Of course she touched her family, her co-volunteers in the community, and the 20 or so women who would each claim her as a best friend. But when over 1,000 people poured themselves into a standing room only memorial service at Temple Sinai last Friday, the breadth of her reach became plainly apparent: Kander touched just about everyone she met.
Kander died Tuesday, June 5, after a year-long battle with cholangia carcinoma, a rare cancer. She was 51.
Kander was born on March 28, 1961. After graduating from Allderdice, she went on to George Washington University, where she studied urban affairs and planning. She met her husband, Gregg, while in law school at Boston University, and moved with him to New York City in 1987 to work as special counsel to the derivative securities division at the American Stock Exchange.
Wanting to raise her children close to her extended family, Kander moved back to Squirrel Hill in 1993, and became immersed in the community.
She served on the board of directors for the Jewish Community Center, the Israeli Film Festival and the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. She also worked with the Hebrew Free Loan Association, helping give interest-free loans to individuals and families in need.
Kander co-founded and directed the Steeltown Entertainment Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to bring Pittsburgh-born entertainment visionaries back to the city. More recently, she co-founded Cancer Be Glammed, a website that provides advice and easy access to stylish products to women who are undergoing surgery and treatment.
But even with taking on all these community responsibilities, Kander was still able to give her family the love and attention they deserved, while making almost everyone else she encountered feel important.
“What’s amazing is that she was also an unbelievable wife and parent, even with spreading herself so thin with Cancer Be Glammed and Steeltown,” said Gregg Kander. “If life is about accomplishments and making an impact, boy, she did it.”
Kander taught her three children, Ben, Jacob and Kate, the value of community involvement, as well as the significance of family, Gregg Kander said.
“She set too high of a bar for my son, who wants to marry someone like her,” he said. “It will be hard to find. Ben has seen a perfect marriage.”
Ben Kander, 22, said his mother taught him to respect everyone, and to accept people who are different.
“If I said a kid was weird, she would say, ‘Why is he weird?’ She was big on getting to know people who are different. She viewed them as interesting and unique, not weird. And it didn’t matter how much money you had, or your skin color. She just lifted people up. She just had a way about her.”
Ellen Kander was also known for her quick wit, said her brother, Lou Weiss.
“She was fun and funny,” Weiss said. “And she took people as they came. She treated them with respect, but in a lighthearted way. She was welcoming in a fun way.”
Following her two-hour funeral service, Gregg Kander said that those in attendance told him they left feeling inspired to be better people, and that many said they wished they could have gotten to know her better.
“Somebody wrote that she was a star in the galaxy,” said her mother, Andy Weiss. “She was just a light.”
Photographs of Kander show a woman whose smile radiated warmth and love. She and Gregg Kander celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year.
“We have just had the best life,” he said.
In addition to her husband and children, Kander is survived by her parents, Andy and Jack Weiss; her sister, Stacy (Will Carpenter); her brother, Lou (Amy) Weiss; and an extended family and countless friends. Entombment was in Homewood Cemetery on Friday, June 8. Donations can be made to the Ellen Weiss Kander Award Fund, Pittsburgh Foundation, 5 PPG Place, Suite 250, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222-5414, (pittsburghfoundation.org), to benefit aspiring filmmakers.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)