In Washington, the value of people is all too often measured by how close they are to this senator or that one, or what office they hold in whichever administration is in power at the moment. Yet Marla Gilson wasn’t a senator, Cabinet secretary or billionaire. Completely down to earth, she was never wearing the sparkliest outfit in the room. Nevertheless, deep and serious people gravitated to Gilson because she really was the very center of gravity.
The longtime face and voice of Hadassah in Washington, Gilson, who died of an acute form of leukemia on October 29, also worked for the Jewish federation movement, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, several politicians and other good causes. She knew what was moving on Capitol Hill and in the Jewish world. She saw through political obfuscation immediately, could make an action plan with her hands tied behind her back, and had a warm word for and about everyone who was willing or able to move good things forward.
Gilson, who was 60 at the time of her death, was beloved literally by thousands of Jews and by policy and political professionals the world over.
People of prominence paid their respects at her funeral. Former Senator Paul Sarbanes spoke at both her funeral and burial. His son, Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, came to the gravesite, as well. But so did her children’s former nanny, a Filipina immigrant, along with her whole extended family. Gilson, someone who never played by the “Washington rules,” had treated us all like kings. She judged people by who they were and not by the office they held.
Gilson was one of the first people I met when I moved to Washington decades ago. She was ahead of me in age (and in every other way), but both of us had loved our experiences doing junior year abroad in Israel, serving on the Federations’ National Young Leadership Cabinet, working on Capitol Hill and running political campaigns.
Gilson was a female role model in both the Jewish and political worlds. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Louise Slaughter were calling her to pick her brains even when she was too sick to talk. I, too, was lucky to have had her as my friend and mutual cheerleader.
Gilson gave me a lot of strength when I co-founded The Israel Project with two other women. She coached me and was my trusted ear, and I learned from her time and again. In a male-dominated arena, she was my “she-ro.”
When Gilson was diagnosed with cancer, she fought the disease with her usual can-do attitude. In politics she had fought and won many battles on stem cell research and now she had the chance to be saved by it. When she needed a bone marrow transplant, we used her own cause to get many people to be tested to donate. All of us who got involved hoped other lives would be saved in addition to hers.
Gilson had a tight group of friends that tended to her and her family during these past 10 months. But she didn’t want many of those friends, myself included, to visit her in the end. The end was hard, and she wanted us to remember her smiles. Still, she and I spoke by telephone recently. She told me that she wanted her final days to be with her wonderful husband of decades, Carl Tuvin, and their terrific kids, Julia and Alex.
Gilson knew time was limited, and she said we could “have a big funeral when it was over.” For the record, hundreds of people came.
The one other thing Gilson wanted me to know and to tell everyone was that her doctor, Khaled El-Shami, who is from Egypt, is “the most amazing doctor in the world.” She felt she lived much longer because of him, and she was really grateful for that. She voiced the hope that Jews would do something nice to honor her doctor, because she never saw such amazing devotion as her Arab doctor demonstrated trying to save her, the consummate Jew.
Even in the end, Gilson was thinking of others.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is president of The Israel Project.
Editor’s note: In April, Gilson’s terminal illness dragged her reluctantly into the spotlight when the Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS), which hired her as its CEO in June 2010, laid her off. The association felt Gilson’s limited capacity to work as she fought her illness necessitated a new leader. Gilson’s removal sparked angry protests and editorials in Jewish newspapers across the country. AJAS settled with Gilson, agreeing to provide additional severance and financial support to cover her daunting medical expenses.