Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “rebbetzin” as the wife of a rabbi. While that is certainly true, for many it is just one of the ways in which they define themselves.
The Jewish Press recently had the opportunity to speak with Rebbetzin Esther Reisman on this very topic.
SG: Your shul is known as “Rabbi Reisman’s Shul.” Was your husband its founder?
Rebbetzin Reisman: Agudas Israel of Madison Zichron Chaim Zvi – yes it’s a long name! – began out of a basement minyan for bachurim in Rabbi Ashkenazi’s shul. My husband, Rabbi Reisman, davened with the boys as a quasi-rav and after some of the bachurim married, they wished to have their own official place. My husband was asked to be the rav and quarters were rented on Ocean Avenue. A number of years later, the lot on Avenue S and East 22nd Street was purchased and a building built. Rabbi Reisman has much satisfaction that the shul is not just a place for davening, but a makom Torah, a place that is conducive for people to come and learn. In fact, at one point there was talk of expanding the shul but Rabbi Reisman felt that would be necessary only if more space was needed specifically for learning.
How much of an active role do you take in running the shul?
I must say that while I admire those rebbetzins who take an active role in their congregation, I am mostly behind the scenes! I don’t attend shul on a regular basis as on Shabbos I care for my grandchildren and prepare for our Shabbos guests. My main contribution to the shul is taking care of the Rav! I do participate in a ladies community shiur, giving lectures on a rotating basis with Rebbetzin Mirel Klor and others. These shiurim take place at the Sephardic shul across the street from ours. A beautiful part of these lectures is that it unites a diverse group of women who attend, some walking over from quite a distance.
I’m also involved in organizing a yearly Rebbetzin’s Conference led by the Task Force for Children and Families at Risk. This annual event is a meeting of rebbetzins and mental health professionals with a goal of educating rebbetzins on how to respond effectively to domestic violence in our community. The Task Force initiated these gatherings some twenty years ago in order to help us deal with issues such as depression, anxiety, divorce and trauma in our communities. Many rebbetzins are first responders to difficult situations and must be trained to recognize instances where professional intervention is required.
Can you share with us some of your family history?
I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. My parents have had a great influence on who I am today. My father, R’ Yaakov Spitzer, comes from Hungary. My father was a very close disciple of HaRav Michoel Ber Weissmandel zt”l. R’ Weissmandel was heartbroken at the lack of response and support for his brilliant and daring efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Despite his great pain, he rebuilt a family and yeshiva. He instilled a strong sense of mission and idealism in his beloved talmidim. Every generation has historic opportunities that are either utilized or lost. I always wonder how history will look back at our generation and evaluate our role in history.
And your mother?
My mother, Mrs. Faigy Spitzer, nee Gross, is from Krenitz, near Krakow, Poland. Her grandfather was a wealthy Radomsker chasid who was able to remain totally immersed in learning. During the war the family fled to Siberia. Eventually they wound up in Samarkand, then Paris before finally coming to the United States. Once here, my grandfather became a maggid shir in the Bobover Beis Medrash in Brooklyn.