Baltimore’s Jewish community lost a gentle, compassionate and gracious soul late last week with the passing of Toby Essrog, z”l.
You might ask how did a non-Baltimorean, the son of a rabbi, born in Erie, Pa., who grew up in Tucson, Ariz. (yes, that’s me), come to know Toby Essrog?
The Oleisky and Essrog families have been good friends for more than 60 years. My father, Rabbi Arthur Oleisky, and Toby’s brother, Rabbi Sheldon Elster, z”l, were classmates at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, and that’s how my dad met Toby and her husband, Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog, z”l.
Seymour — who passed away in October of 2002 and served as spiritual leader of such local congregations as Beth Israel, B’nai Israel and Adat Chaim — became president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in 1998. My father was his campaign manager.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., and then to Baltimore in my early 20s, the Essrogs welcomed me with open arms. Over the past three decades, as my family grew, Toby and Seymour were always incredibly kind to my wife, Debbie, and our daughters, Sarah and Emily.
Toby started a long-running tradition of inviting our immediate family over for a Passover seder and for Rosh Hashanah lunch every year. I’ve lost count but I’m pretty sure that with a few exceptions, I’ve had the pleasure of eating at Toby’s dining room table at least 50 times.
I have to go into detail for a moment about being treated to a yontif (holiday) lunch at Toby’s. Besides being an excellent cook, Toby believed that you should eat your fill and then some. Multiple side dishes, along with a massive pile of chicken and fresh-cooked vegetables, always adorned the table.
You hardly had room for the excellent homemade desserts (usually a cake or three). Perhaps the highlight of an Essrog holiday meal was Toby’s signature gefilte fish souffle. It was beyond delicious. Toby knew that I was a huge fan, and in recent years she would always prepare an extra large portion for the Oleisky family to take home.
While I was not related to Toby, we had a special bond. I had tears in my eyes as I shared the news of her passing over the phone with my parents. Toby was almost like a second mother to me. She taught me the value of a lifelong friendship and why treating others with kindness is so important.
Toby wore her Judaism on her sleeve and was one of the most caring, authentic and lovely human beings I’ve ever met. She had a wonderfully unique way of connecting with you one-on-one and was genuinely interested in what you were doing in life.
She went out of her way at these special holiday meals to always sit by my family in an effort to spend time with us. In more recent years, we continued our friendship beyond the seder table by meeting for an occasional dinner. Toby was not shy about using the phone to check in on us and make sure everything was going well with our extended family.
Deborah-Jo and Jay, Michael and Mindy and Rena and Bill, your mother was a special person.
Toby, I’ll miss your gefilte fish, but my family will miss you forever. The holidays will never be the same without you.
May Toby Essrog’s memory always be for a blessing.
Jonathan Oleisky is a managing partner of Jmore.