Friday, August 10, 2012 was Move-In Day at Eckerd College. As the Campus Rabbi I’d experienced this day many times before, but not as a parent. We were all a bit nervous. Dropping your kid off at college, not knowing what the dormitory was going to be like, and not knowing the person with whom your child was going to be living… all contribute to general feelings of anxiety and fear. But then we walked into the second floor corner room of Gamma Newton, and there were the Willens. Maybe they were just as nervous as we, but in an instant any fear washed away and very special relationship began.
Ally ended up being not only a perfect roommate for our daughter, but… and I am not one who is prone to hyperbole, she was as close to perfect in everything she did as anyone I’ve ever known. For all of you who watched Ally grow up here in Akron, I’ll share a little bit of her college years with you, but I apologize in advance that I will not do her justice. The 3 years she spent at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg were the cocoon for her metamorphosis from child to adult.
I could list all she has done both academically and socially, but we’d be here until next Thursday. I could tell you how she drank in the words of Elie Wiesel during her winter term course this year. As her professor said: “She always sat close to Dr. Wiesel, and her eyes were always shining.”
I could tell you that she was the social action chair on our Hillel Board and organized bone marrow registration drives, collection drives for a local food pantry, a cadre of volunteers who regularly went to a foster home for at risk kids, and her favorite was a silent disco (yes you heard that correctly… a silent disco) to raise money for the Gulfcoast Jewish Family Services. I could tell you about her service trips to Malawi, where she help build an orphanage or her trip to Costa Rica to work at a rescue center for sloths…. She loved the sloths. I could tell you how she gathered up every piece of glass and plastic after every Hillel program and took it to the recycle bins. Unfortunately, there’s just too much to tell it all. I would like to share something however, which in hindsight was quite a profound experience.
During her freshman year, Ally was part of our Birthright trip that traveled to Israel. We visited the holy city of Tzfat in the Galilee, and with its narrow alleyways, and art galleries Ally loved it. Tzfat is also the center of the Kabbalah, and Ally was fascinated by what she learned there. At her insistence, when got back to St. Pete, I taught a 10 week extra-curricular course, an Introduction to the Kabbalah. For those of you who aren’t aware, Kabbalah is part of our tradition, which is often referred to as Jewish Mysticism, but which I prefer to speak of as simply the spiritual teachings of Judaism. In simple terms, the Kabbalah teaches about the nature of the universe, the soul, and our purpose in life from the perspective of Judaism. The discussions during the class were always interesting, but it was the time after class when I would sit around in Brown 103 with Ally and Gabe when the conversations took on a totally different quality.
We discussed the Jewish teachings of reincarnation. We discussed deep concepts of the soul. I remember when Ally asked if there was such a thing as “an old soul”. Perhaps she was asking about her own. And we spoke about death. We discussed so much and, looking back, much of those discussions would have been relevant today.
The Kabbalah teaches that every soul comes to this world for a purpose, and when that purpose is complete…. The Soul leaves. It is not constrained by our human conception of time and space. Sometimes twenty years is just enough, and all that the soul needs to fulfill its purpose.
Looking back at Ally’s life, we all know the extraordinary person she was. In her short 20 years, she experienced more of life than most of us do in two lifetimes. In her brief span, she did more good for more people than most people three times her age.
We cry because we mourn for an amazing young woman who had so much more ahead of her.
We cry because we mourn for an amazing person who would have done so much more good in the world if she we still with us.
We cry because we think of all the adventures she will not experience.
But if our tradition is correct, and I believe it is…then her soul completed its purpose. We don’t cry for Ally… We cry for ourselves. We cry for her family and her friends. We cry because she touched us all so deeply. She touched us with her beautiful soul. We cry because we want her to be here with us still.
It wasn’t until now that I think I finally understand Ally’s fascination with butterflies. Growing up here in Akron was Ally’s caterpillar phase. Her years at Eckerd College were her cocoon, and in New Zealand her soul burst forth from its shell and flew back to God.
In his book “Illusions” Richard Bach wrote: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls… a butterfly.”
The girls who were with her on that final hike shared that before the storm hit, Ally said this was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. It was the perfect place for her soul to return.
We mourn the death of Ally Willen today, but more importantly… we should celebrate her life. As her new friends in New Zealand said: “Live Like Ally.” We will honor her memory by living each day like she lived hers: doing good for others, protecting the planet, showing random acts of kindness to strangers, and always working to make the world a better place… one person, one dog, one sloth at a time.
תהיה נשמתה צרורה בצרור החיים
May her soul be bound up in the bonds of the living, and may she rest in peace.)
Thank you all for being here to comfort this family. You have held us in your hearts for the past few weeks so we could get to this day and have closure for Ally. I know this grief we feel as a family is not ours alone. I feel the pain all of you are going through from Ally’s passing. This is a huge loss for the entire community and the world. And we have felt your prayers, wonderful uplifting messages, and love. Thank you for that. It is a gift we can never repay.
A few days before Ally passed away, she was trying to reach her sister, Emily. She couldn’t reach her by phone so she sent her this in a text message. I would like to read it to you because I think there is a very important lesson for us all. It’s about a tattoo she was thinking about. and I must preface this with the reminder that this was JUST a simple text, unedited, never meant to be share with hundreds of people. So here goes,
These are Ally’s words;
“EMILY, You won’t answer the phone so I’ll just explain it. So I’ve always liked trees because the rings build off of each other, each one strengthens the trees. Sometimes so slowly that it’s hard to understand in the moment. That’s how I feel about life experiences too. Your experiences develop you into a stronger person even if it’s hard to understand. And I want the inside rings to be a little more abstract in the photo because it’s going to have a fingerprint in the middle. Each time you meet a person, you leave a mark on them (a fingerprint) and we have a responsibility to only leave good marks, leave good impressions, and consciously put positive energy into the world. But it goes both ways, you have to be careful about who you let leave the fingerprint on yourself and your experiences. The fingerprints create the rings. And I want to quote “feel deeper, think higher” in the tiny print in the rings. Ellie Wiesel said it. And I think it’s a great motto. For every life experience, I always worry about becoming A zombie and just walking through life without intention. I think that will hold me to a higher standard in regards to my actions and behaviors. Maybe I’ll regret it, but I don’t want to value my future regret and adulthood over my experiences now. I feel that is a common mistake.”
That was my Ally’s message for herself. And it’s an important message that we can all try to live by. In honor of Allison Lynn willen, lets all try to “feel deeper and think higher”. And to truly walk through life with intention. We can honor Ally by living our lives surrounding ourselves with good “finger prints” and leaving good finger prints on others.
I have envisioned this loss as a deep, raw, painful wound for our family. With time and care this wound will eventually begin to heal. Scar tissue will form. The skin of our family will never look the same. It will be different and not as pretty. But we will be stronger, as scar tissue is strong.
Let us all, with time and love, become stronger together. Let us live in a way that would honor Ally. Love intensely, live enthusiastically, care deeply, and try to make this world a better place. Let us try to be like Ally.
Thank you all.
It is a privilege to stand before you and pay honor to Allison Lynn Willen. I want to thank everyone who helped take care of Michelle and Emily while Brad and I were gone and for everyone that was there when we needed them the most. It was difficult to be away from my family during this time, but we had to bring Ally home. Having my brother Brad by my side every step of the way made this most unbearable task bearable – I will never be able to repay this act of kindness on his part. Let us never forget about Allison’s friends that were with her those last few days either – Emma, Ellie, Kirsten and Adrian – 4 incredible kids that loved Allison as much as any of us and have to carry this loss with them the rest of their lives. We must also remember the Eckerd Community where Ally spent 3 wonderful years. They are a close knit community that is sharing this loss with us.
Over the past few weeks, I think we have all learned what a complete person Ally was, and how much she had to offer all of humanity. She genuinely had a plan to improve the world one person, one idea at a time. In order to do that, she had to reach a level of self-confidence that most of us never achieve at any point in our lifetime. She wasn’t trying to change anyone, unless maybe she trying to convert you to become a vegetarian or get you to rescue a stray dog. Allison had no boundaries when it came to making friends. She opened herself up unconditionally to everyone she met.
That was the essence of Ally.
How can this incredible loss be honored?
While in New Zealand, I was fortunate and comforted to meet so many of the students that Ally was with. Each amazing in their own way, each inspired differently by Allison. I met a young man named Max Strotbeck who set out to accomplish his most difficult climb since arriving as a way to honor Ally. Max and another friend climbed to the top and posted the sign that some of you may have seen on Facebook that read “FOR ALLY”, and he posted “LIVE LIKE ALLY.” How can her incredible loss be honored? If we can all take a piece of what she had to offer us, and change the way we think or act, then our loss will not be wasted. Allison was the real deal, she wanted to improve the world. We can help fulfill Ally’s dreams if, in some way big or small, from this day forward, we can” Live Like Ally”.
Open your hearts to love…
Care deeply about all creatures and our environment.
Believe there is good in the world
Be the good.
I love you Ally Willen –
I would like to start by reading a quote that my sister carried with her.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
What my sister left behind is a powerful legacy that has affected hundreds of people around the world. Allison did not intentionally set out to become a great leader or teacher, yet there is no doubt in my mind that that is exactly what she was. Despite her seemingly small size and stature, my sister’s impact was large enough to change the world.
Somehow my sister came into life fully equipped with knowledge and wisdom that most people do not obtain until well in their later years, if ever. Allison already had it all inside of her, and it was her task in this lifetime to share that knowledge and light with others. And share it she did.
Allison taught me more lessons about life than anyone else I’ve ever met. Of the many, many things that she taught me is a philosophy about how to greet life. Allison lived her life exactly the way she wanted to. She lived courageously, whole-heartedly, and without regrets. As she stated before she left for her trip, she arrived in New Zealand with the intentions of answering each invitation with a firm ‘yes’ because she didn’t want to miss out on any adventures. Her outlook ran deeper than this, however. My sister simply said ‘yes’ to life. She said yes to every opportunity that came her way and she let nothing hold her back. She said yes to meeting new people all around the world; she said yes to traveling to a foreign country all by herself; she said yes to to stepping outside her comfort zone; she said yes to opening herself up to change and be changed by others; and she said yes when she knew it was her time to leave this Earth. Her courageousness and her bravery, along with her willingness to accept all that life presented her, will inspire me every moment for the rest of my life.
Her legacy doesn’t stop there, however. Even beyond teaching us about how to embrace life, Allison taught us about the interconnection between all living things. From the time she was born, Allison understood – on a very deep level – that human beings are not separate from nature. This deep knowledge was innate within her and she lived her life in accordance with the profound understanding. From deciding to pursue a vegan diet, to walking around barefoot in the grass and dirt, to initiating heated discussions about the food industry and environmental dangers, my sister’s actions were always fueled by passion and a fierce desire to make this world a better place – for everyone. She understood that each of us has a responsibility to heal this world.
There is a translated passage from the Kabbalah that speaks to this sense of interconnection that Allison was so keenly aware of: “All plants, minerals, and animals, including the stars, moons, suns, and planets, are living, conscious beings replete with divine wisdom and soul.” Allison understood the underlying connection between all living things. She knew that what happens to nature, to animals, and to the Earth also happens to us. The message that she is leaving us with is loud and clear: We cannot turn a blind eye. We must care for each other’ we must care for our planet; and we must care for animals and for nature.
Let us honor my sister by honoring the wisdom and the lessons that she left behind. Let us honor her legacy by recognizing the magnificence of every moment we are given; by living our lives courageously, without any regrets; by respecting the delicate interconnection between ourselves and all things; and by answering each invitation we are given with a firm and resolute “yes.”
Let us celebrate her life and the light that she is. Let us remember that nothing is ever really gone; it is merely transformed. My sister completed exactly what she meant to do in this lifetime. She completed it with an open heart and her soul was ready to go. She walked her path with courage, dignity and strength, and I have never been more proud of her.
Now it up to all of us to do the same. It is up to us now, those who are left behind, to truly embrace and apply the lessons my sister so clearly illustrated for us. After completing her first Great Walk in New Zealand, my sister wrote this about the experience: “In that afternoon I learned more about myself than I thought was possible. While I climbed, my legs burned and my back ached, yet I had to push forward and conquer the desire to quit. I learned that I could quiet the pain, that my mind was stronger than my body. In that moment, I understood that while situations may be beyond our control, we have responsibility in choosing our mindset.”
It is these words that have echoed in my mind over these past several days. Allison taught me that I am strong, far stronger than I ever imagined. She showed me that even when life presents you with the greatest sorrow and heartbreak imaginable, the human spirit can still be empowered to choose how to respond. And I am making a promise to her, my incredible sister, that our family is going to respond in a way that will make you proud. We are going to transform this experience into something beautiful.
Death is nothing at all; it is only a transformation. The bond between sisters can never be broken. Allison’s name is ever present on each breath I take. Let us lift her up in our hearts and minds, this radiant, magnificent soul, and let us rejoice for her as she so bravely begins her next Great Walk.
To my sister – Allison Lynn Willen.
Allison: The last memory I have of you is leaving breakfast at the local diner, Sweet Pea, which for some reason has become the new Willen breakfast staple. That morning, the crew consisted of myself, my father Brad, Uncle Todd, Grandma Sybil, and obviously, you. This was the day before you left for your New Zealand adventure. I was still riding high from my semester abroad in Colombia so I was very excited for your time in New Zealand. I remember sharing stories of my experiences, trying to give you insights, which you probably didn’t need. I wanted to bring this memory up to you because it is one that I will remember forever, for a few small but important reasons. First of all, as expected with that particular group of people, the breakfast was filled with jokes and laughter. Uncle Todd would throw out a few sarcastic jests with a smile already on his face; usually aimed at teasing himself or another member of the table with my dad and me serving them right back. You and Grandma Sybil more than willing to offer your smiles and laughter after almost anything we said. This channels past memories of mine. Whether we were at the kid’s table at a family function (even though we were 20 years old) or hanging out by your pool, I knew that being around you would mean that not only would my jokes land more frequently than normal, but that all parties involved would be laughing. I honestly have no picture in my head of you ever upset. That’s something rare and should not be taken for granted. The other important part of this memory to me is whom we were with. There are few people that I love more and would rather be with than who was at that table, and they are all sitting within 100 feet of me right now. Though we went to different high schools, and did not hang out every weekend, growing up together formed an indescribable bond between us. Riding the waves of Lake Chautauqua or trick-or-treating our neighborhoods, these memories will last forever. I know family is just as important to you as it is to me, so I love that my last physical interaction with you was with the closest of family. As we walked out of the diner, I remember giving you a hug, realizing this was the last time I was going to see you for a while. I wished you luck and waved off Uncle Todd saying, “eh—I’ll see you before I go to school” and we parted ways. I remember feeling envious of your forthcoming adventures and from the sounds of it, I should have been. My final thoughts to you, Allison, are simple: I hope you are in a great place right now. I would like to imagine you in an extremely peaceful place. Some mountains and furry animals probably involved somewhere in that picture as well. I also imagine you with Papa Stu and Aunt Vicky, because that just makes me happy. Other than that, I have no words to preach to you. You are the one that taught us all the important lessons. You should know how many people genuinely care about you and love you. I know you are doing fine after as you put it, “being equipped with that new type of mental strength,” so I’m not worried. We all love you, Allison, and miss you already.
Before I leave the stage, I would like to address my family, but my words may apply to anyone else as well. Be sad. Sadness is a normal and necessary human emotion, along with Honesty. I think these two go hand in hand. If you want to cry, you are just being honest with yourself. This experience is not something that we will ever truly get over and I think the best way to cope with it is to be honest with your feelings and emotions. Don’t be afraid to bring up and talk about Ally. Five or 10 years from now, cry and laugh about Ally. This honesty is the only way we can become a stronger family and prevail through this tragedy to live our lives to the fullest. How Ally would want us to live.
Ally was my younger cousin, and a good nine inches shorter than me, but I’ve looked up to her for a long time. I consulted her before making any big life decision, always asked her opinion on social issues to get a better perspective, and made sure that she met and approved of any boy I wanted to date. She always had that grounded voice of reason and hilarious commentary that could soften the blow if her opinion wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I think what I admired most about Ally was her passion for helping those who truly need it. Whether it was feeding the homeless, working at the animal shelter, or improving the environment, she not only did her part but she actively sought out the opportunities to do so. She never waited around for her chance to make a difference. Ally took so much responsibility for improving the world upon herself, and the thing is, it didn’t feel like a weight on her shoulders but rather a gust of wind pushing her towards her goals. Just knowing her was an inspiration to be a better person, and through her travels she ignited an army of hundreds of people across the world who are inspired to live in the passionate, altruistic way that she did. Not everyone can reach that level that ally had and give so much of themselves to others; Ally was truly unique in that way. But I think that we can all accept a little piece of the responsibility that she felt, and in my opinion, that is the ultimate way to celebrate her life.
Dr. Seuss once said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Anyone who knew my cousin Ally knows that sometimes, the people fullest of life are, in fact, the smallest people.
You’d think that such a little package at 5’1 or 5’2 (alright, Ally, let’s roll with 5’2) would require a brief description. Yet, as I write this, no adjective, no story, no single thought can quite do her justice. She never failed to astound those around her, whether it be with unconventional, beautiful ideas in her head or the heartfelt gestures that everyone else seemed to overlook. Wisdom, uniqueness, goodheartedness, and just plain coolness are all words that don’t even scratch the surface of my cousin’s demeanor.
So, let me begin with Ally’s wisdom.
At 13, she, like many other jewish kids in the Akron arena, attended countless Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Everyone knew a girl’s extravagant bat mitzvah party was her moment to be the shameless center of attention. But she was different, and she had a choice. She could have the lavish party and the traditional DJ with a dancefloor, or she could have our grandfather Bop, who was in Hospice at the time, attend her big day. If you knew Ally even relatively well, you can probably guess what she chose. She studied extra hard to push the date earlier, and spent her day surrounded by immediate family, and most importantly, her Bop. We should’ve known from there that she was something special, someone with a wisdom beyond her years.
Don’t get me wrong, Ally wasn’t always serious. It wouldn’t be fair to talk about my cousin without adding her one of a kind humor– and appetite. The Annual Tommy vs. Ally Matzah Ball Eating Competition was really the only entertainment that got Claudia, Emily, and I through seders most years. You may ask, “Why pair the 6’2 linebacker with the 5’3 nugget?”. Well, mostly because the event began when they were the same size but ALSO because she refused to back down from a challenge. Our eyes would widen as Gigi’s matzah balls disappeared, but the entire table got a kick out of the pocket size spit fire.
So yes, Ally, you were small. And yes, you were young. But you had something lovely inside you that most people never have. Thank you for showing me how to follow my passions with such optimism and happiness. Thank you for teaching me to put others’ feelings before mine. Whenever I am faced with a tough decision or dilemma, I will think to myself, “Live like Ally.” Chances are, I will have made the right decision and/or will have a handful of new friends. Our family will never be the same without you, but will carry your legacy with us forever. I love you Ally.