Bais Yaakov is extremely privileged to have a master educator on staff as their 12th grade Homeroom teacher. Rebbetzin Esther Bakst has been an integral part of Bais Yaakov for over 50 years, with 21 of them as the 12th grade Homeroom teacher. In this unparalleled and unmatched loyalty to Bais Yaakov, she serves not only as an educator to her talmidos, but as an advisor and mentor as well. Countless mothers have been privileged to be her students and then to send their daughters to her classroom over the span of her illustrious teaching career. The Yeshiva World recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Rebbetzin Bakst.
YW: During the war years your family was in Shanghai; what brought you to Detroit?
RB: I was newly married, and my husband [Rabbi Leib Bakst z"tl], had a Canadian visa. We traveled from Shanghai with a group of about 25 people, first to Montreal and then to Bronte, which is near Toronto. There was a summer resort in Bronte and we were sent there for recuperation. Our group remained there over Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur. Rabbi A.A. Freedman zt"l heard about our group and traveled with his wife to Bronte to meet us and spend Rosh Hashanah with us. They were the first people we met from Detroit. Around this time many of the people from our group made plans to acquire visas and move to NY. My husband had an aunt and uncle living in Detroit and a close friend Rabbi Naftoli Carlebach, so when my husband was offered a position in the Yeshiva we decided to settle in Detroit.
YW: What was the state of the Detroit Jewish Community when you arrived?
RB: I still remember arriving in Detroit. Rabbi Freedman rented a bus and the community came to greet us at the train station. For the first six weeks we stayed with Mr. Wolf Cohen and his family until we could find an apartment of our own. I have tremendous hakaras hatov to the Cohen family for opening their home to us. The Detroit community became our family. There was a kosher fish store, bakery, and butcher in Detroit. Rabbi Sholom Goldstein zt"l supervised the milking of the cows in order to have cholov yisroel milk. There were not as many conveniences back then, but it wasn’t a midbar (desert). There was a thriving community and a very strong Young Israel.
YW: What were some of your immediate goals when you arrived?
RB: I was only nineteen years of age, so my immediate goal was to get used to marriage and raise a family. I was in a new country and though I had learned English in Shanghai, there were still so many differences that I needed to adjust to. I needed a role model, and I found one in Mrs. Carlebach, a woman a little older than I who had young children. I learned a lot from her about running a household.
YW: Aside from teaching in Bais Yaakov, and taking care of your family, you also had the role of Rosh Yeshiva’s wife as a lifelong partner to your husband, Rabbi Leib Bakst. How were you able to juggle your many different roles?
RB: I never really thought about it. I just did it. I grew into my different positions. It didn’t all happen at once. I first concentrated on being a wife and mother. Rabbi Freedman kept after me to teach full-time in the Yeshiva but I wasn’t ready because I still had young children. I ran one Shabbos group for Young Israel, working with many girls. My husband was teaching in the Yeshiva, where there was a day school and a strong afternoon school where boys from public school would come at the end of their school day. Rabbi Freedman, Rabbi Sholom Goldstein, myself, and others would go knocking on doors convincing families to send their children to the day school. In those days, people did not realize the importance of a Jewish day school education and it was a hard sell. I was also involved in the PTA; I served as President and I chaired the School Picnics. Things were different then; fathers shlepped tables, mothers came and organized the food. People had more time then to volunteer for school activities. I taught on and off until my youngest daughter was four, and then agreed to teach full-time; first in the afternoon school and then in the Bais Yaakov.
YW: What are some of the challenges and strengths that you see in the present generation of girls that you are teaching?
RB: Every generation has its challenges. Girls today are very focused on their middos (character traits). They are careful to say thank you for everything and are very appreciative. The challenges of today are very different though, not only in the area of dress. Mothers are very busy, school is much more competitive, and girls feel the pressure to produce. In the past things seemed simpler and girls were not so caught up in their grades. Today, girls feel the pressure. There are not too many girls today that say, "I’m just going to be a stay-at-home mom."
YW: If you had to sum up the most important point that you try to instill in your students what would that be?
RB: There are a few equally important points. 1. Evading a Chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s name) 2. Understanding the concept of "Past Nisht," not that it’s not allowed, but rather "it just isn’t appropriate", and realizing that certain behavior is just not befitting of a Bas Melech (daughter of the King). 3. The importance of being Mekadeish Shem Shomayim (sanctifying Hashem’s name). Most importantly: How will your behavior of today look tomorrow? What impact will your actions of today be viewed as tomorrow? What is truly important? Will it matter tomorrow that all your towels were folded neatly on the shelf, but you were too busy to read your daughter a bedtime story?
YW: You serve as a role model not only to your past and present students, but to so many mothers and grandmothers in the community. Addressing them now, what message would you like to impart?
RB: If anything, I was matzliach (successful) in the things I did, but I never considered myself a role model. If I could impart one important idea, it would be that a woman must realize that her most important tafkid (task) is foremost as a wife, mother, and grandmother. Even though we all have outside interests we must remember what is most important, and that is the role we play as wives, mothers, and grandmothers.
We thank Rebbetzin Bakst for taking the time to speak to us and wish her many more successful years of teaching, in good health.