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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

American Jews of my generation have been truly blessed in having had the opportunity to visit and live in a united Israel and, more particularly, a united Jerusalem for much of our lifetimes. Over the years in my several dozen visits to Israel, I have met many extraordinary people, some world-famous, others unknown to more than a handful. In reflecting recently on my time in Israel, I realized that I have long been remiss in not recognizing one particular person, Dina Solte Webster, who welcomed me into her home when I first visited Israel many years ago. Her story is worth recording for multiple reasons. She not only opened Jerusalem’s many secrets and joys to me, but, as I discovered many years later, she had also played a pivotal role in early support of Orthodox Jewish life and education in New Jersey long before emigrating to Israel in 1949.

I was very lucky in July of 1967 to be invited to join my widowed Uncle Alex on a three-week trip to Israel. I was 17, just recently graduated from high school in New York. My sister Judy was living in Jerusalem that year and she arranged for me to share a rented room in an apartment centrally located in the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood in West Jerusalem. The room in question was being rented for the school year to an American college student attending the Hebrew University. The owner of the ground-floor apartment, an elderly olah from New Jersey named Dina Webster, occupied the rest of the comfortable, ground-floor apartment.

Mrs. Webster was the first person that greeted me when I arrived in Jerusalem in 1967. She was a short woman with white, snowy hair. Despite her age she had the clearest blue eyes I had ever seen. She welcomed me to stay in her apartment “as long as you vant.” Her speech in English was Yiddish-accented, which seemed strange to me since she had lived in America, I later found out, for close to 50 years. As we got to know each other, she offered to cook meals for me, but I declined politely. I wanted to sample all the food Jerusalem offered. As a diaspora Jew, I relished the opportunity to eat in numerous places throughout the land, knowing that the food served was kosher. So I wasn’t very interested in Mrs. Webster’s offer.

Over my stay in Jerusalem, I learned about how she had barely escaped death at the hands of the Jordanian Army weeks earlier when an artillery shell scored a direct hit on her bathroom wall; the shell had, miraculously, failed to detonate. She proudly pointed out to me the exact spot above the commode near the bathtub where the shell had struck. The damaged wall had been plastered over and you really had to use your imagination to recreate the scene she described, but the thought of it was absolutely unnerving.

Every Thursday morning, Mrs. Webster prepared to walk to the Mahane Yehudah market to do her weekly Shabbat shopping. She brought two empty canvas bags with her and after an hour or two of bargaining she returned lugging the bags, now heavy with the packages she had acquired. When you consider Mrs. Webster was nearly 84 years old at this time, her weekly shopping trips were nothing short of amazing. I accompanied her on one of these trips and can attest to the weight of the bags stuffed with the delicacies of the market.

My three weeks in Jerusalem passed quickly and I sadly said my farewell to the city and Mrs. Webster. My experience with her that summer led me to revisit her the next summer when, as a sophomore in college, I spent eight weeks in Israel. I met her great grandchildren, themselves teenagers, and had the most memorable summer of adventures in Jerusalem.

When I was accepted to attend the Hebrew University for my junior year (1969-1970), it was quite natural for me to call Mrs. Webster and ask if I could rent the room I had stayed in on my first trip two years before. It seemed natural. She agreed without hesitation and so I called #11 Rechov Ha’ari my home for that year of growth and education. The seasons came and went too rapidly that final school year in Jerusalem: the autumn of Succot, the winter of cold, clouds and coveted rain showers, the spring of warming winds and festive Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, and, finally, the summer of hot days and cooler mountain breezes. During the course of my stay, I developed a great respect for Mrs. Webster’s indomitable spirit, her strength of character and will to persevere that brought her to make Aliyah at 66, an age when many are winding down their lives. The calendar sadly marched on without pause and I reluctantly made my plans to return to the U.S. I simply was not brave enough to do what I should have done: called my folks and told them I wasn’t coming home, but staying in Jerusalem. As I said my farewell to Mrs. Webster, I sensed I would not likely see her again. She was 87 by this time and I was on my way to higher education in the States. I am sure I wiped away a tear or two as my sherut drove down Rambam Street on the way toHighway 1 and the road to the airport.

In early 1971 I received a phone call from Mrs. Webster’ great-granddaughter informing me that Mrs. Webster had passed away peacefully in Jerusalem. I was saddened to hear the news. I vowed to myself at the time that I would try to piece together all the facts I could find about this special “pioneer” woman and tell her story. Ironically, I was to discover that I knew much more about her than I realized and that circumstances would bring me to live in a Jewish community that owed much to her philanthropy. As happened in the Torah with the story of Joseph and Pharoah’s wine steward, I too “forgot” Mrs. Webster and “didn’t remember her.” Now after all these years, I present her life, that of a strong Jewish woman of valor:

Dina Solte Webster had been born in Russian Poland, probably in the Bialystok region, in 1883. She immigrated to America in 1903 and resided by 1905 in the Yorkville section of Manhattan with her husband Samuel Solte. That year she gave birth to her only child, a son named Charles. By 1910, significant changes had come into her life; she and Samuel had divorced and Dina faced the challenge of raising her young son on her own. She decided to embark on an ambitious plan to create a life for herself and Charles outside of New York City; she chose to move to Northern New Jersey and by 1920 resided in Paterson, then home to a vibrant Jewish community of several thousand. Many in that city hailed from the same region of Poland where Dina had been born so she found the transition to be an easy one. Paterson was a hub of textile manufacturers at the time and many Jews found employment in this industry. In this regard Dena was no different from her neighbors. But she had bigger dreams than most. Through hard work, good luck and imagination, within several years, Dina succeeded in opening a two-story department store called the Junior Shop on a busy corner in downtown Paterson. Her thriving business provided her with economic stability, and she became a well-regarded member of the Jewish community. On the personal side, Charles graduated from Yeshiva College in 1926 and in 1928 married Sonia Kaplan of Brooklyn. The following year brought the birth of their son, Milton; as far as Dina was concerned, by this time, she had fulfilled all of her life’s dreams and was content.

She remained so for several years. Sadly bad times were coming. Just as Dina—and all of Paterson—-were adjusting to the economic rigors of the Great depression, a tragedy of mammoth proportions struck her small family: On a clear April day in 1934, Charles, Sonia and Milton were travelling on a family outing on a country road near Paterson when one of their car tires blew out. Charles drove the car onto the narrow shoulder of the road, got out and prepared to change the front tire on the driver side. Sonia and Milton, then 5, stayed in the car. Charles had nearly completed the exchange, when a roadster came speeding down the lane. The inattentive driver never saw Charles, struck and killed him instantly. Dina was shattered by the death of her only child and never fully recovered from that loss. As is the norm in such situations, she became closely involved in her grandson Milton’s life and education. Rather than burying herself in mourning Charles, Dina became more and more involved in Jewish communal life in North Jersey. Over the next 15 years, Dina contributed generously to the Talmud Torah of Paterson, the fledgling Yavneh Academy (1942), and several regional synagogues. Numerous libraries were dedicated to the memory of Charles Solte and annual memorial tributes made to Charles in the YU College Masmid yearbook. Dina donated and dedicated the gates of the Bialystoker Synagogue cemetery in Hawthorne, NJ. It is almost impossible to find a Jewish charity in the Passaic-Bergen county region during those years to which Dina Solte did not contribute. Finally, with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Dina, along with her second husband, Joseph Webster, gave up their comfortable lives in New Jersey to make Aliyah and realize their dream of building modern Israel.

Dina Solte Webster’s biography is probably not a unique one among immigrant American Jews, but it is instructive nonetheless. For this notable Jewish woman possessed and showed an indestructible drive to survive and flourish in a world where there were no “free rides.” She faced many triumphs, but tragedies as well and she somehow managed to come out stronger from the experience. In going through some of my papers recently in preparation for upcoming house renovations, I came across the following long forgotten note and receipt which Mrs. Webster received from Yeshivat Hakotel, a few months before I departed for home:

21st Day of Shevat, 5730

Dearest blessings and peace:

We had a wonderful and encouraging feeling participating with you in our recent meeting on Motzoei Shabbat which was organized by the chapter of Western supporters of the Yeshiva held in the Old City.

The participants showed themselves to be role models in the realms of tzedakah and chesed.

Many thanks for your contribution in support of the Yeshiva and its institutions.

We note your gift is being made in honor of Joseph Rotenberg.

May God reward you according to your deeds; may God bless you from Zion and may you gaze upon the goodness of Jerusalem, all the days of your life.

Menahel Hayeshiva

It was clearly unnecessary for Mrs. Webster to make a donation to charity in my name, but that’s just the kind of person she was. She expressed her feelings of sadness and joy, of loss and kinship by giving tzedakah freely and generously.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Webster.

By Joseph Rotenberg