Marla Gilson, the veteran Washington lobbyist for Jewish causes, who fought tirelessly for stem cell research and other potentially life-saving measures, succumbed herself Saturday to an acute form of leukemia. She was 60.
As the JTA wire service wrote recently, Gilson had long been known in Washington for her advocacy work for federally funded stem cell research and for banning the use of genetic information in employment.
As director of Hadassah: the Women's Zionist Organization of America's Washington Action Office, "she usually was in the room when presidents met with Jewish leaders; her last such meeting was with President Obama in July 2009. That meeting came not long after Obama signed an executive order earmarking funds for stem cell research - something that Gilson had spent the better part of her career advocating for."
In addition to her work as the long-time head of Hadassah's Washington office, Gilson was an alumna of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and the Jewish federation system, as well as a frequent Democratic Party political operative. In June, 2010, Gilson was recruited to head the Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS), an umbrella organization for 110 Jewish nursing homes and facilities for the elderly, as its new president and CEO.
But that December, the Washington Post reported, Gilson began experiencing flu-like symptoms. Friends recalled seeing her carving turkeys and doing dishes at a holiday party. Ten days later, she was so weak, she couldn't walk.
In early January, after a hospitalization, she got the diagnosis: mylogenic and bilineal leukemia. Her best chance for recovery meant chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
Almost as soon as Gilson went public with her illness, JTA wrote, friends and family launched a campaign to find her a bone marrow match.
On Feb. 25, a group of Jewish notables across the country sent around a letter about Gilson's illness, urging Jews to register as potential bone marrow donors.
"Hundreds and hundreds of women who participated in Hadassah's Day on the Hill were empowered and touched by Marla's determined advocacy in our victory for the right to genetic non-discrimination and stem cell research," the letter stated. "It is now our turn to rally and advocate for Marla - and we urgently need your help."
As it turned out, by the time the screenings campaign started, a bone marrow donor already had been identified for Gilson. Rather than directly assisting her, the screenings became a way to honor her and her career.
Jewish groups in New York and Washington responded to the call. Bone marrow donor registration drives -- which involve getting the inside of the potential donor's cheek swabbed so a sample can be tested -- were held at Hadassah headquarters in New York, at Purim parties in Washington, at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center and at the K Street headquarters of several national Jewish groups.
At the K Street drive, organized by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder of The Israel Project and a friend of Gilson's, 48 people registered as donors over the course of two hours.
"She would walk on hot coals for the Jewish people, and she has never been shy about speaking out on behalf of others," Mizrahi told JTA of Gilson. "So if I can do something small to have some ability to help her, it's only my honor to do so."
Laura Katz Cutler of American University told JTA that the destruction of so many Ashkenazic bloodlines in the Holocaust makes the likelihood of finding a bone marrow match "like finding a needle in a haystack."
Cutler added that she was aware of the bone marrow issue because of years of advocacy by Gilson and others, but it was different now that a close friend was suffering. "It became a very concrete thing to me," she said.
The last major, community-wide bone marrow registry drive among Washington-area Jews was in 1989, when a young Jewish woman, Allison Atlas, was diagnosed with leukemia. Atlas was only 20 when she was diagnosed, and she died soon afterward, but her struggle drew massive interest and led to the registration of many potential donors. But, more than two decades later, many of those registered donors are now 60 years of age or older - the maximum age for joining the national registry.
Gilson was treated aggressively with chemotherapy and while in remission, she received a bone marrow transplant that appeared to take. But earlier this month, new tests showed the leukemia had reappeared and was now malignant. Gilson was hospitalized, moved to hospice, and then returned home, where she died Saturday, just before the end of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
Marla Fran Gilson was born August 23, 1951 in Brooklyn, NY. Her parents, Selma and Bernard Gilson, were partners in a landscape business. Her father was born in Poland and her mother was a second generation American. Marla attended Smithtown Central High School on Long Island, where the family lived, graduating in 1969. She attended the University of Maryland in suburban Washington, DC, where she would remain the rest of her life. After a spring semester at the Hebrew University in Israel in 1972, she graduated UMD-College Park in 1973 with a degree in sociology.
She met Carl Tuvin, a public affairs consultant and lobbyist, in March 1981 and they were married January 8, 1984. They had two children, Alex and Julia and lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Gilson's first job was also her first job in Washington politics - as a staff assistant to then-US Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), answering phones, greeting visitors and opening mail for the legendary feisty Congresswoman.
Marla would soon move to Abzug's Michigan colleague Rep. Bob Traxler's office, where she would stay for five years as a caseworker and legislative assistant.
In 1979, Gilson joined the staff of Aipac as a lobbyist and its director of community relations, traveling over 100,000 miles, giving briefings and speeches designed to stimulate local political activism.
She served in a number of state and national positions on Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign and briefly as an advance woman for the Dukakis campaign four years later. She also served as a fundraiser for US Sen. Paul Sarbanes campaign in 1994. But it was Gilson's considerable work for Jewish causes in between and since for which she will always be best known.
Beginning in 1985, Gilson established and managed the Washington office of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, lobbying Congress on major domestic and foreign policy legislative issues and obtaining millions of dollars in federal grants and loans.
And in 1997, she established and directed the Washington office for America's largest and most venerable women's membership organization, Hadassah.
In addition to her considerable work in support of stem cell research and in opposition to genetic discrimination, Washington Jewish Week wrote last year that as chief lobbyist for Hadassah, Gilson combined two of her chief passions - the Jewish people and the U.S. political system, "which has such a great ability to have an impact on what kind of country this is."
Gilson told the paper that the important achievements at Hadassah during her watch included the creation of the "Influentials to Israel" program, an educational mission to the Jewish state for elected officials, "Date with the State," an initiative that encourages individuals throughout America to lobby for Israel at their state capitals, and the Hadassah Leadership Academy, a three-year adult education program whose participants learn about Jewish history and other aspects of Judaica while also receiving advocacy training.
Gilson was a founding member and executive committee member of the Coalition for Genetic Fairness, vice president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a member of the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of General Medical Sciences' Populations Advisory Group, the National Breast Cancer Coalition board of directors (1998-2005), the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice board of directors, the NCSJ board of governors, the American Society for Association Executives, American League of Lobbyists, Women in Government Relations and Who's Who in America and a consultant to the Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Institute, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and GLC Consultants.
Survivors include her husband of 27 years Carl Tuvin of Chevy Chase, son Alex Tuvin and daughter Julia Tuvin, also of Chevy Chase, a sister Della Gilson Levy and her mother Selma Gilson Friedman, both of Denver, Colorado.
Funeral services are scheduled for Monday, October 31 at 10:00 AM at Adas Israel Congregation, 2850 Quebec Street NW in Washington with internment at Beth Tfiloh cemetery in Woodlawn immediately thereafter. Arrangements by Hines-Rinaldi Mortuary 301-622-2290. The family will be sitting shiva Monday through Thursday at 8:00 AM and 7:30 PM, Friday at 8:00 AM, Saturday at 7:30 PM and again Sunday at 8:30 AM at the family home, 2805 Washington Ave. in Chevy Chase. Visitors may also call each day 1:00-4:00 PM.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Lab School of Washington scholarship fund or to the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and that all eligible donors register with Gift of Life, the national bone marrow registry.
With language and descriptors borrowed from Washington Jewish Week, JTA, the Washington Post and the Forward.