For well over a quarter-century, Rebbetzin Shifra Witty, who passed away last Tuesday at the age of 86, was lovingly known to many in Kew Gardens Hills as “Morah Shifra,” raised her nursery children of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills Youth Center each as her own. Today, these children, whom I am privileged to be counted amongst, remain as one of her many deep, lasting legacies. She lived by her own motto: “If you enjoy people, it doesn’t matter how old they are – you can still make a difference in their lives.”
Shifra, named after her own great-grandmother, was a tried-and-true Yerushalmi tzadeikes. The name Shifra, literally defined as lovely, was most appropriate for such a woman of valor, who like her Biblical namesake, spent her years beautifying, transforming, and improving the lives of generations of the community’s youth.
Growing up in the sacred neighborhood of Shaarei Chesed in Yerushalayim, Shifra never lost touch with its consecrated meaning, ensuring that the vestige of yesteryear was passed down to her descendants, and always lived her life in the eye of Israel. On trips to Eretz Yisrael, Rebbetzin Witty educated her children and grandchildren on the heritage of the streets they walked. It was on these expeditions that the extended Witty family saw just how precious her connection and appreciation was with the g’dolim of the past, most notably HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The Witty family, with the blessing of the Chazon Ish, moved to America, seeking a means to an improved livelihood. There was a sparkle in her eyes whenever she had the unique opportunity to witness a gadol baTorah.
Caring for the young kollel families of Eretz Yisrael was a passion that Shifra inherited from her upbringing. Her father taught g’milas chesed to his children by establishing a g’mach for young kollel families, and Shifra continued this family trait with her meticulous and selfless devotion as a longtime president of the Erna Lindenfeld Hachnosas Kallah of Queens Fund.
Rebbetzin Chaya Oelbaum was privileged to sit in with Shifra on the monthly Hachnosas Kallah meetings, where the group decided how to divvy hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. “Rebbetzin Shifra was a very special person whom many reached out to for advice. She was the mother of Kew Gardens Hills.”
Since accepting the role at Hachnosas Kallah, Reb. Witty stood as a leader, always showing grace and dignity to all. Many described being in her aura as one of their greatest pleasures. In her principal role at ELHKQ, Reb. Witty presided over some 20-odd women, each with her own talents. The Rebbetzin would toil to ensure that each Board Member was designated a specific task, to give them purpose and fulfilment.
“Rebbetzin Witty was a noble woman who taught by example,” said Mrs. Chavie Dick. “Her dedication to g’milas chasadim was unparalleled. She was a true role model and an inspiration to all who knew her. Moreover, she influenced everyone to emulate her.”
While there are no words to sum up a mother to all, Mrs. Roz Weinstein explained her cherished friend’s attributes. “Rebbetzin Witty, along with her smile and tremendous derech eretz, represented all that was good and was a role model for all. While Hachnosas Kallah of Queens was her focus over the last two decades, it was her service as a morah to so many that holds much significance.”
For just shy of 30 years, Reb. Witty was a nursery teacher at the Young Israel, where she was the segue to the future and instilled a flavor of Yiddishkeit in the boys and girls of her classroom. True to her character, she often inquired of their well-being decades later. It was said that many students would bring her mishloach manos on Purim many years later, further highlighting her deep impact. But her career in chinuch began long before, at the tender age of 17 at the Bais Yaakov of Rabbi Levy in Brooklyn. At Rebbetzin Witty’s l’vayah, Yochanan Metzger, a grandson, related that a chavrusa of his, Yitzy Katz, once referred to himself as a talmid of his grandmother. Rabbi Marty and Mrs. Yaffa Katz, Yitzy’s parents, explained that Morah Shifra was a teacher for all children who loved to play and sing together and bring out their best elements. “Like many of our friends, we would ask Rebbetzin Witty for advice on parenting and rearing our own mishpachah,” expressed Rabbi Katz. “Her sensitivity to children was legendary, and we as a couple were just so comfortable discussing our situation with her.” In conversations with community voices, it became clear that Shifra was a sought-after address for advice and guidance. Her words gave direction on how to act, how to unite, and more importantly, on how to make peace amongst those in a dispute.
Rabbi Katz was particularly fond of Reb. Witty’s involvement with his organization Just One Life and her dedication as an event co-chair for an annual Queens fundraiser featuring the renowned Rabbi Yissocher Frand, dedicated in memory of her husband Rabbi Shlomo z”l. Rabbi Katz noted that he would often share Rabbi Frand’s famed tape recordings with the Rebbetzin and continuously review the message. Rabbi Witty, like his gallant eizer k’negdo, was a master m’chaneich. They both excelled in perpetuating Jewish teachings in their students, resulting in confident men and women who were given the tools to create their own families in the way of Hashem. Although she lost her husband roughly 30 years ago, the Rebbetzin took solace in his closeness to his Creator and his love of chazanus that she passed on to her students and family. Her mother, Shaina Sarah, was a wise person who passed on these erudite qualities to her three daughters, and in turn, Shifra did the same with her own three daughters and son.
Rabbi Noach Witty noted how the Rebbetzin shined as the ultimate mother, and her brother, Reb Chaim Cohen, noted that in every conversation she revealed an encouraging Judaic verse or thought that exemplified her love and trust in Hashem. This underlined her belief that all happened for the best. Ultimately, she was proud of how her family was a light in the name of Hashem both in their love of learning, overall character, and yearning to grow in His eyes. She took great gratification in the accomplishments of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and would spend Erev Shabbos conversing with them all.
On a similar note, the holiness of Shabbos also played a pivotal role throughout Rebbetzin Witty’s life. She took pride in basking in the glow of the Shabbos Queen and all its grandeur. To that end, for the past 50 years, the Rebbetzin participated in a Shabbos learning group in Kew Gardens Hills where engrossing discussions are held in Tanach. The group began with delving into Sefer Yehoshua and now studies Sefer Divrei HaYamim. She was visibly disturbed when life situations pulled her away from these learning sessions for extended periods.
Shifra enjoyed davening three times daily, immersing herself in the beauty of T’hilim and mitzvos, and learning from s’farim including Tanach to uncover new ways to live better in the eyes of Hashem. This was how she followed her ancestors, and her learning became the jewel in her crown and light in her eye, leading to a persona that was attainable to others even well into her 80s.
Her extraordinary community involvement spanned through other highly regarded community organizations, including Satmar Bikur Cholim, and Mikveh Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and her legendary friendships with leading women like Mrs. Nechama Biderman, Mrs. Debbie Benedict, Mrs. Berti Herzka, Mrs. Ruth Kantrowitz, Reb. Phyllis Lander, Mrs. Ellen Langer, Mrs. Celia Rapp, Reb. Peri Schonfeld, Reb. Ruth Schonfeld a”h, Rabbi and Reb. Peretz Steinberg, and Mrs. Devora Shore, amongst many others.
Rebbetzin Witty is survived by her brother Reb Chaim Cohen of Kew Gardens Hills, her daughters Mrs. Dassy Ganz, Mrs. Chanie Metzger, and Mrs. Ettie Zelmanowitz, and her son Rabbi Noach Witty – as well as their spouses, her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, countless students, and each kollel family she impacted.
By Shabsie Saphirstein