Books, thinking, family, Synagogue communities (first Beth El in New London, then Beth El in West Hartford, and later Temple Emanu-El of Palm Beach, Florida), and friends formed the center of Sybil’s life. In the seafaring town of New London, where she was a star student at Harbor School and Williams Memorial Institute young Sybil Elion encountered three men and two women who profoundly shaped her life. Jack Elion (1912-1946), her bright, dashing and stylish older brother, set the pace for her to think critically, read deeply (she devoured some 16,882 books) and see beyond the parochial confines surrounding her. Rabbi Meyer Kripke, a neighbor of her parents George O. Elion (1888-1963) and Fannie Medvene Elion (1890-1985), introduced her into to the intellectual roots of Conservative American Judaism and encouraged her to not simply perform rites as routine practice or social rituals but to search for truth and socially aware virtues in texts, writings, and literature. Rabbi Kripke together with her Hebrew school teacher, her oldest sister Esther Elion (1914-1999) imbued her with a love of Jewish lore and a quest to assert women’s right to equality within Jewish conventions. Sybil long campaigned to rid the prayer books used in North American Conservative Jewish congregations of their misogyny and to bring rites and rituals out of shtetl (Eastern Europe village) medieval mind-sets.
The third man was Nicky Sanders, her husband of forty-nine years. New London’s Ocean Beach lured Newton S. Sanders (1927-1995) from West Hartford and he met his future bride just after she turned thirteen. By a quirk of fate the Pentagon stationed Nicky at the New London Submarine base in Groton, CT . Sybil and Nicky dated all through the war.
Louise Elion Chesler (1920-2009), Sybil’s constant dearest companion, acted as the other woman of great influence on Sybil’s life. Louise encouraged her to gain independence by learning to drive a coal truck at an early age (a truck supplied by Spicer Ice & Coal, the family energy business). At Williams Memorial Institute, the high school established for “the promotion and advancement of Female Education”in New London from which all three of the ‘fabulous Elion sisters’ graduated, Sybil at the head of the 1945 class, the yearbook well characterized her: “Syb is an individualist–she likes to walk barefoot–and keeps up with current affairs. Her humorous quips and impish smiles are her trade mark.” When Jack Elion became a war casualty, Sybil’s plans for an Ivy League education at Cornell derailed and instead she attended the University of Connecticut where she performed undergraduate research in developmental psychology. College Sybil utilized Louise’s twin boys Ronnie (1944-1952)–who polio robbed of life– and Lawrence (1944-) as primary source materials for her pioneering investigations of how fraternal twins adapted, similarly and differently to the worlds around them. Sybil not only wrote about how the twins apprehended the world, she made Larry one of the shining, greatly beloved lodestars and later great friends of her life. Larry lived with Sybil during his years as a student at The Watkinson School in Hartford and subsequently when, in order to avoid being drafted to fight in an evil war in Vietnam he did graduate work towards a teaching certificate at the University of Hartford. Throughout her life Aunt Syb gloried in his triumphs, trusted in his piloting of family business matters, counseled him to “tie a knot in it and hold on” in perilous times and chuckled wryly at his foibles and adventures. Larry, in Sybil’s mind, was her virtual third child. When Larry’s mother, Louise also decided to obtain teaching credentials Sybil assumed responsibilities for Louise’s family while big sister returned to university. After college, Sybil set her sights on early childhood education at the Rawson School in Hartford. Sybil would often call Louise to discuss her classroom, her students, and the strange new Yiddish world she embraced when she moved to West Hartford late in 1948.
Sybil and Nickey married on a very snowy day in December 1948. Nickey and Sybil had two children, Jonathan of New York, Veteran CBS News Moscow Correspondent, currently Senior Anchor icstnews.com at the United Nations and a Professor of Communications and Media Studies at Fordham University and Ellen Sanders-Nirenstein, a registered nurse and geriatric care manager, of West Hartford. While raising two children Sybil threw herself into community activities, serving as editor of Beth El’s Temple Topics. She penned and edited two cookbooks to benefit her much loved Sisterhood of Beth El Temple—Look Ma I’m Cooking and Look Ma I’m Cooking, Again. Sybil served as Beth El Sisterhood President 1969-1971. She served three Board of Trustees. She initiated the handsome Judaica collection at Beth El. Through her skill at calligraphy, Sybil crafted the lettering for Beth El’s Torah (sacred scrolls) covers and with her sisters there, created the temple chuppah (a ceremonial marriage canopy) under which her daughter, Ellen, was the first to be married when she bound her life to that of Jeffrey A. Nirenstein. Sybil served the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism on state and national levels. She served as a mentor for national level leadership training, a Girl Scout leader, library developer and for many years as a critic of literature. Sybil joined and promoted ‘Another Mother for Peace’; she agitated for The March of Dimes until it helped find a cure for polio. For many years she volunteered her time working with Dr. Milton C. Fleisch counseling parents of babies born with craniofacial challenges. Together with her sister Louise, she acted as Matriarchal director of Elrin Beach, the family homestead in New London.
Sybil and Nickey became snow birds to Florida in the late 1960s. Resettling there, they joined Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach in 1988 where Sybil established the widely-praised book group for Women’s League members that has flourished under her knowledgeable leadership. She created and chaired the Judaica Acquisitions Committee, which recently received a national award and attention. Finding solace at the Temple after Nickey’s death, Sybil became the go-to person for anyone in need of sources for a wide spectrum of Jewish activities. In the spirit of “don’t mourn, organize”, she created three book clubs and reconnected with old friends from UCONN. Sybil acted as the number one fan of her grand- daughter Joy Nirenstein Radish, of San Francisco, an actress turned Yoga teacher; and doted on her grandson Ross Nirenstein of West Hartford, a paralegal and music entrepreneur, who indulged her love of word play in endless scrabble games.
Of the many sad storms that swept over Sybil’s life none challenged her reflexive sunny disposition more than the premature death of her beloved daughter-in-law, Mary Rosenfeld Sanders.
Funeral services will be held on Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 9:00 AM in the Sanctuary of Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford with Rabbi James Rosen, Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler, and Cantor Joseph Ness officiating. Interment will follow in Beth El Temple Cemetery, Avon. Shiva will be observed at her home. Arrangements entrusted to Weinstein Mortuary.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Jennie, Meyer and Nickey Sanders Endowment Fund, c/o Beth El Temple of West Hartford, or to Temple Emanu-El of Palm Beach, 190 N County Rd., Palm Beach, FL 33480, or to The Watkinson School, 180 Bloomfield Ave., Hartford, CT 06105. If you wish to honor Sybil’s memory in another way she requested that people ‘pay it forward’ with a deed of kindness towards another.
For further information, directions, or to sign the guest book for Sybil, please visit online at www.weinsteinmortuary.com/funerals.cfm