For Rebbetzin Alster, a devoted mechaneches, rebbetzin of a thriving kehillah, and source of chizuk for so many, her husband’s yeshiva was the focus of her life. “She would make compote for the bochurim,” recalled a co-worker at the Bnos Yaakov Pupa Girls School, where Rebbetzin Alster was a respected principal for nearly three decades. “I would ask her jokingly, ‘Why don’t you make compote for the girls?’ She really cared about her girls, but the bochurim were special. She lived for the yeshiva, for her husband’s harbotzas haTorah.”
The petirah of Rebbetzin Alster at the relatively young age of 62, after a painful illness, is a tremendous blow to the Torah community. In her six decades on this world, Rebbetzin Alster touched thousands of people’s lives, making an indelible impression upon all who knew her.
Born in 1949 to her parents, Rav Avrohom Yosef Weiss and his Rebbetzin, the daughter of Dr. Refoel Muller, leader of the Washington Heights kehillah, Esther Kreindel spent her childhood in an elevated atmosphere of Torah. Rav Weiss was the rov of a kehillah in Washington Heights and later became the spiritual leader of the famous Moriahshul on the West Side in Manhattan (also known as the Belgian shul), where Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik delivered his famous weekly shiur. She absorbed the values of her illustrious parents and channeled them into her own home, building a fortress of kedushah which radiated outward, creating ripples throughout the Torah world.
“She personified Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim,” attested a niece. “Torah, because of her tremendous mesirus nefesh for her husband’s and children’s learning. She worked for years, not for luxuries, but in order to help her married children, all of whom are bnei Torah.
“Avodah, of course, is the shul, where my aunt was an equal partner with her choshuveh husband, the rov. The kehillah had her imprint in every corner. She welcomed the women, united them into one happy family, and had their children in mind. Aunt Esther ensured that the shul was always spic and span, beautifully decorated, and treated as a makom kedushah.
“As far as gemillus chassodim is concerned, just ask the thousands of friends she made, the singles she counseled for hours, the families she helped during times of crisis. Aunt Esther was a one-woman gemillus chessed band.
“I’ll never forget the Shabbos my parents were making sheva brachos for my sister,” her niece continued. “My mother was home, manning the home front, while Aunt Esther spent the entire day in the hall setting up the flowers, the platters, ensuring that the simcha was beautiful. It was impossible to tell that this was the simcha of a niece and not her own daughter. And this is in addition to hosting a lavish sheva brachos in her own home, on short notice. Most importantly, she made everything appear so easy. It was all ‘no problem,’ ‘my pleasure,’ and ‘how else can I help?’ Aunt Esther was literally the glue that held our family together. I can’t imagine how life can go on without her.”
And it wasn’t just her extended family. All the members of the shul were her children. Their simchos were her simchos and their pain was her own.
“I consider Rebbetzin Alster as my second mother,” said one vibrant young mother, whose husband davens at Bais Medrash Torah U’Tefillah, founded and led by Rav Shimon Alster. “There are over 100 families in our kehillah, but we aren’t just a kehillah. We’re family. The Rebbetzin would ask for updates on our parents, married children, and even our single nieces. She had a special gefil for singles, for whom she always had time.”
Rebbetzin Alster derived tremendous nachas from the shul and strove mightily to unify the women into a ‘sisterhood,’ one large, vibrant family. “We had a chessed committee, sending suppers to new mothers, household help to those who needed it, and just looking out for one another,” said another member. “The Rebbetzin would sometimes whisper to me, ‘Go and befriend so-and-so. She looks like she can use a friendly smile.’ No matter how many women attended shul, the Rebbetzin never forgot a name.”
Similar sentiments are echoed by the staff and students at Bnos Yaakov Pupa, where Rebbetzin Alster was the dynamic English principal for decades.
“The Rebbetzin was an unforgettable mechaneches. Yes, I call her a mechaneches even though she was the English principal, because she was kulo Torah,” said one of the teachers. “Her entire mindset was yashrus personified. She never made cheshbonos, like ‘How can I say this best?’ or, ‘How can I promote my ideas?’ It was always about the emes. Only the emes.”
“She was extremely fair and honest,” another staff member recalled. “Mrs. Alster, (as she was called in school) would look at a situation from every angle, with her seichel hayoshor, and her hashkafos were crystal clear. She had a tremendous hisbatlus to gedolei Torah and didn’t make a move without daas Torah.”
“I wasn’t such an easy student,” recalled an alumnus, now married with a family of her own. “I would be punished frequently and sent into the hallways. Although Mrs. Alster was a very strict principal, she was also fair and always interested in hearing my side of the story. She never knocked us or made us feel that we were to blame. With Mrs. Alster, I felt understood.”
“Once a year, in the spring, Mrs. Alster would host the girls for a seudah shlishis. We would all walk together, from Boro Park to Flatbush, making quite an impression,” an alumnus recalls. “The table would be beautifully set, with a lavish meal and an impressive program prepared. We looked forward to the beautiful shiur Mrs. Alster would deliver and the leibedig singing and dancing afterward. She wasn’t just our principal. She was the center of our school!
“Her graduation speeches were a marvel,” the alumnus continued. “Her speeches were peppered with maamarei Chazal and deep insights. Her Torahdike essence permeated every aspect of her career.”
Despite her prestigious positions as wife of the rosh yeshiva, rebbetzin of her shul and successful principal of a girls’ school, Rebbetzin Alster was a very humble person. “She had no ego, no sense of self,” a member of the kehillah recalled. “Nothing was beneath her. She would stop strangers on the street to greet them and invite them into her home. Widows, divorcees, women from all walks of life, would find their way to her doorway and emerge uplifted, ready to face the world.”
She was a soft-spoken, humble rebbetzin, a true tzonuah who did her numerous chassodim quietly, without drawing attention to herself. In fact, her closest friends and family were usually unaware of how many depended on her.
“I became very close to Rebbetzin Alster after my divorce,” said one woman, now happily remarried. “The Rebbetzin spent so much time with me, taking me under her wing. When I got engaged, the Rebbetzin was not well, yet she exerted herself to prepare a beautiful melava malka for my chosson and myself. She danced at my chasunah with such simcha, as if it was her own daughter. And, in a sense, I felt that I was her daughter. When she married off her son in Chicago recently, I traveled from overseas. There was no way I could miss the simcha! It was as if my own parents were making a chasunah.”
The Rebbetzin had hundreds of guests at the wedding. Nearly the entire kehillah traveled to Chicago to take part in the simcha. How she appreciated everyone who came or went out of their way for her, even a tiny bit. Appreciating and thanking others was part and parcel of her personality.
Rebbetzin Alster’s hakoras hatov was legendary. If someone did her a favor, no matter how small, she remembered it for years. “I’ll never forgot the evening I gave her a ride to Lakewood to attend a simcha,” an acquaintance recalled. “I was traveling to the simcha anyway. It was a pleasure to take her. For months afterwards, whenever I met her, she would thank me, again and again, for taking her to the simcha.
“I thought this was extreme, until I heard the same thing from others. Anyone who ever did Rebbetzin Alster a favor would hear about it for years. She never forgot – and never tired of repeating – how much they helped her.”
When, towards the end of her life, the students and alumni of her school undertook to say brachos with concentration as a zechus for a refuah sheleimah for their dear principal, Rebbetzin Alster wrote a warm thank-you note, expressing her true appreciation for this chessed.
“I once hosted a tea for the yeshiva in my home,” said a member of the shul. “This must have been four or five years ago. For the next few years, until her final days, the Rebbetzin didn’t stop thanking me every time we met. She would go on and on about what a zechus I have and how grateful she was. One would think that I single-handedly supported the yeshiva, considering how effusive her thank you was. But that was just the Rebbetzin. She lived to give, not to receive.
“In fact,” the woman remarked, “the Rebbetzin’s blood type was O-negative, which made it complicated for her to receive blood donations toward the end of her life. O negative blood types can donate to anyone, but can only receive blood from someone who is also O negative. That exemplified the Rebbetzin. She was someone who found it easier to give than to take. She was a true giver, a baalas chesed with every fiber of her being.”
“Even when she was suffering from her final illness, she pushed herself so as not to miss a single simcha or shul function,” attested another of the shul members. “Her family begged her not to go, but she felt as if she would be missing her own child’s simcha. ‘How can I miss So-and-so’s wedding?’ she would ask. So she got dressed, exerting herself to look beautiful, despite her weakness, to bring happiness to the baalei simcha.
“When I had a baby recently, the Rebbetzin was in the final stages of her illness. But because I would drive her sometimes, she had tremendous hakoras hatov, and somehow managed to send beautiful gift, along with a handwritten letter, which took tremendous effort to write. Though my baby outgrew the snowsuit, I still cherish the letter she sent me.”
Students of Bnos Yaakov recall the Rebbetzin’s warmth and caring, her regal demeanor and the utmost menthlichkeit with which she conducted herself. Said one student, “She didn’t have to lecture us about tznius. Just looking at her beautiful attire and shining face was lesson enough. We learned, by observing the Rebbetzin, that being a tzonuah doesn’t mean being ‘nebby’ and outdated. Mrs. Alster was one of the most beautiful, put-together people we ever met. But her essence radiated dignity. She was royalty personified, a true queen.”
Her raison d’Ãªtre, say those closest to her, was being an eved Hashem. Although her home and shul were beautifully furnished, she took no pleasure in gashmiyus, except as a means to an end. “She used her kochos to enhance the Ribono Shel Olam’s world,” said an admirer. “All her pleasures were spiritual.”
Undeniably, the cheilek of her life that gave her the most joy was her husband’s yeshiva, Yeshiva Gedolah of Cliffwood. Rav Shimon founded the yeshiva after decades of serving as a respected maggid shiur at the Mesivta of Long Beach.
The Rebbetzin would often express the emotions the yeshiva engendered, declaring, “When I see my husband learning with the bochurim, being a marbitz Torah, my heart is full. What more can I ask for?” She never took his harbotzas haTorah for granted and constantly thanked Hashem for the zechus.
Rav Shimon and his Rebbetzin shared a powerful bond. She was a true eizer, an equal partner in all his accomplishments. The esteem and respect in which she held her husband was remarkable. Although she was an accomplished, brilliant woman in her own right, she considered herself as a helpmate, secondary to her husband’s growth in Torah.
Rebbetzin Alster was a powerful speaker, whose annual Shabbos Shuvah shiurim attracted a large crowd. She would spend a good portion of the summer working on the shiur, adding insights and ideas, ensuring that it flowed. Although she was certainly capable of improvising or preparing a shiur at the last moment, that wasn’t the Rebbetzin’s style. Whatever she did was methodical, thought-out and carefully planned. She spent hours making the seating arrangements for the Yomim Noraim to ensure that each woman was satisfied.
“Whenever Mrs. Alster made a decision in school, I knew her words were emes,” attested a co-principal. “Even if I would disagree, I knew that her words were coming from a pure place.”
“She was honest to an amazing degree,” echoed another staff member. “With Mrs. Alster, there was no beating around the bush. She said it like it was, but with such kindness and caring. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone.”
The Rebbetzin took great pleasure in making shidduchim. Years ago, she was the catalyst for a very successful shidduch between the children of two mispalellim. “Our children are married for years already, but the Rebbetzin still considers them ‘her’ children. Every time we met, the Rebbetzin would marvel at the beautiful couple and their adorable children, as if they were her own ainiklach,” said the mother of the young man.
Although she had a houseful of grandchildren of her own, her ainiklach really numbered in the hundreds, because she considered all the shul families, really everyone she knew, as her extended family.
“My brother and his wife had a baby before Pesach, and the bris was on the first days of Pesach,” recalled a niece. “Making a Pesach bris is very complicated, with sleeping arrangements for the extended family, hosting the kimpeturin, and preparing a Pesachdike bris. Once more, it was Tante Esther to the rescue. She offered to make the bris, took the new mother into her home, and prepared a lavish seudah, making it all look like it wasn’t a big deal. We took it for granted. With Tante Esther, everything was so easy and simple. It was only later that I realized it wasn’t simple at all! Tante Esther had such a beautiful way of doing things, she made everything look effortless.
“When we got married, Tante Esther was the first to invite us for Shabbos, of course. We didn’t feel like we were imposing when we went to her as newlyweds. And her Shabbos table…oh what a Shabbos table! The word that comes to mind is malchusdik. She was a queen, and her home was her palace.”
Despite her lofty attributes, Rebbetzin Alster wasn’t aloof or difficult to relate to. “When we traveled together to a family simcha, she was so much fun to be with,” said another family member. “She would reminisce about her childhood, growing up in Washington Heights, and her school days. We felt like Tante Esther was one of us.
“And she had so many friends. I can’t tell you how many people I know today because of Tante Esther. She was involved in so many circles. She touched so many lives. I don’t know how life will go on without her…”
The Rebbetzin was universally admired by all those who came in contact with her. “She was a tzadeikes from amol, from another generation. Even during her final illness, in the midst of her suffering, her face shone. She never complained. She never focused on herself and her pain. It was always, ‘What can I do for you?’ How can I give someone chizuk?
“Often, after a difficult night, she would tell me in the morning, ‘I can’t thank Hashem enough for giving me another day of life, another chance to say Modeh Ani.’ She wasn’t just saying these platitudes. You could tell that they were part of her essence,” said a close friend.
She would often speak about the power of yissurim to purify one’s soul and how grateful she was for every situation the Ribono Shel Olam sent her. She had a personal relationship with her Creator and spoke to Him in her own words. This kesher was cultivated early on in her life, before her illness struck, and gave her the koach to rise above her challenges with inner beauty.
She is irreplaceable. To her shul, the Rebbetzin was the center of their lives. Her family, of course, considered her a queen. The thousands of alumni at Bnos Yaakov revered her. The impact that Rebbetzin Alster had upon Klal Yisroel cannot be described in words.
“You should have seen the sobbing at the levaya. I have never heard anything like it. Though most of the hespeidim were in Yiddish which many members of the kehillah do not understand, we did understand what they were saying. They were speaking the language of the heart,” said one kehillah member.
Though the Rebbetzin did not merit arichas yomim on this world, the impact she made during her 62 years of life shall live on for generations. All her life, she worked to create a beautiful palace On High, never losing sight of her ultimate destination.
Now that she is in a better world, may she serve as amelitzas yosher for her family, for all those who depended on her, for the singles in her community, and for the rest of Klal Yisroel.
Yehi zichrah boruch.