“Put your own oxygen mask on first-people depend on you. If you are feeling down, get outside and reach out to someone in need, and don’t forget to smile.” – Ellen
For the past three years, Ellen Kamaras has brought us insightful articles, profiling women in our community. I had the honor of being interviewed by her last month and in the process, I learned of her fascinating story. This month the tables are turned, and I present to you the woman behind the byline.
Ellen is not only a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother. She is also a CPA, patient advocate, divorce financial analyst, entitlements specialist, writer, life coach, and did I mention successful matchmaker?
A Little History
Let me take you on Ellen’s journey. Her life is a case study in recognizing opportunity when it presents itself and constantly reinventing herself by building on her past strengths and experiences. Ellen was born in Brooklyn to holocaust survivors Malcia and Israel Geller. Ellen says being the child of survivors shaped who she is. Her parents were her role models who taught her to appreciate what she had and to recognize the performance of good deeds.
“Gratitude and kindness were the values they modeled and spoke about, even though they suffered greatly. They weren’t bitter; they had hope and were resilient.” Her father taught her about the importance of balance in life, speaking of Rambam and the shviel hazav, the golden path. Ellen cites balance as one of her guiding principles. From her mother she learned sensitivity and kindness. A shy but over-achieving student, Ellen attended Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, where she made her SY connections, which she maintains to this day. Her dream was to become a nurse or a social worker, but when she graduated Brooklyn College summa cum laude with a double major in Accounting and Psychology, she took a job offer with a Big 8 accounting firm that provided a lucrative salary and job security. Ellen passed the CPA exam in one year and received an MBA in Taxation from Baruch College.
It was her older brother Martin who encouraged her to try the first accounting class, and it set the course of her life for the next 34 years. Ellen began at Ernst and Young and after four years moved to Manufacturers Hanover Trust (now Chase). While at Chase, she met and married the love of her life, Phil, after he graduated law school. Phil has been a matrimonial attorney since the early 90s. They met indirectly as a result of a match she made for her close friend from Flatbush Yeshiva.
Teamwork Leads to Success
From 1981 until 2011, Ellen was a finance professional at Chase, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and at a consulting firm. She was a working mom while she and Phil raised their two children, Jacob and Sarah. Her biggest challenge was work-life balance. This led to Ellen’s push for part-time work three days a week for one year after Jacob was born and for job sharing after giving birth to Sarah, which at that time was revolutionary. Ellen convinced her boss at Chase that “60 percent of me was better than 100 percent of someone new.” When she job-shared, Ellen recalls that she and her job mate, Katy, would leave handwritten notes for each other, passing the baton regarding the special projects they were jointly working on. These arrangements enabled Ellen to have the flexibility she needed while her children were young. Phil was involved too; the house rule was that whoever gets home first starts dinner. Ellen’s parents helped with babysitting, and once the kids were older they pitched in, too.
Ellen and Phil’s hard work paid off as their children are both accomplished and successful in their fields: Jacob was a journalist and in 2011 he successfully launched JNS.org, a Jewish news wire service. He is now a public relations specialist and lives in California with his wife Megan Marcus, founder of FuelEd, and their son Elliott. Sarah is a film producer at Vox Media and also produced and directed documentaries, including a series about her maternal grandparents’ town in the Ukraine. The series is called The Podkamieners. It follows a group of Holocaust survivors who were forced to flee their small town of Podkamien and hide in the woods during WWII.
Ellen Takes a Leap
When Sarah graduated from college, Ellen decided to follow her passion and left the corporate world. She earned a divorce financial analyst certification and prepared financial affidavits for her husband’s clients. Ellen also trained and was accepted as a matchmaker on Sawyouatsinai.com, making two matches on the site, including one for her son (Ellen previously arranged two successful matches before joining this service).
Her most rewarding life change was being a volunteer family liaison and patient ambassador at NYP Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. She visits patients, troubleshoots for them, helps families navigate the system, and trains new volunteers.
“It grounds me and helps me appreciate what Hashem has given me, including my health.”
Ellen’s dream of social work was rekindled, and she was accepted into the Wurzweiler Graduate School. She was sidelined again, this time with a medical issue, and never attended. Instead, Ellen tried a coaching class at NYU. She immediately fell in love with the concept of helping people make positive changes in their lives. She enrolled in the program and is credentialed by the International Coaching Federation as an Associate Certified Coach. Ellen also trained to become a relationship coach for singles, thus, opening the newest chapter in her life. Her coaching brand is “passion, purpose, and positivity,” which also describes Ellen herself. She adds that she is a spiritual optimist and a glass half-full person.
Ellen’s foray into coaching led her to writing for Community Magazine. Her business coach encouraged her to write for a local magazine as a way to build her brand. Living in a Syrian neighborhood, she received Community. She contacted the editor, and the rest is history. Ellen also works part-time as an entitlements specialist for Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. She advocates for her clients to ensure they receive their governmental benefits.
Ellen’s position at Ohel enables her to use both her coaching and finance skills and to thrive in a structured and collaborative environment. Her childhood friend Bonnie recommended her to Ohel, and it was a perfect match for her and for the organization. Although Ellen is now very outgoing, she admits that she used to be a “shy nerd” who blossomed by going out of her comfort zone in each new phase of her life.
The Biggest Move
A major event in Ellen’s life was the recent downsizing from her home of 31 years to start again in Brooklyn Heights. Had she not trained as a life coach, Ellen would not have had the courage to sell the family house and move. She yearned for a neighborhood with a small town feel and a close-knit connection among its residents. Ellen is grateful that her husband trusted her and joined her on this adventure.
“A vibrant shul and a warm and welcoming community were the deal breakers in making this enormous decision. Shabbat is the centerpiece of my week.”
Now fully entrenched in neighborhood and shul life, Ellen leads workshops and programs such as Finding Your Spark and The Shabbos Project, and she participates in summer learn-a-thons. Ellen even arranged for an organizational expert to teach the women in her new community how to declutter while they prepare for Pesach. It should not surprise you that she is currently Sisterhood President and was honored last year as Woman of the Year.
Challenges and Strengths
What are some of her challenges? Ellen says she has a problem saying “no.” When she becomes overwhelmed with commitments, she “presses the reset button” and takes a step back. She also talks about practicing empathy, “It’s a challenge for most people to just listen and validate feelings.” Ellen remembers the mnemonic her professor suggested: WAIT- why am I talking?
What are her strengths? “I am definitely a Type A personality, and my best friend is a To Do list. I have a short learning curve for computers and technology.”
One secret to her success is being the “queen of follow up,” with a great memory and a penchant for paying attention to details. Ellen is a team player and is open to others’ viewpoints. I would add that she is perseverant, tenacious, resilient, warmhearted, and constantly learning and adding to her skills. She loves connecting with people including the women she interviews for Community.
Ellen unwinds by reading, doing Zumba, taking a walk in the fresh air alone or with friends, and enjoying a hot cappuccino or green juice. She is inspired by the Brooklyn Promenade, just a block away from her new home, and enjoys the view of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. Her highpoints are her bi-monthly visits to her beloved grandson in California and his parents, of course, and spending time with her daughter who lives across the Bridge.
Her career advice? Go into a profession that you are on fire about. Recognize that all jobs have their tedious components but being passionate about what you do is key.
Her tips to her contemporaries: you are never too old to grow or to make changes in your work and relationships. If you need help, ask for it. Tell your friends and family what you need from them. They can’t read your mind.
Ellen’s parting words: THINK before you speak- Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
Lois Sutton is a practicing attorney with an office in NJ. She specializes in real estate, estate planning, will and trust, probate, estate administration, and business matters. She can be reached at Lsutton@loissuttonlaw.com (732-245-4500).