I first met Esta Azouz soon after she came on aliyah in1988 when she was already in her eighties. She was a beautiful, elegant woman who had a regal presence. She was an inspiration to me in her brilliance as a leader, as a community-minded person, and as an active volunteer. Above all, she was a role model as a human being.
As she wrote in her autobiography, Count Your Blessings, she felt her life could only end in her beloved Israel, and that she was doing. Esta in fact lived on to the incredible age of 106, and she died on November 1, 2008 one day before the twentieth anniversary of her aliyah.
Her life in Israel, as it had been in England, was totally dedicated to volunteer community work. As much to her own surprise as everyone else's, she threw herself into voluntary work with the same energy and determination as she had shown for the previous 65 years.
Amazingly, Esta was already 90 years old when she helped her friend, the late Ethel Goldberg, to establish the Esra Knitting Circle which till that date had been a weekly social gathering. Esta became its chairperson and the driving force behind it and it soon grew into an active group of women knitting for the elderly, for orphaned or abandoned children, and for other underprivileged members of the community. Esta collected wool and needles for the knitting circle, utilizing the Esra Magazine and her own and other people’s connections to spread the word. She then gave the wool and needles to the women in the knitting circle and to other women who preferred to knit at home. Once the knitted goods were ready, she looked for outlets for distribution. She stored the knitted items in her apartment and organized outings for her “girls” when the goods were ready to be distributed, making sure to take photos and write articles about this work for the Esra Magazine. When Esta became less mobile, she looked for a successor, whom she found in the very capable Wendy Goldstein, the youngest member of the circle.
In 1995 I told Esta that the Ethiopian women on the caravan site of Beerotayim had very little to do each day. She soon conceived the idea of creating a sewing center where they could learn to make clothes for their family. Again, she was the moving force behind this creative project. She donated the sewing machines, collected the materials from factories, shops and individuals and paid for the sewing teacher.
Twice a week Esta traveled the long distance to Beerotayim with her helper to run the center and while there she also made tea and biscuits for the women. Her warmth and personal touch inspired all those who attended. But then of course she was a youngster of 92!
After a couple of years some of the women moved from the caravan site to Netanya and Esta agreed to continue the project there. We created four sewing centers and once again Esta helped to find sewing machines and she continued to collect materials for the centers, this time storing them in a community center in Dora where Gidon Levitas, a community worker and also an Esra volunteer, worked. Esta used to visit this center, but by now it had become too difficult for her to visit the others.
When we started to discuss the need to start an endowment fund for Esra, Esta was the first person I thought of to approach because I knew she would listen sympathetically and wisely and that with Esta I would not feel embarrassed. She agreed to create an endowment fund for educational projects - Esra’s first endowment. Each year we would discuss which educational project would receive the interest from the fund.
In 1995, Esta published her life story in Count Your Blessings. The book describes her philosophy and approach to life. She had endured great tragedies during her life – her mother had died when she was only six years old, her only son Mark, a fighter pilot with the RAF was killed in action at age 22, her only daughter Celia died of cancer at age 39 and her husband for 68 years, Raphael, died in 1988. But Esta carried on living with great courage and spirit and a positive outlook to life. When asked what the secret of her longevity was, Esta used to reply: "A sense of humor."
She gave the book to Esra to sell and keep the profits. She maintained a keen interest in sales, which she too promoted, and kept an assiduous check on the income.
Esta frequently telephoned me to discuss Esra business so she could be updated about what was going on. She would invite me to her apartment so that the two of us could talk more personally about Esra in general and her projects in particular. We would go through any problems there might be, and we would discuss new ideas. She was always very communicative and clearly relished her role as an Esra volunteer. With her customary elegance, Esta always served freshly brewed English tea in a delicate china teacup with a selection of biscuits.
On Esta’s 95th birthday we organized a beautiful party in my garden in Kfar Shmaryahu for her family, friends and fellow volunteers. Esta, in addition to work in Esra, had many acts of philanthropy to her name: benefiting soldiers, WIZO and students at Bar-Ilan University amongst others. The walls of her home were decorated with awards and certificates of appreciation, including an Award of Merit from the Mayor of Raanana and an Esra Award of Outstanding Volunteership.
Esta leaves her exceptional, still thriving projects as her legacy to Esra: her prototype knitting circle which has led to several more in other cities; her sewing centers which have extended to Kfar Saba; her endowment fund which every year funds an Esra community project and her book with its positive and inspiring message.
And she has left us her granddaughter, Sally Halon, who has inherited Esta’s spirit of volunteerism, her determination, her organizational and administrative abilities, and her desire to contribute to the community.
Esra and all of us who had the privilege of knowing Esta will sorely miss this amazing woman and truly creative volunteer.
Count Your Blessings by Esta Azouz is available from Esra for NIS 30.
Please call 09 950 8371.