Mrs. Esther Tendler, who was nifteres last month, left her mark on thousands of people, yet never considered herself unusual or special. Wife of Rav Yosef Tendler a”h, the menahel of Mechina at Ner israel of Baltimore, mother of a large family, school nurse, and friend to many, she was just herself, down-to-earth, loving, and very real. Throughout the 80 years of her life, the Torah was her only guide.
The conversation was classic. One of Mrs. Esther Tendler’s sons, a rabbi in Atlanta, called her one day and shared, “Ma, I had to give a speech on spirituality, and I spoke about you.”
“What? Me? I’m not spiritual!” his mother protested.
“But you’re always talking to Hashem. Whenever you get in the car, you say, ‘Hashem, please get me there safely.’ When you get to your destination, you say, ‘Hashem, thank You for getting me here safely.’ Hashem is such a part of your life!”
“That’s not spiritual,” Mrs. Tendler retorted. “I just want to get there safely!”
Mrs. Esther Tendler wasn’t “spiritual.” But she constantly talked to Hashem: “Hashem, please make the food came out good. Hashem, help me to help You.” In her final illness, when she suffered from the nausea of chemotherapy, her children heard her saying, “Hashem, I hope I brought You nachas. Thank You, Hashem, for all the chesed You do for me.”
And by bringing Hashem into her own life and into her family’s life, she ultimately influenced countless others.
Esther Tendler was born in 1937 to Rabbi Menachem Mendel and Leah Perr. She was raised in South Ozone Park, Queens, where her father was a rav. Her only frum friends were her two brothers, Rabbi Yechiel Perr, today of Far Rockaway, and Rabbi Eliezer Perr, today of Lakewood.
Until eighth grade, she attended public school, as there was no Bais Yaakov in the vicinity. For high school, though, she traveled to Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg, where she was so enthralled by the lessons that she would sit with her eyes shining and her mouth hanging open.
In Rebbetzin Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov, talmidos were encouraged to marry men who were learning. So when she was 20, she was redt to Yosef Tendler, one of the first American-born talmidim of Rav Aharon Kotler, at the suggestion of Rav Aharon himself. According to the Tendler daughters, Rav Aharon told their father, “I have two shidduchim for you. One is the daughter of a rich man, and he’ll support you for many years. The other is very poor but is mistapekes b’muat.”
Yosef Tendler said, “I’ll take the mistapekes b’muat.” And he was introduced to Esther Perr.
“She always said, ‘I live in luxury,’” recalls one of her daughters. “She’d say, ‘I have a house, I have clothing. What more do I need?’”
The couple settled in Lakewood, where they lived very simply, making do with almost nothing. Eventually Rav Aharon advised Rav Tendler to look for a position in chinuch, so he could continue learning part time. Rav Tendler was hired as the menahel of the high school (known as the Mechina) of Ner Israel of Baltimore, and the couple moved to their new city with two young children.
Although at first, Mrs. Tendler taught sporadically in Bais Yaakov, by the time she had her seventh child, she had become a stay-at-home mother. At that point, however, both she and Rav Tendler recognized that it was time for her to get out of the house. She needed more stimulation and she needed to be doing something for herself. And so she made the decision to go to nursing school — in the 1970s, as the mother of an already-large family.
“She was very mesudar, very organized,” recalls one of her older daughters. “Shabbos was ready by 9:30 on Friday morning. We were born one after another. We have a lot of personality, and we were noisy; we would jump and yell. She would put something down and it wouldn’t be there when she needed it. It was hard for her, yet she did it anyway.”
Although such a large family was very unusual in those days, Mrs. Tendler wasn’t deterred. “She was very much in touch with herself,” says her daughter. “At night she’d go to sleep early. When we were old enough to be left alone, she’d sometimes pick up her pocketbook and go out for a breather, telling us, ‘I’m going to take care of your mother.’”
This theme is echoed by her other children as well. “Even though she wasn’t a huggy-kissy person and she was very private, she always taught us that the biggest zechus in this world was to bring up Hashem’s children,” says another daughter, also the mother of a large family today. “Yes, she had to leave the house, but she wasn’t a career woman. It was 100 percent clear to us that we were the most important thing in her lives.”
“She so wasn’t the type to have 13 children,” concurs yet another daughter. “When she did it, no one else was doing it. She said she was allergic to noise — and she really was! But she raised not only 13 children, bli ayin hara, but 13 Tendler children, with all the individuality that comes along with that. We’d hear her saying, ‘Hashem, let me help You raise them. You have more confidence in me than I have in myself.’”
After several years of working hospital shifts, she became a camp nurse and then the school nurse at Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, which she loved. All the girls viewed her as a motherly figure who could be approached whenever they weren’t feeling well. And through it all, her children always knew they were her top priority.
“My parents showed by doing, not by lecturing,” says one Tendler daughter. “In their home, it was always deracheha darchei noam; nothing was ever stressful. My mother wouldn’t tell us something like, ‘Now you’re six, you can’t wear short socks anymore.’ Instead, she would ‘lose’ the short socks until there were only knee-highs in our drawers.
“Halachah was very important, but our parents never imposed chumros on us,” the same daughter continues. “My mother would say, ‘Don’t be like the Joneses. You be the Joneses. It doesn’t matter if everyone else is wearing short skirts, you set the style.’ We were all very proud of being Tendlers.”
“Schmoozing with the Ladies”
By the time her children were grown, they knew they could turn to her for anything. “I remember speaking to her on the phone once when my children were small and I was feeling overwhelmed,” says one daughter. “My mother said, ‘What do you expect? You’re outnumbered!’”
She’d remind her daughters, most of whom are grandmothers today, that everything in life is a stage. “When you have a bunch of little kids and you can’t get out for a walk and you don’t have the time to listen to a shiur — it’s a stage. That was the perspective she gave us,” says one of her older daughters.
And she wasn’t only there for her family; she was there for hundreds of others as well. As a nurse, she gave many people advice on fertility issues, and she’d attend births as well — not in a professional capacity as a doula, but as a chesed. “There were people sitting there at the shivah house, bawling their eyes out, and we hardly knew who they were!” exclaims one daughter. “They all felt she was their best friend.”
Because she had waited several years to have children herself, she’d tell young women who were facing this nisayon, “You should know that I also didn’t have children right away, and now baruch Hashem I have a large family.”
For many years, she gave a class to a group of baalos teshuvah. Although these women went to shiurim and knew the halachah, they needed a surrogate mother to help give them confidence in the practical aspects of raising children and running a Torah home. Mrs. Tendler became their surrogate mother. As one woman told the Tendler girls at the shivah house, “We knew nothing. I remember telling her, ‘My kids won’t sit at the Shabbos table.’ She would say, ‘Is sitting at the Shabbos table one of the 613? It’s okay. Kids need to be kids.’ ”
Today, these women, who are already grandmothers, call themselves “Mrs. Tendler’s girls.” Mrs. Tendler counseled them in shalom bayis as well, telling her ladies, “Yes, it’s a struggle, but no one was put into this world for vacation. The best thing you can do for your children is love their father. If a home has shalom bayis, the children in it are much more confident, safe, secure.” And no one embodied this more than Mrs. Tendler herself.
Although she was privy to many people’s secrets in her capacity as a nurse and advisor, she was scrupulously discreet. One daughter shares, “We knew that if we told her something, she wouldn’t discuss it with anyone, not even with our father. And she wouldn’t bring it up again unless we brought it up ourselves. She listened, she gave ideas, she guided, and she stepped back.”
Even though she and Rav Tendler were both very close to their children, what was told to one was never communicated to the other without explicit permission. A Tendler daughter once walked into the house in maternity clothing, and Rav Tendler said in surprise, “I didn’t know you were expecting.”
The daughter looked at her mother and said, “But I told Mommy.”
“Well, you never told me I could tell Tatty,” Mrs. Tendler said. From then on, the children knew they had to tell good news to both parents and not expect it to be passed on!
Mrs. Tendler only saw the good in people. One woman at the shivah house shared that she came to Bais Yaakov of Baltimore in tenth grade, straight from public school. She could hardly read Hebrew. Mrs. Tendler, who was the school nurse at the time, taught her class Tehillim once a week. Noticing the girl’s struggles, she pulled her aside and said, “Tova, I see you’re trying to catch up. I have some quiet time in the nurse’s office. When you have a break, come to me and we’ll read together.” This woman, who is raising a beautiful family today, says, “She gave me the strength, telling me, ‘You can do this. We’re going to do it together.”
Yet, points out one of her daughters, Mrs. Tendler never considered herself a teacher. When she gave classes, she’d say, “I’m going to schmooze with the ladies.” It was all an expression of her care for others, her matter-of-fact personality, and her humble, unassuming nature.
All of the Tendler sons spoke at her levayah. “My brothers didn’t say anything that we thought was amazing — to us it was just normal,” says one daughter frankly. “But when Rav Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivah of Ner Israel, came to be menachem avel, he told us, ‘I could have sat another two hours listening. Your mother was such a mussar sefer.’ To us, she was just our mother.”
“The Sefer Torah Is Coming”
No mussar sefer leaves an impact if it isn’t connected to Torah. Mrs. Tendler’s life showed this in real time.
When Esther Tendler was a girl of 12, a shul in her neighborhood was selling its building, including all its contents, to a church. Her father, Rabbi Perr, was horrified when he found out, and tried to persuade the Board of Directors not to sell their sefer Torah along with everything else. To no avail.
Rabbi Perr, a European rav who had come to America in the 1930s, felt so terrible about the situation that he bemoaned it constantly. Finally, his three children (then aged around 14, 12, and 10) decided to take matters into their own hands. Without discussing their plans with their parents, the intrepid youngsters woke up in the middle of the night, walked to the former shul building, and snuck inside. They removed the sefer Torah from the aron kodesh and left the building, exhilarated. Then the question arose: Who should carry it home?
As the only girl, 12-year-old Esther insisted that the job belonged to her. “You’re going to have many opportunities to hold a sefer Torah in your lives,” she told her brothers. “This is my only chance. So I’m holding it now.” With her brothers dancing before her, singing softly, Esther embraced the sefer Torah and carried it all the way home. Once there, they hid the sefer Torah in the attic.
For weeks afterwards, the three siblings listened nervously to the news, waiting to hear a report of a stolen sefer Torah. They didn’t hear a thing. It seemed that the church had no use for their sefer Torah, after all.
One day, Rabbi Perr again started speaking with anguish about the sefer Torah trapped in the church. “It’s not in a church anymore,” his children told him. “It’s upstairs.” They led their astonished father to the attic and showed him the sefer Torah nestled there.
An emotional Rabbi Perr consulted with Rav Aharon Kotler, who advised him to send it to the P’eylim organization in Eretz Yisrael. There, the story ended.
Fast-forward some 67 years. One of the Tendler sons, a rabbi in an out-of-town community, had a collection of old, passul sifrei Torah in his shul. He asked a sofer from New York to examine them and determine which ones could be repaired. They worked out a deal whereby the sofer would repair several sifrei Torah for the shul for free and sell the rest for profit, thereby saving the shul some money.
Upon hearing this story from her son, Mrs. Tendler, who by then had been widowed, perked up. “How much does it cost to buy a refurbished sefer Torah?” she asked her son.
“About $16, 000,” he told her.
“Should I buy one?” she asked. (This from a woman who never owned her own home and lived her whole life as simply as possible!)
“Well, it’s a mitzvah, like buying arba minim or putting up a mezuzah,” her son told her.
They discussed the ramifications, and Mrs. Tendler said, “Okay, I’m interested. If you see a good sefer Torah, get it for me.”
The sifrei Torah from the shul weren’t appropriate for Mrs. Tendler’s needs — she wanted one that could be used at family simchahs and could easily be transported from place to place. So her son asked the sofer to look out for a Torah that would meet their needs.
A few months later, the sofer called. “I just got a beautiful sefer Torah that fits your requirements. Are you still interested?”
“Yes, buy it,” Mrs. Tendler said.
The sefer Torah needed repair, though, and the sofer told them, “It’s going to take a while for it to be ready.”
By this time, Mrs. Tendler was already quite ill, but she waited patiently. Then, several weeks ago, one of her daughters from Eretz Yisrael decided to fly in to Baltimore to visit her. Several other siblings in various cities decided to come down for Shabbos as well, and soon a family Shabbos was being planned.
That Thursday, the sofer called. “Your sefer Torah is ready.”
The timing was eerie. The family swung into action, making arrangements for the Torah to be driven down to Baltimore on Friday — with enough time before Shabbos to hold an impromptu hachnasas sefer Torah when it arrived.
Since Mrs. Tendler would never flaunt her mitzvah, only family was in attendance — children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her brother, Rabbi Eliezer Perr. They ordered a cake and prepared pekelach, and the Torah was brought into her home on Yeshiva Lane.
She was resting when the sefer Torah arrived. “Her brother woke her up, and we told her, ‘Mommy, the sefer Torah is coming,’” relates one daughter. “She asked us to help her put on her sheitel, and we wheeled her out of the room.”
Her son placed the sefer Torah on her lap, and the family danced around her, singing. They all knew the story of the original sefer Torah, and now, it seemed, Mrs. Tendler’s life had come full circle. She hadn’t held another sefer Torah in the intervening decades, but she had raised a multi-generation family of prominent bnei Torah, all involved in tzorchei tzibbur and harbatzas haTorah.
There was hardly a dry eye in the room when Mrs. Tendler spoke, telling her children that she loved them, thanking them for going in the derech hayashar, and thanking Hashem for all His chasadim.
Afterwards, her brother told her, “Esther, mission accomplished. Now you can go.”
Mrs. Tendler bentshed licht, stayed up for the beginning of the Shabbos seudah, and then returned to her room. A few days later, on Monday afternoon, she passed away.
No, she wasn’t a “spiritual” person. But Torah was her entire life. And she was zocheh to see the culmination of her work in the most unbelievable way.
In Her Own Words
Mrs. Esther Tendler’s Musings on Motherhood
This article original appeared in a Ner Israel sisterhood journal
When I was the mother of two small children and expecting my third, I confided in my own mother that I wasn’t coping with two and that it seemed unfair to bring a third child into the picture. My mother responded, “You’re trying too hard. Remember, these are Hashem’s children you’re raising, and you are also His child. You’re not so wise as to know the needs of each and every individual child. Ask Hashem to guide all of you to grow into the type of Jews from whom He’ll have nachas.”
From that point on, my burden eased. I took a new approach and envisioned myself presenting my family to Hashem and saying, “Please, Hashem, we are all Yours. Guide every one of us in the right way.” My prayer was no longer, “Please, Hashem, help me.” It became, “Please, Hashem, let me help You. Let me have the privilege of a small share in the growth of Your children. I’ll polish their shoes and cook their meals and do their laundry. You guide each one to grow and develop in a way that is appropriate for him or her to bring You nachas.”
Chazal tell us, “There are three partners in a person: HaKadosh Baruch Hu, his father, and his mother.” Three partners contribute to the formation and development of each and every human being. In my particular case, I am certainly the youngest and least experienced of the trio. And so I am pleased to allow the other two partners to carry the major share of the responsibility of raising this family. By doing so, I find that no matter what I do, I don’t feel burdened. Success doesn’t depend on me. I’m just the junior member of a team that is working to bring nachas to our Creator.
It’s very important to always remember that our family is a precious gift. When we were young girls, we prayed that Hashem would send each of us the young man who would be just right for us, and we would build a bayis ne’eman b’Yisrael together. Well, guess what! It happened. Just because there’s more work involved than we anticipated, and perhaps even some disappointments, doesn’t negate the reality of the blessing. Blessings are achieved only with much labor. The key to growing with the role of motherhood is to appreciate the privilege of our partnership with our husband and Hashem.
Reprinted with permission of Mishpacha Magazine © Mishpacha Magazine Inc. All rights reserved