Although she didn’t have a rabbinical degree, friends and co-workers who knew Elissa Froman say that her precocious ability to build community and her dedication to social justice made her, in many ways, already a rabbi.
Froman, who grew up in Wilmette, died of lymphoma at age 29 on Friday, March 22. She spent her short career advocating for social change as a legislative associate with the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. As her next move, she had hoped to bring her commitment to social justice to the pulpit.
Speaking at her funeral, Froman’s boss, Sammie Moshenberg, used the analogy of the princess and the pea to explain Froman’s passion. If Elissa was the princess, and the pea was injustice, she would feel it through layers and layers of mattresses—and take action.
“Elissa was an absolutely remarkable person,” Moshenberg told Patch. “She accomplished more in her short life than most people do in much longer lives because she really dedicated her life to realizing her passion for justice.”
“She Has Such A Clear Idea Of What She Wants to Do”
Froman grew up with her parents, Michael and Gloria, and older sister, Rebecca, in Wilmette. She attended Temple Beth Israel and New Trier High School and spent her summers at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute camp in Oconomowoc, WI. Following graduation, George Washington University was a natural choice for the politically minded Froman, given the opportunities it would provide her to work for social change in Washington, D.C.
Emily Pearl Goodstein, one of Froman’s closest friends, remembers the day she met Froman on campus in 2002, during Froman’s first year. Goodstein had organized a voter registration drive, and Froman volunteered to staff it.
“I said, ‘What are you majoring in?’” Goodstein recalls.
“I’m majoring in Judaic studies and women’s studies,” Froman replied, adding, “I’m basically majoring in myself.’”
Froman’s confidence and clarity of purpose were impressive to Goodstein.
“She has such a clear idea of what she wants to do and who she is, and how she’s going to get there,” Goodstein recalls thinking. “That was rare and refreshing.”
One of the other things that stood out immediately was Froman’s quick wit. Goodstein recalls studying in the library during finals one night while Froman and their other friends went out to T.G.I. Friday’s for dinner. Goodstein was planning to meet up with them later, but then she got a call from Froman on her cell phone.
Froman told Goodstein she had to come right away, that she wouldn’t believe it: Gloria Steinem was at T.G.I. Friday’s too.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’ll be right there,’” Goodstein recalls. “I want a chance to meet our feminist hero.’”
So Goodstein rushed over to the restaurant. When she walked in the door, Froman greeted her, laughing hysterically.
“She knew me so well and knew that of course I would leave studying to meet Gloria Steinem,” Goodstein recalls.
Beside’s women’s rights, Froman was passionate about a myriad of causes, including LGBT rights, immigration reform and state’s rights for Washington, D.C.
“Really, the personal was political for Elissa,” Goodstein says.
Passion For Work Carried Her Through Chemo, Radiation
Froman was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2006, just a few months after graduation. Goodstein remembers sitting in a hospital room with Froman when she received the diagnosis. Her doctor, who was in his 20s, delivered the news that she had nodular sclerosing Hodgkin's lymphoma, a mutation of the body’s infection-fighting cells, and the two friends started crying. The doctor turned to leave them alone in the room, then stopped at the door and turned around to say, “Have a good night, ladies.”
“The two of us started laughing so hard,” Goodstein recalls. “That went on to be the bittersweet hallmark of her cancer journey. Even within minutes of her cancer diagnosis we were laughing.”
During the next several years of chemotherapy, radiation, stem cell transplants and a bone marrow transplant, Froman’s sense of humor and passion for her work helped carry her through. Throughout the initial rounds of chemotherapy, when Froman was treated in Washington, D.C., she often went back to work the same day that she received a treatment. Later on, she traveled to and from Chicago for treatments, but as soon as she was well enough, she would start working from home, says her boss, Sammie Moshenberg.
“We held her job the whole time,” Moshenberg says. “We did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Froman even received a letter from Barack Obama in October 2008, thanking her for her dedication to campaigning in spite of her illness.
“Words cannot express how deeply honored I am that you would think of me and this campaign, and be so focused on our country’s future at this difficult time,” Obama wrote.
Julie Finkelstein, a friend who met Froman in Washington, D.C., says that Froman did not let cancer define her. Other than the physical symbols such as hair loss, you wouldn’t have known she was sick.
“She didn’t miss a beat,” Finkelstein says. “It was very rare that she would take off work.”
“It Was Almost Like Elissa Was Already a Rabbi”
In 2010, Froman applied and was accepted to rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. As she wrote in her blog, becoming a rabbi was a lifelong dream. In an entry dated October 2010, she recalled writing about whether life had any meaning, if lived in isolation, for an essay in a senior-year English class.
“My answer then was the same at 18 as it is now: our life’s meaning is defined by the people we share it with,” Froman wrote in her blog. “Though I haven’t always been fully conscious of it, building community is the purpose of my life.”
Friends and coworkers say Froman was already a rabbi in many ways. Guided by her Jewish faith, she built community at work by uniting different coalitions around an issue of social justice.
“She felt very committed to Jewish social justice values…and that motivated her tremendously,” Moshenberg said.
As a friend, Froman was also a community builder. Her funeral at Temple Beth Israel in Skokie was standing room only, as roughly 30 friends from camp, high school, college and D.C. flew in to attend, according to Julie Finkelstein.
“Everyone says, ‘She was my best friend and I’m her best friend,’” Finkelstein explains. “She made you feel that way.”
Froman was the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and grew up talking politics and social change at the dinner table with her parents—a background that influenced her perception of the world and her role in it. But in many ways, Froman was also “a born spiritual leader,” according to Goodstein.
“It was almost like Elissa already was a rabbi,” she says. “Elissa was the person that had the bedside manner and the pastoral care and counseling skills of the most seasoned rabbi at the age of 21.”
Ironically, Froman received the grave news that her cancer was in relapse on the same day that she was accepted to rabbinical school in March 2010. The diagnosis initiated two more years of even more intense treatment, culminating with 14 months in the hospital.
Froman died on Friday, March 22—two days before the first night of Passover. In Goodstein’s opinion, it’s no coincidence that Froman died so soon before this particular Jewish holiday, which celebrates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.
“There is something so symbolic about the fact that this social justice leader passed away just two days before the entire Jewish community came together to celebrate being liberated,” Goodstein says. “My vision right now is that she is somewhere sitting with Martin Luther King, and they’re strategizing how they’re going to change the world."