In the last few months, I’ve written a little bit about my mother-in-law, Ethel Rosenthal, and I’m sad to report that I must now say my mother-in-law of blessed memory. I wrote about her last in the context of Shavuot and the story of Ruth and Naomi. I was so lucky to have Ethel as my mother-in-law – she was an inspiration to me as a Jewish woman leader, and as a Jewish woman, period.
Ethel died as she lived, surrounded by loving family, with dignity and privacy. For an extremely private person, she lived a very public life in Bayonne, New Jersey, the community where she was born and where she lived her entire life. She was the daughter of immigrants who themselves believed in devotion to community. Her father helped to found the Bayonne Jewish Community Center and Temple Emanu-el, also in Bayonne, two institutions to which Ethel was very devoted. In fact, Ethel was the first woman to be president of the Bayonne JCC. She was also the second president of the Bayonne Community Mental Health Center, and served on the boards of Temple Emanu-el and the New Jersey Jewish Home and Hospital. She was a Lion of Judah, in name and in deed. Honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, she was also named a Woman of Achievement by the Jersey Journal.
Not surprisingly, all of this was very daunting when I first met Ethel, when I was a twenty-three year old law student. Moreover, not only was she a pillar of the Jewish community, she was very knowledgeable about the arts – she founded and then, for over fifteen years, ran a program at the Bayonne JCC called “Leisure and Learning” that explored art, music and theater, all from a Jewish perspective, bringing groups into Manhattan and bringing up and coming artists and musicians to Bayonne. She and my wonderful father-in-law, who survives her, had subscriptions to the opera, ballet, Philharmonic – you name it, they were there. Not only did Ethel appreciate art made by others, she herself was a talented artist and sculptor.
I don’t have an artistic or musical bone in my body. What Ethel and I did have in common was a love of Jewish community and a devotion to creating a strong, loving Jewish home. As we got to know each other, she would share with me the challenges she faced as a woman leader in the various facets of life in Bayonne and by example, showed me how to maintain friendships, family life and the art of an orderly home while doing all of this community work. (Now, I must say right here that I certainly had a strong role model already in my own mother, who was doing this all as well. I was just really fortunate to have two such role models.) As I’ve said before, Ethel taught me how to travel the world and to bring home special reminders of every trip – and thoughtful gifts for all of the children. I cook her recipes, keep careful records of all of the holiday menus just like she did and am always happy to have the Preminger/Rosenthal clan here in our home, just like Ethel did in hers. I look forward to spoiling our children the same way she and Al did, with amazing dinners at the best restaurants in New York City. I wish I had her talent for arranging flowers; I can only hope for her sense of color and style whether in selecting art, clothes or furniture.
But I think I also had an influence on her. My mother-in-law loved to laugh and she loved nothing more than a good laugh at her own expense. We were on one of our wonderful family trips, this one to Bermuda, about fifteen years ago. It was March, and it had rained every day. We had six children with us, ranging in age from about three to nine. I decided that we needed an outing and that we should all get on one of the pink Bermuda buses and take a ride up to the then-recently rejuvenated port area. So, being no slouch at organization myself, I got all fourteen of us on the bus. My mother-in-law looked around, looked at me and, with her trademark laugh, said, “I don’t think I’ve been on public transportation in thirty-five years!” She always gave me the benefit of the doubt, and seemed to be appreciative of the result of my plans and ideas. I think I showed her that I could hold down a full-time job and still be involved in the Jewish community and also have time for her son and her grandchildren – and I think she was still relieved when I stopped working to devote myself full-time to the last two efforts (and I think I was, too!)
Ethel Preminger Rosenthal embodied the ideals of service to Jewish community and devotion to creating Jewish family. She will always be one of my heroes and a very precious role model. May her memory be for a blessing and may all of you be blessed to have someone in your lives like her.