Jewish charity stories: Dvora Esther

We have described Moses Montefiore’s visit to Vilnius and also told a story of Shimon Kaftan in a few previous posts. In this article, I would like to refer to the initiative of a single individual. 

Dvora Ester - a charity legend in VilniusAmong the many peddlers that walked along the streets of Vilna with baskets of patties, one was especially notable for helping people in need. She collected alms, divided it among the poor, and founded a loan, “Gemilut Hesed,” which helped support the needy. This woman, known as Dvora-Esther, was from ordinary people. She was born in Vilna in 1827, at the age of 17 she married a worker of a sawmill. To replenish her husband’s meager earnings, from the early morning, Dvora-Esther was rushing along the streets of Vilna with a basket, selling her simple meal. She did not have children, and she devoted all her free time to collecting alms for the poor. She spun in the courtyard of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, the Shul-hoif,” walked the streets from shop to shop, from one house to another, or sat in the fish market and always had a plate for collecting alms.

Charity for charity 

Dvora Esther used to hand out the collected money to the poor and supported schools for the study of the Torah. She knew well who needed help. She paid particular attention to women in need. Dvora-Esther had three pockets for three different purposes: for loans, for poor brides, and other various needs. She did not particularly appeal to the rich; she did not give alms to anyone but tried to help so that the needy did not stretch his legs.

At first, she gave out loans at home, and then, when it appeared there was not enough space, she decided to establish a mutual assistance cash desk, “Gmilut Hesed,” in one of the kloyzim in the “Shul-hoif.” She invested several hundreds of rubles in it, and, over time, people donated considerable extra amounts of money. She urged many women of Vilna to give their jewelry in favor of Gemilut Hesed.

In Vilnius Synagogue

There were over a hundred synagogues in Vilnius, today there is only one, and you can read about it in the post we published a while ago. Dvora-Esther used to sit in the synagogue at regular hours on constant days and crushed loans. Soon this synagogue began to be called “kloyz Dvora-Esther.” She did not record who and how much received but kept all this in her memory. When she reached 70 years of age, and her mind began to weaken, she learned writing, and one old Jew started to help her in her notes.

There were regular donors to the Dvora-Esther box office, some gave a penny or two a week, and others donated three rubles a month or more. Some received help from the mutual assistance cash desk at the time, and when back on their feet, they donated even more substantial sums in favor of Gemilut Hesed. The peak of Gemilut Hesed of Dvora-Esther reached 60,000 rubles – more than any other in the city. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Dvora-Esther, community printed her portrait, and it adorned many houses in Vilna, as were the pictures of Sir Moses Montefiore in his time.

Annual meetings in Vilnius

By the end of the 19th century, all charitable organizations in Vilna started to hold annual meetings with a report on their activities. About 900 people attended the meeting of Gemilut Hesed of Dvora-Esther in 1899. Dvora-Esther was already old and sick but did not cancel her participation. She sat and listened to what was happening in the main hall. There was also an artistic part at that meeting. Khazan (cantor), accompanied by the choir, sang an excerpt from the Book of Psalms. The preacher Moshe-Shimon Antokolsky spoke about the secrets of the Jewish heart and Jewish mercy and beneficence.

In 1905, of the “Gmilut Hesed” Dvora-Esther celebrated the 25th anniversary. The ceremony gathered over 3000 people. Welcoming speeches in honor of the righteous woman shook the walls of the hall. Suddenly Dvora-Esther, already old and thin, decided to replenish her fund. She took from someone a basket of fruits and sweets and went along the rows, offering to buy from her. In the artistic part, the famous cantor Gershon Sirota sang with his choir.

The legend of the Jewish charity stories: Dvora-Esther: Dvora-Esther, died in 1907. A cart hit her on the street when she was collecting alms. When it became known about the death of the righteous, thousands of people escorted her on her last way. Famous rabbis made grave speeches. In all the synagogues, people prayed in memory of Dvora-Esther. Numerous Vilnius residents came to put tzetalach (notes for blessing) on her grave.

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