Meyer Ellenstein was born in New York City on October 15, 1886, the son of Max Ellenstein and the former Libby Bzuroff.
First a Golden Gloves boxer and amateur handball champion of the state of New Jersey, he became a dentist and then a lawyer and then a city commissioner in Newark. His nickname was “Doc” Ellenstein.
Ellenstein first ran for office in Newark in the 1929 City Commissioners election. The field was crowded with nineteen candidates competing for five seats. Ellenstein finished a strong sixth. The entire winning slate were Republicans. Three years later, with the city in the grip of the Depression, Republican Commissioner John F. Murray passed away. Pressure was brought to bear on the remaining Republican commissioners to appoint Ellenstein to finish out Murray’s term. On October 6, 1932, with great reluctance, the Democrat Ellenstein was appointed. Eight months later, in 1933, the new City Commission elections were held. Ellenstein had 75,181 votes assumed the office as Mayor of Newark in 1933. He became Newark’s first and only Jewish mayor.
When Ellenstien assumed office in 1933, many residents were on relief and unemployment was rampant. Over six hundred factories had closed and payrolls in Newark had shrunk from ninety million to forty million. On Tuesday, May 11, 1937 he won a second term. After finishing his second term as mayor he continued as a commissioner for an additional eight years. He was a member of FDR’s Council of Mayors, a New Deal initiative to help struggling cities’.
He was a vocal critic of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s attempt to expand North Beach Airport ( later known as LaGuardia Airport) for commercial flights. He knew if New York City opened an airfield it would be a disaster for Newark’s airport. Ellenstein had fought hard, even going to Washington, to have Newark airport made the eastern mail hub. He was successful in that endeavor. But in December 1939 New York opened the field now known as LaGuardia. By mid 1940 Newark had lost its mail hub designation and most of the commercial airlines that had been flying from there. That effectively shut the airport.
There was also other factors at work against the city which would only become evident in the coming years. Newark peaked industrially around 1926. From that point on Newark began a gradual de-industrialization. The Depression exacerbated and to some extent accelerated this process. While white collar jobs at NJ Bell, Prudential, Public Service ,etc. existed and in some cases were growing the unskilled and semi-skilled blue collar jobs had begun to vanish. This slowly devastated Newark’s robust working class neighborhoods. In addition, neglected slum housing, overcrowding and the gradual migration out of the city by the wealthy and middle class was also taking its toll. All this only became evident in hindsight. It is unlikely that Ellenstein or his immediate successors had fully understood the process that had begun and would culminate so terribly in the mid- 1960’s.
Meyer C. Ellenstein passed away on February 11, 1967. His funeral service was held on February 13 in Newark. Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham presided. Rabbi Prinz, a champion of civil rights, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington speaking right before Martin Luther King gave his now historic “I Have a Dream” speech. He was a friend of the great civil rights leader. He was also a friend of Meyer Ellenstein and eulogized him as ” a very warm human being, an unbelievably charming man, and a man born to leadership”. Rabbi Prinz went on to describe Ellenstein as ” the most colorful, interesting and many sided man” to serve as Newark’s mayor. Exit “Doc” Ellenstein.