Rachael never would have stopped fighting
And neither will we!
In 2021, a freshman at Yale named Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum died by suicide. She had asked for help in every possible way, begged Yale to go part time, and was terrified of what would happen if she were forcibly withdrawn from Yale, which used to happen to students whose mental health issues were just more than Yale wanted to deal with.
Her memory is a blessing, and it is a call to action. Undergraduate groups were already working to pressure Yale to improve the way it treats students who are struggling. It was picked up by the founders of Elis for Rachael, a non-profit founded by Lily Colby, with a steering committee that ranges from people still in college to Yale class of 1988.
I did not know Rachael, but I feel like I know her through her friends I have met and her spirit, which surrounds everything we do as Elis for Rachael. Her partner, Zack Dugue, wrote the quote that is the title of this post. I was extremely fortunate and grateful in recent months to be added to the team of Elis for Rachael, and to help out with a Night of Celebration and Advocacy that took place on Friday, November 17, the night before the Yale-Harvard Game.
Elis for Rachael took on Yale, the mighty, seemingly impenatrable Yale, and won. After a lawsuit and a very important article in the Washington Post, Elis for Rachael won a settlement containing substantial improvements in how Yale will treat students who struggle with mental health issues. The devil is in the details of course, and students on the ground and alumni around the world will continue to make sure the settlement is enforced. But Rachael’s memory is alive and kicking, fighting back against the institution whose policies resulted in her death.
When I was first invited to participate in Elis for Rachael by my old friend Paul Mange Johansen, I felt the familiar feeling of a call from G-d. There are things in life that we do because they are right, and while we don’t necessarily expect there to be a payoff for ourselves, the gifts that can flow from being involved in the fight for what is right can be overwhelming.
I met a group of Yale students and alums and others who are passionate, dedicated, smart, strategic, and makers of truly amazing soup. From the first meeting I attended, I felt surrounded by love and community.
Some of you know how I have struggled with the death by suicide of a young friend, not much older than Rachael was, who died just a few days before Christmas last year of a combination of a suicide attempt and medical errors. I detail the experience I’ve had in this entry. For months, I had felt that few understood my grief. It was minimized not just by acquaintances but by health care professionals who said I was using grief as “a rationalization” for not just moving on.
When I met with the leadership of Elis for Rachael, they had nothing but understanding. I felt like I could cry again, without being ashamed. Suicide is a terrible tragedy, and you never get over it. For me, as with them, the only way is to fight for the living.
And fight we do.
On Novemeber 17, I fought with one of my weapons of choice: PIZZA!
Those of you who knew me as a union organizer may know that I have an incredible gift for securing pizzas for an event. For this event, I talked with every pizza place in New Haven to ask for donations. Sally’s, the best pizza in New Haven and the official pizza of Elis for Rachael, enthusiastically donated fifteen delicious pies and fifteen sodas! Their staff member Helen was so kind and delighted to support our cause. I hope that somewhere up in the heaven I still believe in, my friend Marilyn and Rachael enjoyed the sight of Yale students and alums eating wonderful pizza in memory and soliarity. If they have pizza in heaven, it is Sally’s!
The event itself was one where it was hard to hold back tears. Tears of sadness, yes, but more tears of joy as we came together, young and grown up, students and alumni and parents, to share our stories over delicious pizza and even some diet soda.
We convened a group discussion where attendees were invited to share their experience with mental health at Yale if they wished. The stories were terrible, the fact that they survived incredible, the solidarity was unbelievable. Different ages, races, professions, backgrounds, all united in pressuring Yale to be a university that helps every student fulfill their potential, not weed out those who do not or can not hide their struggles.
The New Blue singing group gave a performance. I was not a fan of singing groups when I was at Yale, but these young ladies won me over. They are the first women’s singing group at Yale, and founded in 1969, the first all-women’s organization ever at Yale. They sang beautifully.
As I watched these young, passionate women, proud to share their gifts in support of Elis for Rachael, I thought of the younger version of myself. A lot of passion, a sexy black dress, a lot of people who said I was too much, and a lot of fans.
I thought of how some of my female friends have mellowed with age. I have not. If anything, I have done the opposite. Life has made me sharper, more determined, more fearless. It has not been easy. My rough edges have become rougher. That makes me good in a fight.
The amazing women of Elis for Rachael are also up for a fight. Undefeated, even as they have family in Israel in bomb shelters, struggles in their own work lives, and challenges living in a world that is hostile to those with mental health challenges. I felt a sense of solidarity with women that I haven’t in a long long time.
The men of Elis for Rachael are pretty awesome too. Zack, Rachael’s partner, and I held down the fort for a long time at our table at the tailgates before the game. His wonderful dad drove me to get the pizzas at Sally’s and they even drove me back to my hotel when I was about to fall over from exhaustion.
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Zack gave an incredible speech about how we fought and won at the group discussion. His dad’s words also moved me tremendously, as a person who is of the age where I could have kids in college. He spoke of how the worst news a parent could get is that their child is no longer with us. He talked about hiking with Rachael, how she was like one of his own children. “No matter how strong they are, it can happen to them.”
Marilyn too seemed so strong. She is not with us anymore. I will never get over it. I will keep fighting.
Elis for Rachael was what I had been praying for. I have felt so alone since Marilyn died, and many attempts to find community have failed. I have the energy, amazing pizza procuring skills, and I was welcomed by a team of individuals who are the best of Yale, even though Yale was cruel to many of them.
I also had the best chicken soup I’ve ever eaten. Miriam, a long time activist and member of the Board, served chicken noodle and butternut squash soup at the tailgates. I was getting over a terrible cold, and this chicken noodle soup killed it. My Jewish friends are right: chicken soup does cure everything, especially when it is made with love.
Rachael never would have stopped fighting. She wanted to be a lawyer for the ACLU and challenge Yale and other universities on their punitive policies. She’s not here to do that, but we are.
Rachael, we will not let what you fought for die. This settlement is just the beginning. It is spreading to other campuses. We will write the handbook on how you win. Your friends will not forget you, and your memory will be a blessing and will save lives.