Calling up the rabbi is like calling up the principal. We only tell true stories. Thankfully, in the 24 years I’ve known Ellen, her late husband, Lyon, and her family, the true stories are the best ones and the only ones.
Ellen’s personal history with cancer is a lesson in how to choose life every day. She empathizes with the feelings we all have about life’s fragility. Then she unleashes her passion to shore up our insecurities with great confidence that hope is always connected to the future.
There is a universal value we call “Tikkun Olam”. It means “to repair the world.” It describes Ellen’s commitment to her faith that her purpose in life is to see what is and transform it into what it ought to be. For Ellen, injustice is a hole in the fabric of society that is mended with equal access to resources for living one’s best life.
In her role at Congregation Beth Israel, she championed the causes that directly reflected her belief that we should pray as if everything depends on God; but, we must do as if everything depends on us. But, if you know Ellen, then you know that she does everything as if it depends only on her. Her tall, straight stature reflects a person of unequivocal faith in her mission to right wrongs, to heal the sick, and to lift up the fallen.
When Ellen was elected to the State Legislature, I called her on the phone to invite her to see me. When she tells the story, she reminds me that she felt like she really was being called to the principal’s office. We sat together in my study. I told her that I was enormously proud of her, and if she didn’t mind, I wanted to share lessons from the Rabbis-of-old about leadership. We poured over lessons that taught about the privilege she holds in her hands to advocate for blind justice and impartial hearings, to give voice to the voiceless, and to uphold dignity for all humanity.
One day, my phone rang. This time, she invited me to Austin to give an invocation in the State House. I did it for her. I was so proud of her courage to stand in those hallowed halls and bring a message of clarity and wisdom that raised the bar on issues like women’s health, immigration, and education. In the State Legislature, she carried on her shoulders the weight of thousands of Texans who counted on her unwavering voice and vision. She didn’t let them down.
Though Ellen represented us in Austin, she left her heart in Houston. This is where her passion finds its source but also where it finds its way. Have you ever stood with Ellen before a bank of cameras and microphones? Have you ever walked with her into a chamber of opponents? If you haven’t, it’s only way to do it. Her personal stature precedes her message. Her vision is inspired and her results speak for themselves. And, when the cameras are off and the chambers are cleared, Ellen’s warm smile, personal demeanor and humor return; just like many of us relax after a day doing a job we love to do.
There is one lesson Ellen and I might have forgotten to study; but, maybe it’s because I knew that you understood it inherently. The rabbis taught: if your wisdom exceeds your deeds; then your wisdom will not endure. But, if your deeds exceed your wisdom, then your wisdom will surely endure. It’s all about deeds; the work of our hands. Ellen, your deeds are without measure; therefore, as your rabbi and your friend, may I say that we all look forward to the force of your wisdom in all matters about which we care so much.
Ellen, the credo at CancerForward is, “Be the best survivor you can be.” You’ve certainly achieved that. Together with Beth and CancerForward, I’m proud to honor your spirit.
Rabbi David Lyon is Senior Rabbi, Congregation Beth Israel