Alumna Blends Health and Music
Abbe Lyons ’87 switches hats — literally — multiple times a day. As the executive director of the Ithaca Health Alliance, she may be overseeing the volunteer staff at a free walk-in clinic before she rushes to Congregation Tikkun v’Or, where as a cantor she pulls a brightly colored yarmulke from her pocket to wear while giving a student his bar mitzvah lesson. Then off comes the yarmulke as she heads back downtown for a Health Alliance board meeting.
Her whirlwind schedule has allowed Lyons to blend the two passions that have shaped her career for the past two decades: music and health care. While her dual interests may not have an obvious connection, Lyons says they share the same goal: helping people. In fact, her interest in music is what led her to learn about the Feldenkrais method, which uses movement to help people who have physical limitations or who want to improve their performance in music or sports.
“When I’m working with clients to use movement to increase their options, I’m hoping that their lives will be improved,” she says. “And when I’m leading services or doing a life cycle event, I’m hoping that those activities will also improve the lives of those who are there and hopefully inspire them to help others.”
Growing up on Long Island, Lyons wanted to be a singer-songwriter and began experimenting with folk, jazz, and blues in high school. At Ithaca College, she majored in voice performance and trained in the classical repertoire as a soprano. But her musical life took a detour when she injured her ribs while practicing karate in an off-campus class.
On the advice of a teacher, Lyons went to see Carol McAmis, an IC voice professor who had become a practitioner of the Feldenkrais method. After working with McAmis, Lyons decided that she wanted to learn the method herself and moved to California to study with McAmis’s instructor.
While in California, Lyons worked as a financial manager at a nonprofit agency and became involved in the Havurah movement (Hebrew for “friends”), which consists of groups that meet together for volunteer-led prayer services. When she returned to Ithaca, Lyons began working with Tikkun v’Or/Ithaca Reform Temple and embarked on a quest to become ordained as a cantor through the Philadelphia-based Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
“It took me eight years part time,” Lyons says. “It was a way of combining my love of music and my love of Judaism.”
After resettling in Ithaca, Lyons became a member of the Ithaca Health Alliance, which started out providing small grants to help people access health care. When the alliance launched a search for a new executive director more than a decade later, Lyons was hired for the parttime position.
“She had the organizational skills that we were looking for, but she also clearly demonstrated an interest and an agreement with our cause,” says Scott McCasland-Bodenstein, president of the Health Alliance Board.
Situated in downtown Ithaca, the alliance offers health care services for anyone without health insurance through its largest program, the Ithaca Free Clinic. The clinic is staffed by volunteer medical and holistic providers and serves more than 1,300 patients annually.
“I really believe in the work that we do,” Lyons says. “It gives me tremendous satisfaction to be able to do things that make a difference in people’s lives.”