Ellen Goldsmith: She Showed Us How to Live with One Another and with Our God

Ellen Beth Scherer was born in Bethpage, New York, on February 17, 1958, to Norton and Carol Scherer. She was intense from the beginning, and some aspects of her early life led to various kinds of acting out, to anorexia, to being very hard and acerbic with her peers, and to her personal verdict on it all, “Nothing was ever enough.” Upset and unreconciled to the fact that some indefinable something was missing from life, she longed for meaning, joy, fullness, and connection. She found it, but from a most unexpected direction.

Soon after earning a master’s degree in Human Nutrition and Food Science from Cornell in 1981, she met some guy in a bar, a handsome and charming professional athlete, a boxer named Michael Quarry. He led her to faith in Yeshua, and they married in 1983 and then moved to California.

That Ellen had gone and married a gentile of the gentiles and come to believe in Jesus through his winsome testimony should cause no one to think that Ellen’s Jewish fire had gone cold. On the contrary, she sought to find a way to tend the fire and feed it, which is why she and Mike began attending an independent Messianic Jewish Congregation in Orange County, Temple Aviv Judea. Meanwhile, due to the rigors of a lifetime in boxing, Mike manifested the first effects of his frontal lobe brain damage. Soon after their marriage it became undeniable that Michael had great deficits in short-term memory, making him unemployable. And so began what Ronald Reagan would later call “the long goodbye.”

Meanwhile, Ellen, brilliant, strong, and energetic, filled the gap. Even as an intern, before she received her Marriage and Family Therapy Certification in 1991, she was recognized for her gifts as a therapist. In that capacity she developed a daunting caseload of clients and, whether by phone or face to face, engaged with them from as early as five in the morning to eleven at night. Amidst the demands of her practice in the city of La Mirada, Ellen received a Doctorate in Christian Education from Biola University and then taught Hermeneutics 101.

Ellen took teaching this course as an opportunity to give these Christian students a Jews’ eye view of the Bible and of the faith once for all delivered to the mishp`ocha. She wanted them not only to love the Bible, but to love the Jews. Ellen also championed the Jews to the Orange County church crowd where she was a much sought-after Bible teacher. Anyone who ever received texts or emails from her could attest that she could not be bothered with mundane matters like correct spelling and punctuation. Her mind was too fast and her fingers too slow to bother with such details. But as an oral communicator, Ellen had few equals.

Shortly after I became Rabbi at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue in Beverly Hills, California, in December, 1991, Ellen and Mike migrated there. We fast became best buddies. She was such a caring person, so perceptive, and so brilliant. You couldn’t hide from her how you were feeling, and soon learned that you really didn’t need to. She was stronger than strong, the kind of person from whom others wanted to leach strength. We all wanted to tap into what made Ellen to be Ellen, to get some of whatever it was that she had.

Ellen became my ideological shadow and mirror. She would reflect back to me what I had said. She would ask her penetrating questions and tell me always how much it meant to her that I zealously advocated a synergistic relationship between Yeshua-faith and Jewish covenantal life, because that was what most mattered to her as well. Our individual passions in this area fed the flame, each to the other. Like a havdalah candle, we were multiple wicks with one flame.

From the start, when it came to standing for this synergy between Jewish covenantal living and Yeshua-faith, Ellen put her money where her mouth was, both literally and figuratively. She was a faithful member of our congregation, and a consistent and generous donor. She even became president of the congregation, helping me and challenging me to pursue priorities and protect boundaries. She was a keeper of the flame. Indeed, she was something of a flame herself, burning brightly, illuminating the path for others. She also served as a board member of Hashivenu, a division of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. In all of these involvements, she was a generous donor, an avid learner, and a conscience about the things that mattered so much to all of us. Any defection from stated principles, or any failure to align actions with those principles, was sure to meet her quick and insistent objection.

Her flame was fed by her love of being part of the Jewish people and by her passion for the Bible. Ellen was the most biblically passionate woman I had ever met. Generally she was up at about 4:00 in the morning studying the Bible and reading related materials for one or two hours before beginning her 12–16 hour work day. This wake-up and study routine was not once in a while with her: it was every day. Her Bible was tattered, full of scribblings and post-it notes. And she took it all in, not just biblical data, but biblical values and a deep relationship with the biblical God found a home in Ellen, taking root, bearing fruit, and establishing strength. She read any books I recommended, and always wanted more. She especially loved Mark S. Kinzer’s Postmissionary Messianic Judaism and R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology. She sought by all means possible to share all that was precious to her, not only with friends, associates, students, and clients, but also with family, and many who knew her also became intimate with the thinking of Kinzer and Soulen.

Ellen and Michael always seemed to be leaving town, off to see a Florida Gators game, or to pursue some other activity where she would spend time with her family. Ellen loved to have fun, and everything was more fun when Ellen was around. Inevitably, Michael’s health grew worse and, despite his comparatively young age, he spiraled down into severe dementia. She paid caregivers to watch over him during the day while she put in her long days as a counselor. Eventually his deterioration made home care no longer possible, and Ellen, ever the coper, had to be confronted by a health care professional to realize that Mike needed to be institutionalized, something she at first angrily resisted. But Ellen, who loved the truth more than getting her way, soon agreed, and Mike was transferred to a beautiful facility for Alzheimer’s patients where the patients were generally decades older than he. She visited him three times every day without fail, while still working all those hours. The deterioration of his brain led to the progressive shutting down of his organs, and Mike spiraled toward death, passing away June 11, 2006, looking more like a decayed mummy than a 55–year old world-class athlete. And Ellen was with him literally to the very last breath.

In her grief, for a time she moved to Florida to sort things out and find a new life, before returning to grateful friends in California. Ellen used to whimsically refer to herself as “God’s girlfriend” and in view of her long and arduous battle with Mike’s incapacities, she demanded of God that he owed her something. She wanted a Jewish husband, and God sent her the guy I call Hallmark, because God cared enough to send the very best. They married in January 2010, and Steve Goldsmith was her trophy husband. The two traveled together more than Marco Polo, Columbus, and the ever-popular Vasco de Gamma, combined.

Ellen loved God, the Bible, cats, shoes, planning adventures, counseling, eating, shopping, visiting her family, her clients, and other people of all kinds . . . but never cooking. When I say she did not cook, I mean it in the most absolute sense. Her oven and stove top never needed to be cleaned because they were never used. But one thing she did use was her cell phone. She called her family and close friends every day, and sometimes several times a day. Steve told me that her philosophy of relationship was pennies, nickels and dimes—that each day one should make small deposits in those relationships that mattered. It all adds up. And in Ellen’s case, it surely did.

Dr. Vered Hillel, the Provost of MJTI, spent time with Ellen in her last days. She shared with me how, toward the end, the hospital staff, used to seeing people in the final stages of life, were astounded at Ellen’s concern for others, and to see how multitudes of friends and family members flocked to her bedside rather than avoiding the specter of death. They saw how Ellen died, like what she was, a matriarch in Israel. She called for certain people to come to her bedside to bless them before she left them. Her nephew reported how she called him to her, and tried to bless him, but he could not understand her because of the oxygen mask. She took the mask away from her mouth and said, “Go be great.”

Ellen told me that knowledge of one’s mortality should result in greater intentionality in how we live. Ellen knew what her life was about and she wanted all whom she left behind to ask themselves deeply, “What is my life about? What should it really be about?”

When it came to her relationship with the Jewish people, Judaism, and Jewish life, I can think of seven defining characteristics of the Ellen we were privileged to know and love. These are lessons we stand to learn from her even now.

First, full investment despite partial knowledge. Ellen manifested full investment in her identity as a Jew, a member of a people with covenant responsibilities, despite being conscious of the limitations of her knowledge. Whenever I explained some aspect of Jewish life and identity to her in a way that touched her, she would look poignantly at me and say, “Stuart, help me be a better Jew.” Her knowledge was partial, but her investment of life and resources, total.

Second, show me why and I’m all in. When it came to Jewish life and practice, she needed to know why, and when that need was satisfied, she was all in. She was not a person to passively follow some Pied Piper. She needed to understand. But once she did, that settled it.

Third, Ahavat Yisrael (love for the Jewish people), a concern that all Jews might enter into and enjoy the benefits of Jewish life and identity. She was never a person to be only concerned for herself. Never. Her heart was far too big for that. She wanted all Jews to live within Jewish life, and to know the benefits of Yeshua-faith that so transformed her. She cared about the Jewish people she knew, those in her family, those in the churches, those unconnected, and the State of Israel. It disturbed her when Jews failed to connect with the things she treasured, and she did all she could to remedy the situation.

Fourth, Ellen was unashamed to speak her mind about Jewish life, the Jewish people, and Yeshua-faith regardless of the context. It seemed Ellen knew no fear. She could start a conversation with anyone, and from the get-go she was fully herself. I can never remember a hint of pretense about her. She had a glorious smile, and could always be seen on the move, either toward some responsibility or appointment, or toward some person to whom she was about to show some Dr Ellen love. Whether you were her client or the person who bagged her groceries at the supermarket, that was what you got. And in the midst of it all, she would be sure to move that person forward in embracing the things that mattered most to her. She was fearless and faithful.

Fifth, Ellen wrestled with God until she stood in authenticity amidst the stresses of her life. In every situation she needed to know the truth, both about the situation and herself. This was apparent in how she related to her therapist who tended to her after her cancer diagnosis. From the first day, the first moment, she informed him that she wanted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. She could handle it because she believed that God stands with us when we stand in the truth. She was able to face anything when she had first toughed it out with God. His character and strength were very real to her and were the strength of her life. Although this characteristic was not specifically about her relationship to Judaism, it was definitely about her relationship with the God of Israel. She too wrestled with God, and whatever her struggles, would not let him go until he blessed her.

Sixth, Ellen knew that everything precious comes with a price tag and she was willing to pay it. Ellen fought for what she believed in about Yeshua-faith, about Jewish life, about integrity in the Messianic Jewish institutions where she belonged and served. She was ever vigilant, and ready to face whatever disapproval or resistance she might face for raising her prophetic voice. She was all in, and accepted that inconvenience and the risk of damaged popularity came with the territory.

Seventh, Ellen’s identity as a Jew and as a member of the Messianic Jewish world meant standing with a people and not just with a position. Hers was not a merely personal faith, it was a faith grounded in her identity as part of am Yisrael, the people of Israel, that is, the Jewish people. Hers was a faith on the ground and not a faith in the air, a faith in the life and not just a faith in the heart, a faith with others and not by herself.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases the beginning of chapter twelve of the Letter to the Hebrews in this way:

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

Ellen certainly had that adrenaline. She passed from this life to the next on 5 Tevet 5777, January 3, 2017. And now she has finished her race and is basking in a new adventure at God’s finish line. She invites us to follow—looking to Yeshua who, like Ellen, never lost sight of where he was headed.

Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach. Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach.—The Lord gave and the Lord took away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.