Remembering Esther Manischewitz

Remembering Esther Manischewitz

Esther Ostrovsky Manischewitz, originally of Jerusalem and then of Teaneck, died on November 15 at 92. The story of her life is in many ways the story of Jewish Teaneck.

Jerusalem-born Esther Ostrovsky was wrapping up her five-week vacation in the United States in 1950. Since arriving in this country, she had spent four weeks visiting her older brother, Akiva, in Birmingham, Ala., where he was a cantor, teacher, and highly respected Jewish community leader. Surprised and dismayed by the racial segregation in Birmingham and aware that this might be her only opportunity to visit America, Estherke, as her family called her, decided to visit another part of the country. She headed to New York, where she had other relatives.

Born into a pioneering Zionist family in 1922, Esther, then 25, was certain she would be returning to Israel. Her brother Akiva was the only family member who had left, and he had done so reluctantly. “Parnassah in hazzanut was not that much in Israel then” – It wasn’t so easy to earn money as a cantor – Esther said in an interview soon before she died.

Esther Manischewitz left a legacy in Teaneck. Courtesy YU

Her father, Mordechai, originally from Pinsk, and her mother, Rachel, from a small village near that city, both moved to Israel as children.

“My father’s father’s life’s wish was to live in the Old City,” Esther said. “But his wife, Chaya, said she ‘could not leave her poor in Pinsk.’ She fed hundreds of people, who would stand in line next to her kitchen door. She could not desert them. My grandfather did not want to leave without her.” When Mordechai was 13, however, his father decided that although he could not live in Eretz Yisrael, at least his two younger sons would study there. He stayed with the two boys for seven months and then returned to his wife and other children.

Her maternal grandfather, Dov Ber Baiver, a Lubavitch Chassid, also yearned to live in the Holy Land. The desire was so strong that he left his wife and five children, planning to bring them when he could afford it. During those difficult times in pre-state Israel, people could not be overly selective about work. Reb Dov Ber rolled up his sleeves and sweated with other pioneers, draining the area’s legendary swamps. Mosquitoes feasted on the new arrivals. Malaria resulting from these encounters was frequently fatal. When Dov Ber was stricken with the disease, a doctor told him that the only way to save his life was to get out of the swamps – either return to Europe or go to Jerusalem.

Leaving Israel was not an option for the determined Zionist, so, working with an Arab partner, Dov Ber acquired a flour mill in Jerusalem. The mill flourished, and within a year he was able to have his family join him, settling in the Old City.

Esther does not know how her parents met, but she remembered her mother recalling that every day she and her sisters would watch the two brothers walking to the yeshiva through a narrow alley, hand in hand.

The Ostrovsky family moved beyond the Old City’s protective walls when Esther was two, and with five other families founded the western Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe. In that garden suburb of single family homes surrounded by greenery, her family built the house in which Esther grew up. Named for Moshe Montefiore, the area was and is home to Merkaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva and has become a popular religious community.

Back to Esther, the Israeli tourist was enjoying her last week in New York when a chance encounter changed her travel plans. A cousin and his wife were sailing into New York and Esther went to meet them at the port. Someone else also was meeting this cousin.

“Jacob was a first cousin of mine,” she said. “He came to America several times a year. He sent me a telegram – ‘Please come to the pier.’ This was a week before I was supposed to leave.”

“Jacob was also a first cousin of my [not yet] mother-in-law, so she sent her son Bill to meet the boat. Bill got to them before me and when I came he was already standing next to Jacob. Turning to the man next to him, Jacob said, ‘Do you know who this is?

“No,” Bill Manischewitz replied. “But I’d sure like to!”

“This,” Jacob said, “is Estherke Ostrovsky.”

Bill and Esther had met years before, when his family had sent him to study in Israel. He was overwhelmed by her transformation from little girl to grown woman.

And so Esther Ostrovsky’s visit to America was extended.

As Esther Manischewitz, she and her husband, Bill, helped create the community of Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck.

Bill’s paternal grandfather, Rabbi Dov Ber Manischewitz of Lithuania, had to chose between conscription in the Czar’s army or a one-way ticket to America. He went west and arrived in Cincinnati, where lanzmen from his home town had settled. In the time-honored tradition of newcomers, the rabbi earned a living by peddling.

For Pesach, Rabbi Manischewitz baked his own matzot. Apparently his homemade bread of affliction was delicious, and the Jews in Cincinnati said “Stop peddling and make matzah.” The Manischewitz Company was founded in 1888 in Ohio. In 1932 the company built a production site in Jersey City, and the Manischewitz family relocated to New York.

After Bill and Esther married, they lived in Manhattan. But in 1953, after the birth of Leora, their first daughter – they had two other daughters, Ofra Parmett of Teaneck and Sharon – Bill’s mother suggested that they move out of the city.

A place in New Jersey with the odd name of Teaneck had a large Conservative synagogue with an Orthodox rabbi, and reportedly a breakaway Orthodox minyan had been started. But when they moved there, the family found that there was no such minyan. After eight years of occasionally going to New York for Shabbat, and davening at home with family and neighbors for Shabbat and the High Holy Days, the Manischewitzes considered another move. They intended to buy a house in Paterson, then home to both the Yavneh Academy and an Orthodox shul.

And then the dream of founding an Orthodox shul in Teaneck began to become a reality.

A Yeshiva University-sponsored adult study program with classes at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and at the Yavneh Academy galvanized the five Teaneck families who ultimately created Bnai Yeshurun – the Grundmans, the Landaus, the Bravermans, the Kopitnikoffs – and the Manischewitzes.

The families asked YU for advice, and Victor Geller of the Community Service Department arrived with the formula for creating an Orthodox shul. The first required component was a place. Lillian Kopitnikoff volunteered her basement. Then add a sefer Torah. Bill Manischewitz volunteered to supply one. Then a minyan appeared, a rabbi was hired, and Bnai Yeshurun, which was known as Congregation Lil’s Basement, began to grow and has kept on growing.

On her 80th birthday, several years ago, her daughter Ofra described her mother as a “role model … for self renewal, inner strength and the ability to adapt and continue to grow.” Esther was modest, dignified, energetic, and charming, but beneath her gentle exterior was a Haganah fighter; at 15 she delivered secret messages under the eyes of the British, and she learned how to fire and hide weapons.

During Israel’s War of Independence, Esther did not fight, but her role was challenging nonetheless. “They gave me a job teaching in a school with only men,” she said. “Most of the male teachers were in the army. I was the only woman with a thousand men – students and teachers.”

It is not possible to list all Esther’s achievements and merits, but two cannot be ignored. She created the local Mizrachi Women group, the Sinai Chapter, and was its first president. (Mizrachi Women now is known as Amit Women.) Esther also gets credit for naming Bnai Yeshurun. “The main shul in Jerusalem in my time was Yeshurun,” she said. That elegant Yeshurun Central Synagogue, founded in 1923, became a beacon of religious Zionism.

Although she did not live in her beloved birthplace, Esther Manischewitz had a key role in creating a vibrant and impressive Orthodox community strongly united with Israel.

A longer version of this story appear in Yediot Yeshurun, the bulletin of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun.

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