Thousands of Lubavitch women from around the world gathered in Crown Heights two weeks ago for the annual Shluchos Convention. The mother/mother-in-law of several of these Chabad emissaries is Esther Serebryanski. Although not born to a Lubavitch family, Serebryanski, 87, is the child of parents who dedicated their lives to teaching Torah when so many of their peers in pre-World War II America were pursuing material success.
Currently living in Crown Heights, Serebryanski spent several decades as a Chabad emissary herself in Melbourne, Australia.
The Jewish Press: Describe your parents’ background.
Serebryanski: They were both born in the early 1890s. My father was from Poland. His father was an Alexander chassid and his mother came from Ger chassidim. My grandfather was a real chassidishe Yid. As just one example, on Sukkos when all the other Jews would eat inside because it was freezing with the snow piled high, my grandfather would sit in the sukkah and eat as though it were a summer day. That was the type of individual he was.
When did your father come to America?
During World War I, the Russians drafted young Jewish men into the army, so my father ran away to Eretz Yisrael. He loved Eretz Yisrael, but then the Turks tried to draft him, so he left to America. His cousin was actually Yehudah Leib Magnes, who later became the first president of Hebrew University. He was the one who paid the fee for my father to enter the country when he arrived at Ellis Island.
I don’t know too much about my father’s activities in those first years, but in the 1920s, he became the Hebrew principal of the Hebrew National Orphan Home in Yonkers. My mother, Basya Gershonowitz, was also teaching there, and two years later they got married.
When did your mother come to America?
My mother was from Minsk; she was the youngest of seven kids. Her family came to America when she was a child.
She was very musical and loved the violin. My grandfather hired a teacher for her, but after a few lessons, the teacher told my grandfather that she had the potential to be a concert violinist. Well, that was the last lesson he gave her. My grandfather said, “I want my daughter to grow up to be a Jewish woman, not a concert violinist.” At the time it was very difficult to do both; people who did any of those things went off the derech.
Your mother later helped start one of the first Jewish girls’ schools in America. How did that come about?
There was a woman in Williamsburg in the 1930s – Mrs. Minsk – who wanted her daughters to have a Jewish education. So she started a school and asked my mother to head it. It was called Bais Rochel and later morphed into Bais Yaakov. There were also evening classes, which my mother taught, and I think Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz from Torah Vodaas sent his daughters there. He was friendly with my parents.
There was opposition to this school, so my mother had to go around recruiting students. People said, “Girls should learn Torah? Forget it!” My mother would reply, “Who do you want to be the mothers of your boys?”
The school only lasted a short while, but the ground was broken, and Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan, who conferred with my mother, started the first Bais Yaakov in America shortly thereafter.
Your father also started a yeshiva in the 1930s, correct?
Yes, it was the Yeshiva of Brighton. Brighton Beach was a communist neighborhood at the time and on Shabbos all the shops were open on the avenue. The yeshiva was founded to teach children who weren’t being properly educated. My father started it in a back room with one grade. He built it up grade by grade, created curricula, and eventually they bought a building. Rabbi Sholom Klass from The Jewish Press was actually a very big supporter.
The children loved my father and he was devoted to each and every one of them. He was very friendly, very accessible. He also was friendly with Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner from Chaim Berlin. I remember we’d go in the summer to visit him in the Rockaways. My sister and I would play with Rabbi Hutner’s daughter [who is now the dean of the renowned BJJ girls’ seminary in Israel] while my father would spend the day talking with Rabbi Hutner.
How did your parents remain so committed to Judaism at a time when so many others were drifting off?
My mother told us when we were growing up that we have to be like Yosef in Mitzrayim. Being Jewish and living a Jewish life was fundamental. My parents were also individualists. My mother used to say, “If purple is the fashion of the day and it doesn’t suit you, you don’t wear it.”
My parents didn’t go according to the winds of the day. They went according to the Torah. We are called “a stiff-necked people.” You have to be stiff-necked. A Jew always has to be moser nefesh for Yiddishkeit whatever the circumstances – whether it’s in a place where they are opposing you, like communist Russia, or a place that offers you unlimited freedom, like America. The only freedom we have is in the Torah. That’s what we have to remember. Al tikra charus ela cheirus. That’s how we must continue to live.
Your late husband apparently came from a “stiff-necked” family too.
My husband was from Australia. He went there after the war, and his father founded a yeshiva there at the directive of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. My husband helped as well; he was a businessman, but his life’s work was doing things for the yeshiva or helping people.
Before he went to Australia, though, my husband lived in communist Russia. When the government ordered everyone to send their children to communist schools, my in-laws refused. They would place a school bag on him like all the other kids in the morning and say they’re sending them to another school someplace else.
Later, my husband was involved in smuggling people out of Russia. That’s actually what saved him. He was helping an elderly person get his luggage on an illegally scheduled train – having bribed the operators – and it suddenly started moving as he was on it. That’s how he got out of Russia.
Many of your children are currently serving as Chabad shluchim/shluchos. Do you see their lives as a continuation of the type of work your husband and your parents did?
Absolutely. Because it’s from my parents that I learned that being a Jew means being moser nefesh for Yiddishkeit. Shlichus is the normal way of Jewish life. It doesn’t matter if you have an official title or not. It’s your job to go out and mekarev Yidden.