support system he is so grateful to have developed.

By David Deutsch