Newark's Colorful Depression-Era Jewish Mayor: "Champion of the City"

by Nat Bodian

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 newspaper report 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 City Commission.

His appointment was eight months before the 1933 City Commission elections.

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 were beaten.

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 hours.

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 - Page 1 Page 2)

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.

Family Survivors

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.


Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: