There are so many stories about Elissa Froman.
One of her closest friends, Emily Goodstein, tells of the time she and Froman were walking down a street in Washington, D.C., where they both lived. A homeless man who sat asking for change in front of a restaurant stopped them, addressing Elissa by name. He thanked her for making an appointment for him at a local healthcare clinic.
A favorite one that her mother, Gloria, relates: When Elissa was four years old, she asked, “Are we really alive, or is G-d dreaming us?”
Froman’s legion of friends have dozens of stories to relate — about Elissa as a social justice advocate, Elissa as a forceful campaigner for legislation designed to make people’s lives better, Elissa as an unofficial rabbi who had yet to go to rabbinical school, Elissa as a fun friend with an unerring sense of humor — and those are the stories Elissa wanted her friends to remember.
Not the stories about her as a victim (she wouldn’t have liked the word) of cancer, the disease that took her life earlier this year at age 29.
Much more important to her was her work as a legislative intern with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as a congressional lobbyist for the National Council of Jewish Women and as a volunteer for numerous Jewish social justice organizations.
“She didn’t want to be known as the girl with cancer,” Goodstein says. “She wanted to be known as a social justice activist, as someone working to repair the world.”
In her brief life, Elissa Froman did a lot of repair work.
“We grew up being very aware of our heritage and where we came from,” her sister said, and it was important to us to honor that past. If there was a movie about the Holocaust, the Fromans were there. We read every book (about the Holocaust). It was really important to us,” she says.
Perhaps influenced by this atmosphere, Froman says her sibling exhibited her passion for social justice from an early age. “She always had a sense of what was fair and what wasn’t. She was very moved to stand up for what was right, to protect others and speak out.”
But by all accounts, it was at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, the Reform movement’s Midwest summer camp, where Elissa came into her own. (She admitted as much in a 2009 Facebook post of 25 miscellaneous facts about herself; number seven is “I obtained nearly all my most relevant life skills at OSRUI.”)
She started a student organization at George Washington University, the Jewish Political Progressive Association, and “got everybody to carry out tikkun olam, or ‘repair of the world,’” her mother says.
“Everybody there wanted to get involved with Israel,” Elissa told her mother. “There are so many other things we need to do here at home. We don’t forsake Israel, but there are immigrant rights, union rights, advancing the right of workers and women.”
After college, Elissa spent a year as a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s social action arm.
Froman knew what she wanted to do after the year was up: go to rabbinical school. It had been her goal from an early age.
“She knew very young that this was what she wanted to do — be a rabbi,” her mother says. “She wanted to be a rabbi and go back to the non-profit political world and advocate as a rabbi.”
But before that could happen, two days after she turned 23, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Froman’s sister Rebecca remembers that “we were told that if you’re going to get cancer, this is the type to get, because it’s 95 percent curable. She fell into that other five percent.”
Years of treatment followed, including a transplant with her own stem cells. She was good for nine months, and she started making plans to go to Jerusalem for rabbinical school. That transplant ultimately failed, but by 2011, Elissa had found a donor match from a registry in Israel and had another stem cell transplant. She became a Wexner Fellow, a member of a prestigious Jewish community fellowship program, and again made plans for rabbinical school.
That transplant eventually failed as well, but the family was fleetingly cheered by the fact that, through bone marrow registration drives for Elissa, many individuals signed up to be donors and several people waiting for transplants found a match.
Throughout the years of treatment, Elissa continued to work, first at RAC, then at the National Council for Jewish Women, always pursuing a social justice agenda through legislation and direct action.
Video of Elissa Froman outside the Supreme Court, 2011
At NCJW, she led efforts to help pass the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and worked on issues as diverse as immigration reform, LGBT equality, statehood for Washington, D.C., hate crimes and anti-bullying laws. In 2010, she won a Heschel Vision Award from Jews United for Justice, an organization in which she was active.
Elissa’s large circle of friends amazed everyone, Rebecca Froman says. “I always used to joke, being all these people’s friend must be a full-time job. She collected people. I don’t know anybody in my life who had more friends than Elissa.”
And with all her seriousness about improving the world, there was nothing stuffy about Elissa Froman, those who know her best say. “She was witty, hilarious,” her sister says.
After her second stem cell transplant, her body began to reject the treatment. She was hospitalized for in Chicago for the 14 months until her death in March 2013.
“We didn’t do a cancer fund-raiser (at her memorial service) because that’s not what she wanted,” Emily Goodstein says. “She did not want a memorial service to be about stem cell research.” Instead, Elissa wanted friends to engage in a letter-writing campaign for immigration reform.
Even though she never made it to rabbinical school, several friends and co-workers said they thought of Elissa as their rabbi.
“She was our unofficial rabbi, the person we turned to for connecting what we were doing to Jewish text because of her deep knowledge of Judaism,” a NCJW colleague said.
“One of the most beautiful things she left us was her community,” Emily Goodstein says. “She did a really good job at leaving a legacy. The challenge at this point is for us to incorporate a little bit of Elissa in our everyday lives. She is still here challenging us to make the world a better place. That’s the best way to preserve her memory.”
Adapted from Chicago Jewish News, July 12, 2013