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Editor's Note — During the spring 2023 semester, the Jewish Studies Program, with generous support from the Frank and Yetta Chaiken Foundation, was pleased to offer the inaugural Yetta Chaiken Oral History Internship at the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware. The first interns, Shay Bloom and Hope Kabura, worked in the JHSD archives while also conducting new interviews with local Jewish community members. Their article, “Three Generations of Trailblazers,” about prominent Delawarean Yetta Frankel and her family, was featured in the October 2023 edition of Jewish Living Delaware. Shay Bloom graduated in May 2023 with a B.A. in fashion merchandising and a minor in Jewish studies. Hope Kabura is currently a junior, with a major in international relations and a minor in philosophy. Read the complete history below.
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Estella Hillersohn Frankel, a lifelong musician and native of Delaware, taught in music in Wilmington public schools and Wilmington Music School for more than 50 years. Image courtesy of Jewish Historical Society of Delaware.
By Shay Bloom and H.K. Anuani
Elizabeth Ostro Hillersohn, her daughter Estella Hillersohn Frankel, and her granddaughter Sonia Sloan Schorr were trailblazers in their community. Elizabeth and Sonia were very active in public interest organizations and social institutions in the Jewish community as well as in politics. Estella, who taught in musical education, also took an active role in the local Jewish community both through her teaching and her other various musical jobs such as playing in orchestras and for local churches and synagogues. Due to the dedication and care they had for their passions and community, these three women have created long-term change and improved the lives of the people around them.
Born in 1865 (U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current, n.d.), Elizabeth Ostro Hillershon emigrated from Russia in the mid-1880s with her sister (Frankel, "Interview #96"). After migrating, she met her husband, also a Russian immigrant, and had their two daughters Estella and Rosalia in the United States. After arriving, Estella believes Elizabeth attended night school but like most women at the time, was never able to attend college. Despite — or perhaps because of this — she strongly encouraged her daughters to pursue education after high school and was referred to by Estella as “[knowing] everything that was going on" (Frankel, “Interview #96").
She was also extremely forward-thinking and always looking into the future, encouraging and supporting both of her children's interests, enrolling them in music lessons at a young age. As children, she took Estella and Rosalia to lectures in Philadelphia at the Ethical Society, and in between her other endeavors, also helped in her husband's and brothers' stores.
Furthermore, Elizabeth helped start a Reform synagogue in the area, Temple Beth Emeth, and marched in at least one suffragette parade — likely one in Philadelphia. And along with her mother Ann “Chasie" Ostro — who was one of the founders of the Ladies Bikur Cholem, a home for elderly Jewish people — Elizabeth also became an instrumental part of that association (Frankel, “Interview #159"). Elizabeth, also known as 'Lizzie', was even elected to the Board of Directors for the society in 1920 (“The Morning News, 26 Nov 1920, Page 5" n.d.).
Elizabeth's passion for her community and love for learning continued throughout her life and was passed on to her children. Like her mother, Estella also loved learning and working in her community. She was introduced to music at a young age, starting violin lessons around the age of seven after her sister Rosalia's teacher Miss Gillespie saw potential in her. Miss Gillespie went on to be Estella's teacher for the next decade and became her main musical mentor growing up. In high school, she advocated for herself in order to join the orchestra, which at the time was all-boys; likely becoming the first girl ever to join. Despite initially experiencing active discouragement from the teacher in charge, she thankfully did not experience notable misogyny within that orchestra or in the many other orchestral settings where she was the only woman throughout her life.
After high school, due in part to encouragement from her mother to further her education, she went on to attend the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, and graduated early, receiving her teacher's diploma in only two years. Upon her graduation, she took several music jobs at once, playing violin at churches as well as teaching private lessons which she continued to hold throughout her career. Due to an unsuccessful marriage, and subsequent divorce, Estella had to look for another job in order to make ends meet to support her young child, Victor. She began teaching at a Sunday school and at Wilmington Music School around 1929, continuing to work at the music school for the next 15 years (Frankel, "Interview #159").
To supplement this income, she also applied to be a substitute teacher, a job she began in 1933. Estella first became a substitute teacher when she was called to teach at Bayard School. At that time, she also taught adult music education in New Castle, Newark, as well as at Brown Vocational School. When the Vocational School moved to 14th and Market, she was sent out to start a violin class at George Gray School. It was such a success that she would even teach about 80 students on Saturday mornings from 9 to 12 (Frankel, “Interview #96"). Gradually, she grew in her profession, eventually circulating between five schools teaching string instruments. Then in the 1960s, Estella and Peggy McCloskey introduced the Suzuki teaching method to Delaware's public schools (Frankel, “Interview #159"). Over the course of her career, Estella taught in Wilmington public schools for an impressive 36 years and five months and at the Wilmington Music School for 15 years. She also continued to tutor violinists till the age of 96.
Beyond academia, she also taught and played throughout the state. This ranged from directing the Gilbert and Sullivan opera in Arden and Wilmington, Delaware, to working with a nurse's chorus at the Memorial Hospital, now called Delaware Hospital (Frankel, “Interview #159"). Furthermore, although her family wasn't particularly religious, they did attend services regularly and always celebrated the holidays. Estella's mother did not keep a kosher home but always made the traditional food for holidays and instilled the importance of Judaism and the Jewish community in her children, as well as ensuring they were immersed in Jewish history. This led to Estella's lifelong connection and work within the Jewish community such as helping lead the Temple choir and helping children to put on plays at the synagogue.
A woman of many firsts, Sonia Schorr Sloan, Estella's niece, was the first woman to get a degree from Thomas Jefferson Medical School. Upon graduation, she became the first female research staff member and second Jewish person at the DuPont Central Research Department (Thomas Jefferson University, 2015). A lifelong activist, Sonia was dedicated to public interests. In her early days in the field, she led the Young Democrats of Northern New Castle County, chaired anti-Vietnam-War campaigns, and then focused on fundraising for nonprofits. Throughout her career, she fundraised extensively for Delaware nonprofits, amassing more than $100 million (Soulsman, 2015).
She also played a role in establishing several organizations in Delaware such as the Cancer Support Community Delaware (then Wellness Community), Delaware American Civil Liberties Union, and the Public Allies Delaware which provide communities with medical, legal and career resources respectively. She served as president of the Board of Planned Parenthood (1980-84) and would later join the Board again at the age of 86, chairing the development work (Thomas Jefferson University, 2015).
Describing her early years, Sonia emphasized that growing up with her extended family — who she characterized as active and busy — made for a spectacular childhood and instilled in her the positive qualities that founded her remarkable career and legacy (Frankel, “Interview #159"). A great and beloved mentor to many, Sonia sought to instill these traits in her mentees, who in turn remember her for her charm, dedication, and humility.
Over the course of three generations, these women created real change and exhibited the epitome of tikkun olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world, for the people around them and their wider community. Elizabeth's role in establishing the Ladies Bikur Cholem Society and Temple Beth Emeth gave way to essential community resources. Estella through her tutoring instilled in a generation of students — who would go on to become world class musicians and professionals — the ever-necessary virtues of discipline and diligence. Following in the footsteps of her grandmother, Sonia's service to nonprofit organizations made available so many essential services and resources for the communities they serve. To borrow from Estella, “we som
“Delaware, U.S., Newspapers.ComTM Stories and Events Index, 1800's-Current - Ancestry.Com." Ancestry.Com, 26 Nov. 1920.
Frankel, Estella. “Estella Frankel Item - #96". By Rachelle Saltzman. Jewish Historical Society of Delaware. April 11 + 20, 1978.
Frankel, Estella. “Estella Frankel Item- #159". By Yetta Chaiken. Jewish Historical Society of Delaware. February 6, 1998.
Congregation Beth Emeth. Our History. BethEmeth.org. Accessed 21 Aug. 2023.
Soulsman, Gary. 2015. “One Woman's Tireless Efforts to Save a Broken World." Delaware Today.
“The Morning News 26 Nov 1920, Page 5." Newspapers.Com. Accessed 21 Aug. 2023.
Thomas Jefferson University. 2015. “Sonia Schorr Sloan." February 6, 2015 – Sonia Schorr Sloan speaking with archivist Kelsey Duinkerken at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
“U.S., Find a Grave® Index, 1600s-Current - Ancestry.Com." Ancestry.Com. Accessed 21 Aug. 2023.
U.S., Newspapers.ComTM Obituary Index, 1800s-Current - Ancestry.Com. Accessed 21 Aug. 2023.