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My Partner in Torah

May 9, 2009 | by

A personal tribute to my friend, Ellen.

The following letter was written by a student who learned every week over the phone with her mentor, Ellen, through the Partners in Torah program.

Ellen passed away yesterday, Shabbos morning.

We met by phone almost four years ago when I enrolled in the program, Partners in Torah*. She was my “partner” and our learning was done by phone.

She from Flushing, Queens with a husband and a family; I, a divorced woman (with a grown daughter in New York City) who had moved from Dallas to Delray Beach, Florida to deal with all the issues surrounding aging parents after an only and older sibling passed away.

Ellen was a terrific and enthusiastic teacher. Our discussions were always stimulating. She made it easy for me to pose any question and to offer interpretations and insights without feeling like I might sound "foolish."

She was amazing at how she juggled her life and her duties to her family and to her community. She would be busy with Shabbos preparations at times while we discussed the Torah portion of the week. And during her illness until this year she was still teaching while taking care of her family.

At one point my own private world was becoming more and more tumultuous and challenging; naturally our talks eventually included some of these personal issues. They were always placed in the context of Torah teachings from which I drew some comfort and understanding.

When I was down on myself for feeling like I failed my parents or didn't do enough for them in some way, Ellen was there to remind me of the great mitzvah I was performing. I recall how incredulous I was the first time she expressed being in awe of my ability to manage the responsibilities I voluntarily assumed. What I saw as my failings to “move mountains,” she saw as my strengths. What I saw as my making several poor decisions, she saw as my having faith and trust in the “good” of my fellowman. She bolstered me and gave me strength. She helped me to believe in myself and that I really was doing a good job after all.

That's the way it was with Ellen.

Ellen was a great credit to God's teachings, to the human race, to the Jewish people and to her family. The world has truly lost a beautiful woman who brought so much light into the lives of others and who through endless mitzvot made their burdens lighter. She was a shining example and role model of how we Jews are supposed to live our lives -- by fulfilling our Divine purpose of performing Tikkun Olam -- repairing the ills of our world through doing God's will and treating our fellow man with care, respect and kindness.

Ellen was the kind of soul one doesn't forget. She was a neshama who left her imprint upon your heart. She affected you, uplifted you and inspired you. She was young, only 43 years old, but she was wise, learned and smart.

I had finally met Ellen at my grandson's bris in July of 2002. She drove from Flushing, NY to Teaneck, NJ for it. I felt so special that a woman I only knew over the phone would leave her family and busy life and make time to shlep through heavy city traffic just to be part of my simcha. But that was Ellen.

She started the day off to do a mitzvah in New Jersey, and she ended it that way as well, insisting on driving my Aunt Sylvia home to Maspeth to save my son-in-law the trip.

That's the way it was with Ellen.

During the two years of her illness Ellen never complained about herself or the difficulties and challenges she was facing. And she certainly never wanted to burden you by talking about the inevitable course her cancer was going to take. When she did, it was because you asked, and then she took care to say just enough so that you knew to pray harder for her and to ask others to pray on her behalf.

In my last conversation with Ellen I asked how she was doing. And in typical Ellen fashion, she verbalized her concerns for someone else.

In my last conversation with Ellen I asked how she was doing. And in typical Ellen fashion, she verbalized her concerns for someone else. "I'm worried about Joel. He's having a very hard time with this." Nothing more needed to be said.

Ellen always asked about you -- always focused on what was going on in your life. She made you feel that you were important to her. She would ask specific questions so that you knew that she was really listening to you in previous conversations. And you learned to let her lead the initial journey of your talk until she had all her questions answered and then you can ask how she and her family was doing. Even then she was careful not to add to your load.

That's the way it was with Ellen.

When I went to New York to sit shiva for my father at my aunt's home, Ellen insisted on picking me up at the airport. She knew my aunt was apprehensive about driving out to LaGuardia. Ellen also knew that my aunt didn't keep kosher and insisted on picking up a "few groceries" on her way the airport. I told her not to trouble herself; in fact, I begged her to conserve her energies. But she wasn't to be dissuaded. Ellen wanted me to resume sitting shiva without delay instead of first having to go food shopping for kosher goods.

That's the way it was with Ellen.

I learned something about Ellen that day and about doing mitzvot. When Ellen was set to do a mitzvah, you had to let her do it because it strengthened her spiritually and thereby strengthened you.

Ellen's "few groceries" was a gross understatement. She purchased the store! There was more than a week of food in those bags and my aunt fretted how it was all going to fit in her refrigerator. Miraculously, it all did. Ellen remembered the little details, too, like the sweet goodies. It wasn't enough to get just one box of rugelah -- she had to get this chocolate and that cake to sweeten my Shabbos. She also refused to let me to pay for them or to even share in the expense.

That's the way it was with Ellen.

The special bond I have with Ellen transcends her passing. We made a shidduch together. I brought the chosson, the groom, and she brought the kallah, the bride. We congratulated each other on a successful match! Like proud parents who "birthed" this couple, we "kvelled" and cried and took joy in the knowledge that our little plan to bring this couple together was going to produce a rippling effect far into the future.

Little did I know that my first Torah lesson with Ellen was going to be a journey of many lessons with many twists. I will miss Ellen so very much. I will miss our friendship, our talks, her energy, her wisdom, her sense of humor, our sharing, her unselfish kindness and endless giving and her ability to make you feel that you aren't alone in your heartache and pain.

Ellen is at peace now in God's embrace and Divine Light. Although her life was cut short I am comforted by the knowledge that the impact she's had on my life and on the lives of her family and friends will live on forever. It's not the years that count in knowing a person -- it's the quality of that time. With Ellen it was always the best.

That's the way it was with Ellen.

The day that I answered the phone and heard, “Hello, Chaiaaaaaaa…? This is Ellen. Aish gave me your number…” God blessed me and sent me an angel.

Ellen was my Partner in Torah, arranged by Aish.

But she was my friend, arranged by God.


*Partners in Torah is a project of Torah U'Mesorah.

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