1823 – 1911
“Israel is proud of her Queen Esther to-night,” concluded Rabbi Samuel Schulman at the 1902 testimonial dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria honoring philanthropist Esther Herrman, who supported numerous organizations publicly and untold individuals and causes in private.
Esther Herrman was born on August 7, 1823, in Utrecht, the Netherlands, to Sophia (Van Ysen) and Emanuel Mendels. She had three sisters, Gamma (b. 1821), Jette (b. 1821), and Adelaide (b. 1825), and came to the United States as a child following her mother’s death in 1827. In 1843, she married Henry Herrman, a native of Baden who was born October 13, 1822. By 1847, Esther and Henry had moved from New York City to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he started a business supplying sailing vessels. Their first children were born there: Sophia (1847) and Henrietta (1848). They moved to Boston, where Henry operated a clothing business and their son Abraham was born (1850).
By 1852, they returned to New York City, where Caroline (1854), Lillie (1855), and Daniel Webster (1861) were born. They purchased a residence in a well-to-do neighborhood in 1871, by which time Henry had become a successful importer of worsteds and woolens, operating as H. Herrman, Sternbach & Co. Henry died on February 14, 1889, and left his family with a significant fortune.
In 1876, Esther Herrman joined Sorosis, the city’s pioneer women’s club, and in 1881, she became chair of its philanthropic committee. This marked her entrance into club life and was the starting point for thirty-five years of membership in, and financial support of, dozens of educational, philanthropic, and patriotic organizations. Through Sorosis she became friendly with such socially prominent women as suffragist Lillie Deveraux Blake. Esther Herrman believed in suffrage, attended suffrage meetings, and supported women’s and suffrage organizations.
Her largest gifts, each ten thousand dollars or more, were directed to five local beneficiaries. Her support of Barnard College in the early 1890s, shortly after its establishment as the city’s first secular institution to grant the B.A. degree to women, earned her the honorific of “founder.” A granddaughter, Laura Levy Jackson, was a member of the first graduating class in 1893. Her gift in 1897 of an educational endowment fund for the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (now the 92nd Street YM-YWHA) immediately followed Jacob Schiff’s gift of a building for the Y. The positive educational experience of one of her sons many years earlier at the Young Men’s Christian Association, she said, induced her to provide for classes specifically for Jewish young men. For similar reasons she supported the Hebrew Technical Institute, a training school in the mechanical trades for teenaged boys. As donor of the school’s first large gift, she was named an honorary vice president in 1897. After donating a herbarium to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx in 1896, she endowed a fund there to give teachers the opportunity to study botany from nature. In 1901, she provided a major gift to the New York Academy of Sciences, initially for a new building but later designated for scientific research.
At the 1902 testimonial she told her admirers, “You have rewarded me not only for the things I have done, but also for all the dear and happy things I would like to do.” She continued “doing” until her death on July 4, 1911, at her home in New York City.
Obituaries. NYTimes, July 6, 1911, and Tribune, July 5, 1911, and Hebrew Standard, July 7, 1911; A Testimonial and Dinner Given to Mrs. Esther Herrman by Her Many Friends in Recognition of Her Good Deeds at the Waldorf-Astoria April 19, 1902 (1902). Smith College, Sophia Smith Collection, New York Public Library, Jewish Division.