Two Tributes to a Social Justice Hero: Elissa Froman (1983-2013)

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March 26, 2013

“She was more than a colleague and friend — she was our conscience.” Zeek presents two celebrations of Elissa Froman, from best friend Emily Pearl Goodstein and NCJW colleague and friend Sammie Moshenberg. Both are adapted from March 24 eulogies for Elissa, who passed away on Friday, March 22, at 29.

Courtesy of Emily Goodstein

“Elissa made me promise that if we found ourselves planning an event in her memory, that it would be focused on the causes she cared about and not the disease that she happened to have.”-Emily Goodstein

My Social Justice Hero

By Emily Pearl Goodstein

Elissa Sarah Froman was a social justice hero, strong Jewish woman, and our best friend.

I met Elissa when she was a first-year student at the George Washington University (you’ll notice I didn’t say “freshman” as Elissa would have wanted me to keep this gender neutral). I had organized a voter registration drive, and Elissa was volunteering to help get students registered. She told me she was majoring in women’s studies and Judaic studies, laughed, then told me she was “basically majoring in herself.”

Elissa was a true artist of being alive. In addition to the beautiful oil paintings she created, she used Washington, DC, as her canvas and artfully worked to make the city a more just place to live. I was once walking down the street with Elissa in our DuPont Circle neighborhood, and she was stopped by a homeless person in front of a restaurant. He thanked Elissa, by name, for making an appointment for him at a local healthcare clinic. On that same day, having just left an outpatient chemotherapy appointment at GW hospital, Elissa called the DC Department of Public Works to notify them of a broken traffic light outside her apartment building. This was a normal day for Elissa.

Every year the Religious Action Center invites interns and staff to decorate the walls of their Sukkah with signs honoring social justice heroes. In the past, signs have included Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Emma Goldman. Three years ago, I spotted a new construction paper creation among these signs that read “Elissa Froman is my Social Justice hero.” We all will struggle for a long time as we attempt to make sense of a life that ended far too soon. Elissa’s memory and spirit and tireless work to repair the world will live on in the generation of campers, students, and colleagues she inspired and mentored.

One of the things that made Elissa so fabulous was the way she inspired such a sense of community wherever she went. I know everyone here has dozens examples of their own… I’m going to give you just one in the form of a note I got on Friday from a fellow Froman fan:

I am sure you will hear this more times than you can count, but Elissa truly made the world a better place. I remember, before I really knew her, being at Hillel when I was first starting at GW and she was being so nice to me. I was confused, I couldn’t understand why someone I didn’t know, who had all of her friends in the same room, would go out of her way to be nice to ME. Later, I remember being in awe of how she could tackle so many important issues, and still have leftover time and energy. She embodied all of the values that make me proud to call myself a Jew, a woman, and above all a human being. I know, without a doubt, that her spunk, compassion, and goals will be carried on…..

And that’s just one example. Visit Elissa’s Facebook wall for other rich illustrations of how she’s touched people’s lives.

Elissa taught me about being an engaged citizen, and an everyday activist. She taught me how to navigate hailing and paying for a cab in Jerusalem, the beauty that is an Indigo Girls concert at Wolf Trap, and the life-affirming nature of a friend who knew just the right thing to say, at just the right time.

On a trip to Target several months after Elissa’s initial cancer diagnosis, we had an important conversation in the shoe aisle. Elissa made me promise that if we found ourselves planning an event in her memory, that it would be focused on the causes she cared about and not the disease that she happened to have. She specifically talked about DC State’s Rights as one of those causes.

As we consider ways to incorporate the memory of this stunning human being into our lives, remember Elissa’s commitment to DC statehood. An organization working particularly hard on this issue is Jews United for Justice, a DC-based organization where Elissa was a board member. I know that the Froman family has already honored Elissa’s shoe aisle wishes by naming the National Council of Jewish Women and Temple Beth Israel in Skokie for contributions as well.

So, how do we say goodbye to Elissa?

We don’t have to.

We can preserve her spirit in our lives. We remember her nuanced humor when adversity is about to overwhelm us and the people we love. We can know that she’s with us when we see the joy and absurdity in many things — without laughing at the expense of others. We can host brunches; we can wear dangly earrings, we can rock purple manicures and — we can see that our lives have been forever enriched by knowing that this earth is closer to being healed having shared it with Elissa Sarah Froman.

For Elissa Froman

By Sammie Moshenberg

I have no doubt that there will be families sitting down for Seder and reading words that Elissa crafted. Elissa was effectively NCJW’s rabbi. All of us called on her when we needed a prayer, a drash, or a supplemental reading for Pesach, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. Her deep love of Judaism and Jewish texts combined with her fine writing skills resulted in beautiful, meaningful pieces that have been used time and time again by NCJW members and their families nationwide. And it was often Elissa’s idea to plumb Jewish writings to enhance our work. At our last Convention, as part of an opening historical presentation, she identified appropriate words of Torah for each segment and created a PowerPoint so that they would appear as a page of Talmud.

To those of us who worked directly with Elissa, she was more than a colleague and friend — she was our conscience. In the words of one of her co-workers: “She was inclusive, always aware of who was and wasn’t at the table. Always thinking about how we should reach out or elevate those voices. She challenged us to be thoughtful, creative, and strategic about advancing our social change goals, to consider how to best operationalize the ideas or concepts we brainstormed — how to cross the river, how to sway the decision maker, how to bring in others to support the issue, including how best to approach them.”

Another colleague in our office remembers her incredible work from Day 1, on the March for Women’s Lives in 2004. Elissa organized, motivated, and helped lead NCJW’s very large contingent and she was only a sophomore in college! How lucky for us that Elissa came to work for us in 2007.

Elissa was proud of her work at NCJW (and before that at the RAC) because it allowed her to work full-time for social justice in a Jewish context. Her work did not stop at the end of the workday. She was an activist and leader with Jews United for Justice, who honored her with its Heschel Award. She always jumped at the chance to educate, train, speak to others (especially young people). My nieces who were participants in the RAC’s L’Taken program quite a few years ago, remember Elissa vividly — that’s the kind of impression she made on people.

Courtesy of Emily Goodstein

At Jews United for Justice’s Heschel Awards, 2010.

Elissa had a keen sense of justice — more than almost anyone I’ve ever met. She was sensitive to any oppression or injustice — recognizing it immediately and speaking out and quickly organizing to right the wrong she perceived. So many of the issues that Elissa covered for NCJW and cared about so deeply are on the front burner now, and in the DC office we often wonder WWED (what would Elissa do)?

Gun violence protection! When it looked like a bad gun bill was going to pass without a peep from the lead coalitions and organizations working for commonsense gun laws, Elissa came to me and said: someone has to speak up! We cannot let this bill pass without challenging it! But she was nothing if not strategic, and she understood that it would be difficult for NCJW to usurp the role of the major gun control groups even though they showed no inclination to speak out. Elissa came up with the idea of organizing a meeting of faith-based groups and inviting the lead gun organizations. It worked — everyone came and her passion swayed the group to take action even though they knew they wouldn’t, in this case, prevail!

LGBT rights, immigration, religion-state separation, civil rights, judicial nominations, voting rights, disability rights, equal pay, hate crimes legislation, women’s rights in Israel, refugees in Darfur and Sudan — this is a partial list of the issues on which Elissa made a difference utilizing creativity, passion, and a remarkable gift for persuading others to join her in action. She fought against discrimination in whatever form it took, and her passion animated her effective advocacy!

Elissa’s final work was emblematic of all of her work. She participated in a JOIN for Justice organizing training in Boston aimed at encouraging voter engagement. From Boston, even though she was feeling ill, she flew to Atlanta, where she got sicker but she insisted on fulfilling her promise to speak to hundreds of BBYO members about advocacy for social justice. Flying back to Chicago, she went straight into the hospital. It is so hard to accept that Elissa won’t be returning to work — to the smallest office in the DC office (which she chose even though we pulled numbers from a hat and she didn’t have to pick last). The outpouring of emotion and tributes from her colleagues in DC and elsewhere has been overwhelming. But that’s not surprising because Elissa was a true Tzedek who combined an authentic commitment to justice with a warm, funny, loving personality that enveloped everyone she came in contact with.

On behalf of all of us at NCJW — Elissa: we will miss you. We are stronger and better for having known you and worked with you. Rest well, dear sweet comrade.

A version of these two remembrances originally appeared on Emily Pearl Goodstein’s blog, Wild and Crazy Pearl.

Zeek invites readers to share memories in the comments section.

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