Born on March 8, 1915, in Brooklyn, New York, Blanche Goldman Etra was the daughter of Anna (Simon) and Jacob Goldman. Her father was a textile and women’s wear executive. The second of three children, she had an older sister, Helen, and a younger brother, Morton.
A graduate of Erasmus High School, she attended Barnard College over the protests of her family. It was considered a shande [humiliation] for an observant Jewish family to permit a young woman eighteen years old to attend college. Blanche’s sights, however, were set even higher than completing her bachelor of arts degree. She gained entrance into the combined program Barnard had with Columbia University Law School and, in 1938, was one of six women students in a class of three hundred receiving her J.D. from Columbia. That same year, she was admitted to the New York bar.
Married in 1939 to Henry Etra, also a lawyer, Blanche Etra sought a professional position in the male-dominated world of New York law firms. Hired by Hartman, Sheridan, and Tekulsky, she grew tired of being sent out for coffee and resigned in 1941. Although she then joined her husband and brother-in-law’s firm of Etra and Etra, it was to be forty years before she returned to full-time legal work.
In Etra’s view, while society required that men have jobs, women had unused brain power that could be galvanized in roles outside the home for the good of society. Thus, while raising four sons (Aaron, Marshall, Donald, and Jonathan), working part-time for Etra and Etra, and contributing substantially to the development of her brother’s business, Blanche Etra founded the Women’s Division of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York in 1950. She involved Rose Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt in the task of raising millions of dollars in funds and establishing chapters of the Women’s Division around the country. Thus, major financial resources for the newly formed medical school were created.
The Etras were members of Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Blanche Etra served as the first sisterhood president. In 1947, when her grandmother died, she formed a synagogue at the family’s summer residence in Atlantic Beach. It became what is now known as the Atlantic Beach Jewish Center.
Blanche Etra’s confidence in the ability of women to take important roles in society outside the home was further demonstrated in her work for the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Federation. For both organizations she created women’s seminars for estate planning, involving New York State surrogate judges, journalists, and other lawyers. As a lawyer, she knew that women’s understanding of finances, financial planning, and managing funds was essential to the increasing liberation of women within American society.
In 1977, when her husband died, Blanche Etra became a full partner in the law firm she had served for so many decades in a part-time capacity. Her legal specialties were labor law, litigation, trusts, and estates.
A woman of high intelligence and great energy, characterized by a strong sense of integrity and morality, Blanche Etra set out to use her considerable talents for the betterment of the Jewish and general communities. In recognition, in 1988, Etra became the second woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University. Upon the awarding of the degree, she was given a standing ovation by the graduates of Stern College for Women. Blanche Etra represented that combination of commitment to modern Orthodoxy and professional accomplishment that these young women admired—and that many would emulate in their own lives.
Blanche Goldman Etra died on January 4, 1995.
Etra, Donald. Telephone interview with author, January 1997; Etra, Marshall. Correspondence with author, February 4, 1997; Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. Vol. 10; Who’s Who of American Women.
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Millen, Rochelle L.. "Blanche Goldman Etra." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 9, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/etra-blanche-goldman>.