The Beautiful Life of Mrs. Esther Tendler, a”h

ner israel

by the Tendler Children

With the passing of Mrs. Esther Tendler, a”h, our family has lost our mother, mentor, and anchor. Our community has lost a role model, whose greatness was exceeded only by her humility and modesty. And all of klal Yisrael has lost a member who loved, respected, and saw potential in every Jew.

We cannot do justice to the nifteres, but we can attempt to glean lessons from a person who was such an inspiration to others, even as she herself remained in learning and growing “mode” all her life – and perhaps precisely because of this.

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Our mother was raised by her parents, Rabbi and Mrs. M. M. Perr, in South Ozone Park, New York, where Rabbi Perr led a kehila (community) with piety and mesirus nefesh (devotion), fighting a lonely battle against chilul Shabbos and ignorance, supported and assisted by his Rebbitzen. Many today owe their shemiras hamitzvos to this couple and their efforts. Esther and her two brothers observed the selflessness of their parents. One of our brothers recalls that his grandparents did not attend his Shabbos bar mitzva because if the Rabbi would leave for Shabbos, there was a chance that some congregants would not attend shul, and chilul Shabbos would result. Similarly, Rabbi Perr encouraged bar mitzva celebrations to be held on weekdays to minimize chilul Shabbos.

Our mother grew up without the constant socialization that today’s youth enjoy. She attended public school for her elementary years and traveled to Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg for high school, where a lifelong appreciation of Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan, its founder, was nurtured.

Our mother enjoyed quoting a vort she once heard about the fact that, in every shul and yeshiva across the spectrum of Yiddishkeit, when Simchas Torah comes, the mechitza is “loosened,” and the women are able to enjoy a clear view of the men rejoicing with the Torah scrolls. It’s because the simchas haTorah is equally and innately theirs as well. This idea resonated with her conviction that the true and most important job of a woman is to bring the simcha of mitzvos and Yiddishkeit into her home. All of her achievements as an educator and as a nurse – and there were many – never swayed her an iota from her priority: the privilege of being a Jewish woman.

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Our parents married in 1958 and settled in Lakewood, New Jersey, where our father learned with great hasmada (diligence) from his lifelong Rosh Hayeshiva, Reb Aharon Kotler. The mesiras nefesh and poverty of Reb Aharon’s early talmidim and their families are something that most of us cannot relate to today. Their shared vision of a life of simplicity and true happiness persevered. As they would later tell their children, “If Yiddishkeit makes you feel stressed out, you’re doing it wrong!”

Several years later, our parents moved with their young children to Baltimore, where our father was hired as a rebbe in Ner Israel. A few years later, he became the menahel of the high school. With our mother’s support, he educated thousands of students, who became bnei Torah in his mold.

Our mother eventually studied nursing and went to work in Bais Yaakov, but we, her family, always knew and felt that we were her priority and focus. Meals were simple but wholesome, the house was action packed and vibrant, and the frills were not missed. As she told an overwhelmed young mother who sought her advice about prioritization, “Just remember what Yaakov asked G-d for ‘bread to eat and clothes to wear.’ Do the same for your children and leave out the extras.”

The incredible factor is that our mother genuinely thought nothing of herself. Throughout the years, many women turned to her for guidance as they raised their families. “Why are they asking me,” she mused. “I read all the books on child rearing and realized I did the exact opposite of what they said!” And as she advised and mentored the many people who confided in her about all aspects of their lives, it was never, “This is what you should do.” It was, rather, “I don’t have the answer but maybe….”

Our mother’s tremendous sense of tznius was reflected not only in her modest and regal style of dress but also in shunning the limelight. When she was asked to submit a contribution for an event themed “Mothers in Klal Yisrael,” our mother sent in a quote from her own mother. She had anticipated anonymity and was horrified when her name was included. Her tznius also extended into the nuances of respecting the privacy and dignity of others. Everyone who turned to her knew that they could share their problems and that their secrets would go no further. Her true beauty shone through in the warmth of her personality, her genuine smile, and her palpable inner satisfaction.

Tefila (prayer) was so much a part of her, and her advice was unequivocal: “Keep davening.” She spoke to Hashem as a child speaks to her father, with absolute trust and total dependence, every word clear and almost audible. “He has not made any mistakes yet,” she would say about Hashem. When overwhelmed women would bemoan the fact that they did not have time to daven formally, she would reassure them. “Talk to Him as you go about your day.” She did that herself: “Hashem, let these hands serve You today,” she would say as she washed negel vassar. “Please help me to arrive safely,” she said as she drove, and “Thank you for the parking space,” as she parked. Tucked in the pages of her siddur were lists of people she davened for daily.

 How fitting that, before her levaya, our mother’s aron was brought to Bais Yaakov elementary school, where she served as the school nurse for many years. The principal, who escorted the hundreds of young girls who lined the path, instructed them, “Look at your paper and say every word of the tehilim for Mrs. Tendler.”

Many years ago, our mother began to meet every Monday night with a group of women who were new to frumkeit and needed the connection with a woman as brilliant and as practical as she was. The meetings continued for over 25 years, and these women feel that they owe themselves and their families to her. Yet she did not lecture or try to dazzle them. Rather, she guided them and discussed down-to-earth topics, such as child rearing and integrating into the community. She strengthened their marriages and validated their concerns. And when she came home, she never spoke about them or the classes.

Our mother accompanied many, many women as they gave birth. They would call in advance or at the last minute, in a panic, to ask her to accompany them and coach them. She would return home hours later, exhausted and exhilarated, but never did she disclose the name of the woman she had helped (all before the HIPPA privacy act). Lashon hara did not cross her lips, both because she was so careful and also because she never felt that she had a right to have a critical eye. She was willing to learn from every person, expressing her belief in them. She was able to help them rise to greater heights. A member of the community whom she and her husband welcomed into their home with genuine warmth, came to the shiva burst into tears, saying, “People didn’t know if I was ‘for real,’ but your mother, she respected me.”

Our mother’s life was all about giving, contributing, growing, and learning. Each of us children as well as her grandchildren felt that she was totally available to them, to share their lives, their struggles, and their joys. Her apartment on Yeshiva Lane was “headquarters,” and they came and called from all over. Our mother related to all with warmth, sensitivity, and humor. Everyone’s fondest memories are surely of the time spent on Bubby’s orange couch.

A relationship with our mother was not about gift-giving or externals but one of deep, rich connection and acceptance. As we went on to build our own homes and serve Hashem in our own way, the core values she taught by example remain and inspire. They are gratefulness to Hashem, to family members, and specifically to the Yeshiva; respect for everyone; devotion to the needs of others; and appreciation for all our gifts. 

One son related in his hesped that during his difficult experience of being on dialysis for nine months (until, in his words, “my brother the tzadik gave me a kidney”), he spoke to our mother and bemoaned the fact that he had to sit for hours in front of a TV screen and no way to avoid it. From then on, three times a week, immediately after the process began, his phone would ring, and our mother would remain on the line with him for the hours of dialysis, engaging him in conversation so as to help him in his quest of shmiras einayim.

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The last stage of our mother’s life exposed the greatness that she hid or – more correctly – was not aware of. Over a year after our father passed away, she learned that she needed major surgery to be followed by chemotherapy. She faced her illness with absolute faith, and her motto became, “If I woke up this morning, it means Hashem still wants me here.” She maintained her positive attitude and continued working, helping, guiding, and even teaching her beloved kallas as much as she was able. She traveled to Israel twice after she got sick, but her second trip was cut short when another debilitating crisis developed. With great bitachon (faith) she came through and was able to resume a modicum of normalcy.

Our mother as well as we, her family, appreciated that she was living on borrowed time, zechuyos (merits), and tefila, as she continued to give, guide, and rejoice in Torah and mitzvos. When she had to experience a diminishment of her independence, she responded with dignity and acceptance of Hashem’s will. For the last few months, she was fed only by IV, but we who were with her at every moment never heard a word of complaint pass her parched lips. She continued to give, love, and inspire.

It was during this period that her love for Torah and mitzvos came to full fruition, just three days before her passing. Since the passing of her husband and life partner five-and-a-half years ago, she harbored a dream of purchasing a sefer Torah in his memory. With the help of our brother, Reb Menachem, a rav in St. Louis, a sofer was commissioned to refurbish a used Torah. As she lay in bed weakened by sickness and drifting between intense pain and occasional respite, we told her, “Mommy, the sefer Torah is on the way.” The intense joy she felt strengthened her, and she asked for help to be dressed in a Shabbos robe and sheitel to greet the Torah with the respect it deserved. She was wheeled out of her room, and the sefer Torah was placed in her arms. She embraced it lovingly as her sons and grandsons danced around her, an actualization of her life’s mission. Then she spoke with weakness but true strength as she thanked us, her children, for being her sifrei Torah and giving her such joy. It was a never-to-be-forgotten event and an aliyas neshama for our father, in whose achievements she was a true partner.

Our mother’s neshama left her as she was surrounded by children and grandchildren on the ninth of Kislev.


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