Ray Eelsing Thanks BCC for his “Second Act” in Life
The recipient of this year’s Presidents’ Award (honoring outstanding BCC members for leadership and service to BCC and beyond) was Ray Eelsing. Ray was introduced by Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Tracy Moore. In recognition of his Mormon background, they began with a brief musical interlude of “The Book of Raymond.” Ray served his Mormon mission in Japan, from which BCC has benefited as he reads from the megillah in Japanese each year at BCC’s Purim celebration!
Ray has been involved in countless aspects of the synagogue large and small over more than 10 years. Ray co-founded BCC’s Bereavement Group (now called the Life Transitions Group), served as a Board member and treasurer, and having become a certified specialist in planned giving, co-founded the L’Chayim Legacy Circle to assist BCC members in providing for their loved ones and for BCC. He was a founding member of the Telephone
Minyan, worked on BCC’s capital campaign, and oversaw much of the technological installation in BCC’s new building, making BCC Live possible and creating access for so many to participate in our services regardless of location or health. He co-chaired six silent auctions and has sung in the choir since 2007.
Here is a portion of Ray’s heartfelt acceptance speech.
I feel strange receiving this award when I should be the one thanking you for being my world for the past ten years. I’m so grateful for this extraordinary honor. Yet, I wouldn’t be here today had it not been for Ed LaFuente (of blessed memory), my life partner for 22 years, who introduced me to this amazing community….
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “there are no second acts in American lives.” But he was wrong. I’ve lived two distinctly different lifetimes in my 60 years —- one prior to BCC and one with BCC.
In my first 50 years, life meant work and accumulation. Travelling the world with the best-known corporations, I knew what the corporate ideal expected of me, and I was exceptionally good at it. No one knew I was gay. Whether presenting to a customer or to the board of directors, credibility was essential, and to me being gay would have compromised that credibility. Thus work defined my life, my values, my priorities, my purpose for being. Ed handled the things I had little time for —- friends, family, vacations. Life seemed good.Then 11 years ago everything began to unravel. I was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and put on heavy
medication. Within two months the treatment had depleted the bone in my spine, leaving me bedridden with seven crushed vertebrae, unable to move, totally dependent on Ed. Then the unthinkable happened. Ed went to the hospital for a simple examination and never came home. He passed away three weeks later from complications of HIV. I’d lost everything I valued in life —- my life partner, my career, my mobility, my purpose for being.
And then something remarkable happened —-friends, family, and Ed’s beloved BCC community began to appear. They came to visit, talk, cook meals, take care of me —- they provided a lifeline. So following back surgery, physical therapy, and a slow recovery, I began my second life. After learning to walk again, I started driving myself to weekly Torah study. I asked the Rabbi for people in the congregation who were bedridden —- people I could visit and perhaps give back something of what I‘d been given. At BCC I learned to live, breathe, and do for the first time, while being entirely myself. None of those grand corporations had provided what BCC afforded —- a safe place to be myself, to explore my possibilities, and to examine my spirituality.
I was impressed with the caliber of people in this small organization —— their devotion and care for others, their remarkable talents, their commitment to build a sanctuary where a thoughtful and supportive atmosphere was established right from the top, through our dear Rabbi Lisa Edwards. Though I thought I had little to give, I soon learned that a non-profit needs just about everything. Volunteering and taking on challenges made my life purposeful again. The more I gave, the more I received, the more indebted I became, and the happier I was. I came to understand what life is truly about.
I’ve received other awards, but none that I will treasure more than this one. I share it with many of you, myfamily who were faced with the fact that I was gay, and that I was joining a Jewish synagogue. You’ve been wonderful to me, and I feel your love. I share it with my mom and dad (of blessed memory) who taught me the value of hard work and helped set my moral compass. I share it with friends who saw me through the darkness after Ed died, and new ones since then. And I share it with my community of elderly bingo players who teach me grace and humor in old age. After Ed passed I never felt I deserved, let alone would find, another loving companion. Then five years ago through BCC and its sister congregation in Chicago I met someone who awakened in me that which I thought I’d lost when Ed died. I believe Ed would be happy to know that I have a new life partner, Mark Maroney, an extraordinary man, who is here beside me today.
On the day before Ed passed away —- after everything in his world was gone —- he looked around his hospital room at his friends and family and said, “I feel like the most fortunate man in the world.” Now, 11 years later, in my second lifetime, I understand the depth of his emotion at that moment. Now I feel like the most fortunate man in the world.