In June 1997, Newark's two-term Depression-era
mayor was the subject of the annual meeting of the Jewish Historical
Society of Metrowest in Whippany.
At that gathering, Paul A. Stellhorn, assistant director of development
at the Newark Public Library, who made the subject presentation,
in his presentation's title dubbed Newark's first and only Jewish
mayor "Champion of the City."
Stellhorn examined the struggles and political career of this
charismatic and many-sided man, who became mayor in the depths of
the great Depression...during a time in Newark's history when his
greatest problems were relief for Newark's vast army of unemployed,
and the city's rapidly declining sources of revenue.1
Did a Pretty Good Job
"I know he had his critics," Donald Karp of the Newark
Historical Society and vice chairman of Independence Community Bank
in Newark, wrote on March 31, 2003 to
Mayor Sharpe James about Ellenstein,
but "he did, what many people believed was a pretty good job
during a very trying time."
My Ellenstein Recollection
I am able to recall Ellenstein's two mayoral terms, from 1933
to 1941, both as a Third Ward resident in those years and as a young
journalist who had occasion to interview him for a
on June 27, 1940 on the evacuation of British children to America
during the height of the Luftwaffe blitz of London.
I have long wondered why this charismatic man, who as best as
my research has indicated, was certainly the most colorful, charming,
and talented city leader in Newark's history through the World War
II era, has gone for so long little-known and unrecognized for his
contributions to the city.
I have assembled this, my 84th Old Newark "Memory" ...
based on personal reflections together with notes from the Stellhorn
presentation, and the recollections of other former Newarkers, and
old newspaper records, to tell the Meyer C. Ellenstein story ...
to reveal the many sides of this unusual man ... and to shed long
overdue light on the place in Newark's history of the city's 31st
mayor and its tenth two-term mayor.
Entry into Newark Politics
Ellenstein's first venture into Newark city politics came in May
1929 with his first campaign for a seat on the Newark City Commission.
This was 12 years after the commission form of government was
introduced in Newark city government and voters voted for 5 of 19
candidates for the five city commission seats.
With the stock market crash just months away, the five Republican
incumbents won easily, but Ellenstein, the candidate from the heavily-Jewish
Third Ward, finished a strong sixth.
Three years later, after the stock market crash had thrown the
city into a catastrophic depression that had devastating effects
on employment, construction, trade, and tax collection, Republican
Commissioner John F. Murray died.
Tremendous pressure was put on a highly reluctant Republican city
commission to appoint Democratic runner-up Ellenstein.
On October 6, 1932, after 154 ballots and endorsement from the
Republican county chairman, Ellenstein was appointed to the Newark
His appointment was eight months before the 1933 City Commission
Ellenstein Tops Field, Becomes Mayor
In the 1933 election, Ellenstein, a resident of Newark's heavily
Jewish Third Ward, running in a field of 29 candidates, won handily
with 75, 181 votes. He became Newark's first (and only) Jewish mayor.
His vote tally was the largest vote for any candidate in the history
of Newark's commission form of government, installed in 1917.
Ellenstein's four Republican colleagues on the earlier city commission
Newark's population, when Ellenstein entered the office of Mayor,
was 445,000. The city's Jewish population in 1933 was not less than
70,000 a count based on the tallies of the US Census Bureau's Census
of Religious Bodies.
New Mayor's Inheritance
The burdens of the troubled city would rest on Ellenstein's shoulders
as mayor until 1941.
Here are but a few of the early problems of this new City Father:
Some 75,191 individuals were on relief and the city had 45,986 registered
as unemployed. A free soup kitchen was feeding as many as 1,400
at each meal and men sold apples in the streets.
In the eight years up to Ellenstein's election as mayor 600 Newark
factories had closed. Newark payrolls in those eight years had dropped
from a high of $90 million to $40 million.
Second Mayoral Term and Other City Service
Ellenstein swept into his second mayoral term in the 1937 elections
on Tuesday, May 11, when he emerged as the second-highest vote-getter
with a vote count of 45,049.
Following his second four-year term as mayor, Ellenstein served
on the Newark City Commission for eight additional years.
After the 1945 election, he was Commissioner of Public Works.
Following the 1949 election, he relinquished public works and
became head of the Department of Revenue and Finance. In that election,
Ellenstein topped all candidates. In that same 1949 election, incumbent
Mayor Vincent J. Murphy was defeated.
Non-City Career Activities
In 1945, while serving as Commissioner of Public Works, Ellenstein
also became a partner in J. B. Hanauer & Company, a securities
and investment firm. At the same time, he was also named a member
of the board of the Reading Tube Company.
In 1950, he severed his ties with Hanauer & Company and set
up a labor and public relations firm under his own name.2
Birth and Early Life
Meyer Ellenstein was born in New York City on October 15, 1886.
His early life was a troubled one. After completing grammar school,
he dropped out of school in his freshman year in high school to
help support his family.
His father had died when he was eight years old, leaving his widowed
mother, and five children -- himself, and four sisters.
He went to work at a Paterson silk mill, where he worked 10-hour
days3 and half
a day Saturday for a $16-$18 salary. Later he quit his job in the
silk mill to become a fulltime shoe salesman in New York City, commuting
to and from work daily from his home in Paterson.
Ellenstein's employer in New York City was quick to recognize
Ellenstein's unique abilities and encouraged him to pursue a future
career in dentistry. With help from his employer, he studied for
a year, mostly at night and passed the New York Regents examination
which qualified him for entry into college.
Becomes a Dentist
In 1908, at the age of 19, he entered the Oral and Dental Surgical
College of New York (later to become Columbia University School
of Dentistry). He continued to work as a shoe salesman in his off
He graduated from the dental school three years later in 1912
as president of his class and opened a dental office in New York
City. Until his practice built up, he continued to work part-time
as a shoe salesman.
Marries, Moves to Newark
He subsequently married a Newark girl in 1914, Hilda Hausner,
and moved his dental office and residence to Newark in a building
at 594 High Street, corner of Court Street.4
Here he built a successful dental practice.
Turns to Pursuit of New Career in Law
Tiring of Dentistry, Dr. Ellenstein decided to become a lawyer.
He entered New Jersey Law School in Newark in 1922, while continuing
to support himself by maintaining his dental practice at night.
He graduated from New Jersey Law School in 1925, again as president
of his class, and after being admitted to the bar, opened his law
office in the Academy Building at 17 Academy Street.5
He continued his dental practice part-time.
Death, Funeral, and Legacy
Doc Ellenstein died on Saturday, February 11, 1967 at the age
of 78, after a lingering, painful illness, at the New York Hospital
branch in White Plains. (Article from the Newark Sunday News -
Funeral services were held on Monday, February 13, at the Goldsticker
Memorial Home at 228 Chancellor Avenue, Newark. Many persons prominent
in civic and political life were present.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz6
of Temple B'nai Abraham conducted the services. He eulogized Ellenstein
as "a very warm human being, an unbelievably charming man,
and a man born to leadership."
Rabbi Prinz further described him in the eulogy as a man who fought
his way up from poverty, and as "the most colorful, interesting
and many-sided man" to serve as Newark's mayor.
Ellenstein is buried at the Oheb Shalom Cemetery at 1321 North
Broad Street in Hillside. He was a member of the Oheb Shalom congregation,
which was then located at 672 High Street, just a few steps from
the YM-YWHA at No. 652.
According to Martin Fox, executor of his estate, Ellenstein left
a legacy of $200,000 to the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan
New Jersey in West Orange. The West Orange institution had then
become the hub of Essex County's heaviest Jewish population and
was a successor institution of the former High Street YM-YWHA which
no longer existed.
At his death, Ellenstein left his wife, Ruth, and three children
from a previous marriage, Robert of Los Angeles, a noted actor of
screen and television; two daughters, Ruth Wahl of South Orange,
and Miriam Cohen of Brookline, Mass., and six grandchildren.