Thankful Thursday: Marla Gilson and Della Levy

Marla Gilson

Della Levy, an active leader in the Denver Jewish community, has been an ongoing supporter and sponsor of the “Words of Wisdom” class for women taught by Ellyn Hutt on Tuesday afternoons from 2:00-3:00 at The Jewish Experience. Each year she has helped sponsor the class. In honor of her sister’s memory, she is giving Jewish women the opportunity to come together for spiritual inspiration. The class was originally launched and sponsored by Lisa Feld and Toni Schiff in memory of their mother, Bea Pomeranz, a”h.

Della Levy continues the tradition of sponsoring the class by honoring her sister, Marla Gilson, a”h, who was a leader in on Capitol Hill, working in so many ground-breaking and important organizations and campaigns. “She was always an advocate,” offers Levy. “She went to the University of Maryland and there was a program sponsored by Young Judea – which was part of Hadassah – and she was able to go to Israel. I think that trip really helped launch Marla’s real interest in Zionism and affirmed her connection to Hadassah from an early age.”

Destined to be a leader in the Jewish community, after Gilson graduated from college she worked for Bella Abzug, a well-known US Representative, social activist and leader in the women’s movement. “I think that was probably a time of tutelage for my sister. She went on to work on the hill for different congressmen and was an important liaison with the Jewish community.”

Gilson continued to climb the ladder in Washington throughout her impressive career. “She opened up an office for the Jewish Federation of Chicago in DC,” Levy recalls, “it was after that, that she worked on the Mondale campaign when he was running for President.” Gilson’s career took her to AIPAC for a couple of years and then on to Hadassah where, in the late 1990s, they opened their own office in Washington, naming Gilson as their Founding Director.

During her time at Hadassah’s Washington office, Gilson was instrumental in many important events, “(the Washington office) would bring in people from (Hadassah) chapters all over the country to do what they called A Day on the Hill and you’d get to see what a Washington office was like,” Said Levy. “She really loved that.” There were also two large national conventions during Gilson’s time with Hadassah in which she helped host more than 3,000 women from all over the United States. “Marla was pretty well-known on The Hill for doing that kind of thing.”

In addition, Gilson was an important voice in getting legislation passed to prohibit discrimination by insurance companies because of genetic factors. “That was really important for Jews because up until that point, people were reluctant to get tested for some genetic diseases. Marla was instrumental in doing that.”

In the late 2000s, Hadassah ended up having to close the Washington office, leaving Gilson seeking employment. However, she eventually found work with The Association of Jewish Aging Services. Unfortunately, just six months later, she was diagnosed with Leukemia. It was then that the Association decided to terminate her employment. “It was horrendous. I mean, it made it into the Intermountain Jewish News here because there was so much questioning of that as a Jewish decision, it was probably a good business decision, but it wasn’t a really compassionate decision. But Marla had some lawyers and they negotiated at least to continue her health insurance. And in fact, Marla never returned to work.”

Marla Gilson was diagnosed in early January and passed away on October 29, 2011. “So this time of year is always poignant for me. It was pretty awful. Marla was 60. She turned 60 that August and then she passed away that year, was less than a year.”

The memory of Marla Gilson lives on in her sister, her mother Selma, her husband Cal and two children – Alex and Julia. “Alex has since married a wonderful girl from Baltimore and they just had their first child in August. Julia graduated from college and got a social work degree and is now a Social Worker at Children’s Hospital in DC. It was Marla’s sickness that motivated her, she said she wanted to be there to help the families.”

Della Levy continues to honor Marla Gilson with her donation to support “Words of Wisdom,” helping to provide spiritual connection and education for Jewish women. May her memory always be a blessing, a”h.

Get more information about Words of Wisdom here.