Naomi Flax Tepfer (b. 1902), Papers.

  • Dates: ca. 1857-1988
  • Size: 1.4 linear ft.
  • Number of Boxes: 2
  • Languages:
    • English
    • Hebrew
  • Location: Special Collections Reading Room, Jewish Theological Seminary Library.
  • Restrictions: Reproduction of fragile items is not permitted; consult the archivist about literary rights.
  • Gift Of: Naomi Flax Tepfer, 1991-1996; prayerbook, Herzl Flax, 1992

JM, 1/2/98

Table of Contents:

A Note on Folder Headings

Individual folders are identified in the following way on the left side of each folder: Name of Collection, box #/folder#, as in Ben Zion Bokser Papers, 4/22. Please use this format in citations and when referring to files for any other reason.

Biographical Note

Naomi Flax Tepfer, a lifelong Zionist, was born in 1902 and grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Her father, Louis Flax, was ordained as a rabbi in Europe. In Brooklyn Flax supported his family of fourteen children by serving as the shammes (sexton) of Congregation Sons of Israel in Bensonhurst. He supplemented his income by presiding at marriages, training boys for bar mitzvahs, serving as a mohel and ritual slaughterer, and other jobs serving the religious needs of the local Jewish community.

Naomi Flax's interest in Zionism was sparked in her family - one of her brothers was named Herzl - but she found further encouragement in what she referred to as the "ideal Jewish community" of Bensonhurst. She spent time at "Zion House," an organization set up by her neighbors, Robert and Shelly Kesselman before they moved to Palestine in 1920, and she served as an officer in both Young Judea and Junior Hadassah.

Naomi graduated from Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, and continued her education at the Israel Friedlaender Classes, the extension school of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Teachers Institute, and the Brooklyn branch of Hunter College.

In 1925 Louis Flax and his wife were offered a trip to Palestine by a wealthy congregant. Naomi accompanied them, paying her way with money she earned working as a camp counselor. After her parents returned to the United States, Naomi remained in Jerusalem. She took a room for herself and began work at the Judea Insurance Company, remaining for a year.

Before her year in Jerusalem, and continuing for the rest of her working life, Naomi Flax worked as a secretary for Zionist and other Jewish organizations. As a young woman she worked for Israel Levinthal, rabbi of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Later she worked at the ZOA and at Hadassah. From 1952 to 1963 she was the executive director of the Women's League for Conservative Judaism, then located at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Naomi Flax met her first husband, Lavy Bakstansky, secretary of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, at the 1931 Zionist Congress in Basle. She married and moved to London, where she worked at the Marks and Spencer department store and studied at the London School of Economics. In 1940 she returned to the United States with her two children. The Bakstanskys subsequently divorced.

In her sixties Naomi remarried - to Dr. John Tepfer, a Reform rabbi - and learned to drive. Now in her nineties, she continues to live an active life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Collection Description

Naomi Flax Tepfer's papers are organized into three series: papers, an oral history interview done by Ratner Center archivist Julie Miller with Tepfer in 1994-1995 (six cassettes, no transcript), and photographs, including an album documenting Tepfer's trip to Jerusalem in 1925-1926.

Tepfer's papers consist of letters, including a group written by Henrietta Szold to Tepfer and her colleagues at Hadassah; some papers of her father, sexton Louis Flax; letters from her husband's sister, Hannah Tepfer Ginzburg to Tepfer and her husband John Tepfer; ration books, identity books, and other government papers issued to Tepfer and her children in wartime London; clippings of an article Tepfer wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle describing her return from London during the war; a diary written on ship while enroute to Jerusalem in 1925; and extensive notes towards a memoir.

The letters in the collection are fairly miscellaneous. Many of them consist of family reminiscences, either written by Tepfer or received by her from others. A few condolence letters on the death of her husband John Tepfer, 1988, are included. One letter, 1925, is written by Tepfer in Hebrew on the stationery of the Judea Insurance Company to her family in Brooklyn.

Of note is a photocopy of a telegram from Chaim Weizmann, December 5, 1947, reading: "You have labored faithfully for many years and you will see state in its full development." Also of note is a letter of introduction to "Professor Friedlaender" (probably Israel Friedlaender at The Jewish Theological Seminary) written by A. Buchler of Jews College, London, for John Tepfer, 1915.

Of particular note is a group of letters, all photocopies, of letters written by Henrietta Szold to Naomi and "girls" - presumably her colleagues at Hadassah. These include thanks for a birthday telegram Szold received from "the girls" while on board ship, December 21, 1929. In other letters Szold reports on her progress in Hebrew (1930) and congratulates Naomi on her engagement (1932).

Louis Flax's papers document his career, and consist of a license to practice as a minister issued by the state of Ohio in 1904, a few household bills and letters, letters of appointment to his position as sexton at Congregation Sons of Israel in Bensonhurst, 1907-1919, and a document in Hebrew and Russian, 1857.

Hannah Ginzburg, sister of John Tepfer, was married to a poet, Pessach Ginzburg, and lived in Israel. Her letters, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s (also including a photocopy of a letter from 1923) document family matters as well as the wars and political events taking place in Israel during those years.

Naomi Tepfer's shipboard diary records her trip to Jerusalem - it is supplemented by her photograph album documenting her year there.

In her memoir notes Tepfer reminisces about her childhood in Brooklyn as the daughter of an impecunious sexton; her participation in Young Judaea, Junior Hadassah, and other Zionist activities in Brooklyn and beyond; her attendance at the Zionist congress in Basle in 1931 (in particular her distress at the dissension among Zionists she witnessed there); her years in London; studies at Hunter College and the London School of Economics. Tepfer also speaks about her working life: as secretary of Israel Levinthal at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, of Robert Szold at the Zionist Organization of America, and of Irma Lindheim, president of Hadassah (where she got to know Henrietta Szold), and as executive director of the Women's League, 1952-1963. Tepfer also reminisces about friends, including Hannah Machlowitz, who worked as Mordecai Kaplan's secretary, and about Adele Ginzberg, who she knew at the Women's League. The oral history interview covers much of the same territory. Her notes and the interview thus provide a view of life at the Seminary over a period of many years.

Tepfer's photograph album documenting her year in Jerusalem contains mostly snapshots of picturesque scenes in the city, as well as pictures of Naomi, her friends, and her office at the Judea Insurance Company. A few professional photographs of Jerusalem scenes, and tickets to events - including the opening of Hebrew University - are also included.

Loose photographs, some of which have been added to the Ratner Center's photograph collection, show family and friends, including Hannah Machlowitz; campers at Camp Aurora, where she worked in the twenties; boating on Gravesend Bay; and fellow secretaries posing on the porch of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Of note is a mounted portrait of Naomi posing in the garden of Reids Hotel, Madeira, on the way to Jerusalem. Announcements of her first marriage are pasted on the back. Also included is a snapshot of Tepfer, her daughter, Emma Ehrlich, and Henrietta Szold in Zurich, 1937.

Series List

  • I. Papers
  • II. Oral History Interview
  • III. Photographs

Box List

Box  Folder(s)  Description 
  I. Papers, 1857-1988
1 1 Brooklyn Eagle story, June 21, 1940, clippings
 2 Clippings
 3 Louis Flax papers, 1857-193; minister's license, Ohio, 1904, is in box 2, folder 1
 4 Ginzburg, Hannah Tepfer, letters, 1923; 1966; 1973-1988
 5 Letters, miscellaneous, 1915-1988
 6 London documents, 1939-1948
 7-10 Memoir notes
 11 Photocopies from scrapbook
 12 Published writings
 13 Shipboard diary, Jerusalem trip, 1925
 14 Henrietta Szold letters, 1929-1932
 15 Young Folks League Players of the Congregation Sons of Israel program for "Potash and Perlmutter," 1923
1 Unfoldered  Prayerbook (Daily Prayers trans. A. Th. Philips, New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1912) presented to Herzl Flax by Henry Morais for regular attendance at Sabbath services, 1913.
  II. Oral History Interview, 1994-1995
1 Unfoldered Six cassette tapes of an oral history interview with Naomi Tepfer by Julie Miller, 1994-1995.
  III. Photographs
2 1 Louis Flax, minister's license, Ohio, 1904
 2 Photographs
 3 Loose photograph album pages and fragments
 Unfoldered Photograph album - trip to Palestine, 1925-1926