Rachel Mara Simon was born February 23, 1971. She grew up in Newton, Massachusetts and spent her summers in East Falmouth at the Simon family Cape house. Rachel’s love of the arts was prominent in her childhood studying recorder, piano, singing, ballet and gymnastics. She carried these talents throughout young adulthood performing in school musicals, singing in many choirs and dancing at many local village fairs in Newton. Her summers at the Cape offered the opportunity to explore new talents like tennis and sailing, which ignited her love of the water. She loved going to the beach everyday or being out on the ocean sailing with friends and family.
Judaism was very strong in the Simon household and when Rachel was 10 she went off to her first summer at Ramah in Palmer, Mass. There she developed lifelong friendships with special people from all over the country. In 1987 she took an unforgettable trip with USY on Wheels spending the summer traveling the United States in a bus with 40 other Jewish teenagers. In the summer of 1988 she went abroad for the first time with Ramah Seminar to Israel, spending the summer with old friends while making new ones.
Back in Newton, Rachel attended Newton South High School where her arts and leadership flourished. She was captain of the gymnastics team, a member of the cheerleading squad and even went overseas to London with her high school chorus during her senior year. College took her to UMass Amherst where she began to seriously study both voice and piano. She was chosen as a head dancer of the award winning UMass Marching Band’s color guard and performed all over the Northeast at football games during halftime.
Rachel spent her junior year at the Rothberg School of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. where she reunited with many of her USY and Ramah friends from childhood. Because of great influence of being in Israel and her studies at the Rothberg School, Rachel changed her major at UMass to Judaic Studies. In 1993 she received a BA in Judaic Studies with honors, with a minor in Music. During her senior year, she was very active in UMass Hillel, where she organized events and created an innovative program about Israel for UMass students.
After Rachel graduated she moved back to Boston and began waitressing for the summer while she wanted to decide what she wanted to do next. After a few weeks of feeling very tired, she went to her family doctor who diagnosed her with acute myelogenous leukemia. This news stunned all who knew her as such a young, vibrant woman.
“I think all of us remember the moment when we heard that Rachel Simon had been diagnosed with leukemia. We had just finished college—heading off into the world. It seemed unfathomable that someone our age, one of our peers, was sick with cancer. It seemed crazy to think that Rachel, who was so full of life in so many ways, was sick.”Rachel’s parents Murray and Toby and sister Rebecca rallied around her bedside all summer at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston where she underwent aggressive chemotherapy treatments. Her room was a constant hubbub of activity with visits from friends and family. At one point in the summer, the head mail clerk came to Rachel’s room saying he just wanted to meet the person who got so much mail at the hospital!
- (A Friend)
After 6 months Rachel was officially declared in remission and the family celebrated with a trip to Los Angeles over New Year’s. Unfortunately, this good news was short lived as her disease relapsed in January 1994. The last option left was a bone marrow transplant. After 4 months of grueling searches a donor miraculously appeared—a perfect match. In May of 1994 the Simon family went to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for preparations for Rachel’s transplant. She spent 2 months in the hospital and the next 9 months in isolation at the Simon family home while she recovered, limiting her exposure to germs that could be fatal to her then fragile immune system. She celebrated the end her isolation in April 1995 and within a few months, Rachel was living in her own apartment in Somerville with her boyfriend, who offered unending love and support.
In January 1996, Rachel and her family flew to Chicago to appear on the Oprah Show, where she was chosen by the show’s producers to meet her bone marrow donor for the first time on the air. On the show the Simon family got to meet, hug and thank Gary, the generous and courageous man from Los Angeles who selflessly donated his own bone marrow to a total stranger. The family is still in touch with Gary and his family today. He is married with a twin boy and girl whose middle name is Rachel.
After Rachel lost her hair during chemotherapy she went to New York to visit a dear friend who took striking pictures of her beautiful face and her bald head. She always hoped to do something with these pictures to help ease the fear and pain that women feel upon hearing they will lose their hair. After her initial hair loss, Rachel found there wasn’t that much to be scared of and she wanted to pass on this courage and confidence. While in isolation she came up with the design for motivational posters using these pictures to serve as a reminder of courage and beauty for women undergoing treatment of cancer. Rachel designed 3 moving artistic posters that were eventually sponsored by the American Cancer Society and hung in cancer clinics in hospitals throughout the country. This was a major artistic turning point for Rachel as she realized she would love to have a career in graphic design. She took classes, worked at an internship in an advertising company and in no time she was designing everything from album covers to business cards and book covers.
Tragically, Rachel’s cancer relapsed in January of 1997 and her only option for survival was to have a second bone marrow transplant. The family called once again on Gary and he instantly came to her aid. So many people reached out to Rachel during this time, including phone calls from Oprah Winfrey and Elie Wiesel to raise her courage and spirits. Her last remission lasted only 18 months. Rachel passed away from leukemia on July 29, 1999 at the age of 28 after a courageous six-year battle. Her cherished friendships gave her the added strength and bravery she needed to face her illness; and she did so with dignity and compassion.
“Rachel was always a loyal friend to many of us….she amused us with her song, her dance, and her creativity, which flourished with her illness. Rachel supported those of us who married and had children, while she went in and out of remission, her illness denying her of the same “rites of passage”. Her support and happiness for others was genuine.” - (A Friend)Rachel left behind her family and many many dear friends. The brightness of her soul created bonds that have lasted well beyond her lifetime. Her transplant nurse from Boston, her doctor, her high school music teacher and her childhood ballet teacher are still in touch with the Simon family today. The family still feels the love and support of Rachel’s dear friends who even today, continue to be part of the family. In Rachel’s all too brief time with us, she loved, learned and touched so many who still carry her in their hearts every day. As Rachel’s epitaph so eloquently states, “Your life was your greatest work of art.”