Widowed at age 36, Esther Eggleston managed single motherhood and work as the first female executive administrator of Temple de Hirsch Sinai, serving three rabbis and a growing membership of almost 1,000 families during her 23 years of service. Born in St. Louis in 1905, Esther’s family moved to Seattle in 1912. In her working life she felt useful and accomplished, underappreciated and unacknowledged-the tangle of rewards and disappointments experienced by working women in mid-century. Devoted to her daughter and her volunteer causes, Esther received the first Esther Eggleston Outstanding Service Award from Women’s American ORT in 1993, now awarded annually in her honor. Esther Eggleston passed away in Seattle on July 21, 2008.
“I had never worked in a temple. I had never worked with a rabbi. I needed the money because that was during Depression times and as a widowed single mother I was thinking of my daughter. I wasn’t aware of what I was getting into. I was Rabbi Levine’s secretary and also became the bookkeeper. Nobody else could have done some of the things I did-wouldn’t have taken the time or the patience. And insight into people. I don’t care who came to my office. If they needed help, if I couldn’t do it I always referred them to somebody who could. They were my family really. They called me ‘Mrs. Temple,’ they call me ‘Esther,’ they call me ‘Mrs. E’ and some names I never heard about.”
“A Falasha family came in [Ethiopian Jews who emigrated in the 1970s]. They came to me as a last resort. I talked to the Sunday School teachers and told them to tell their children that these children... not to say anything that would hurt them because they are black children. When the High Holy Days came I gave them seats in the balcony so they could see and hear the rabbis good. I gave away seats that I shouldn’t have given away. No charge. And the kids went to Sunday school, no charge. And then I went to the Board. I told them what I did. They could have fired me. And if they did, then it was good riddance. It wouldn’t have hurt me any if they would fire for something like that, but they didn’t. They were wonderful. They didn’t say I was wonderful. They said it was wonderful that it was taken care of. People don’t know any better. People just expect you to do these things. Expect it. Like a waitress. It hurts me sometimes the way people treat waitresses. They expect that service.”
“Well, when I started working, families bought seats in the synagogue. They were passed on from generation to generation. The ‘good’ seats were all gone. This is certainly not democratic. That was my theme for the nagging, meeting after meeting, to convince them that it’s time to make a change with the new Temple being built. And the president of the congregation had us at a meeting at his home for dinner and I started my spiel again. I remember him saying, ‘Esther, you are just like a bull dog. You never give up. I vote we have unallocated seats.’ He was the president of the congregation and he’s voting for unallocated seats. I was so proud that night.”
© 2004 Jewish Women’s Archive. Photographs by Joan Roth.