Editor’s Note: This is the ninth installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s mother-in-law, whose experiences reflect the coming of age of the immigrant generation’s American-born children. The eighth part, “East Coast Adventures,” appeared as the front-page essay in the August 18 issue; part 10 will appear in October.
Home, school, work, and family constituted the framework of daily life for most Americans during the second half of the 20th century. Middle class sensibilities, undergirded by religious faith and service to country, guided much of the American public, and the economic prosperity of the 1950s continued into the following decade.
The 1960s also began with a symbol of hope and new beginnings: John F. Kennedy, the first American president born in the 20th century.
For my in-laws, Bernice Cohen Schwartz and Arthur Schwartz, that new beginning expressed itself tangibly when they purchased their first home in 1960. For years, the family had moved up and down the East Coast while Arthur rose in the ranks of Jewish Community Center professionals. Now they returned with their young sons to the tri-state area to be near Arthur’s parents and Bernice’s mother.
Following a sojourn in Ridgefield, New Jersey, they moved into a four-bedroom house on Midwood Road in nearby Teaneck on May 10, 1960 – a date immortalized by their eldest son, Joshua, then eight, who wrote it on his bedroom windowsill.
That marked the beginning of the family’s life in Teaneck and the inception of major changes that would soon take place in the Schwartz family, mirroring some of the transformations that would occur during the coming years in their American and Jewish surroundings.
But what began as a calm, hopeful decade for Americans in general and American Jews in particular soon developed into one of the more dynamic and turbulent periods of the century.
The Cold War showed no signs of letting up, and the U.S. was being pulled ever deeper into the war in Vietnam. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The Civil Rights movement spread, and Jews – drawing on their own social and religious history – were often in the forefront of the African American struggle for equality.
In the Jewish sphere, the movement to free Soviet Jewry took off with the establishment of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in 1964, and the Six-Day War of 1967 inaugurated a new era of Zionist sentiment in the United States.
During those years, Orthodox Judaism and its institutions in America – written off as relics of the past as recently as the 1950s – expanded both in numbers and self-confidence, touching off the first expressions of what would later be known as the “slide to the right” in Jewish life.
Outside the various Orthodox Jewish precincts, the watchwords of that era throughout the western world were cultural liberalism and change. A revolution in attitude and behavior was well under way, a revolution now remembered in American national memory through the prism of student protests and mass events such as the Woodstock rock festival of 1969.
A feminist movement developed, led by American-Jewish women such as Betty Friedan, demanding equal pay for equal work and ushering in a wave of older women rejoining the workforce.
Then there were the demographic changes. Between 1950 and 1970, the population of the United States increased by more than 25 percent, leading to new ideas of how best to deal with young and old, and necessitating trained professionals to work with each group.
During the same years the American Jewish population increased by almost a million, fostering the growth of Jewish communities and institutions, including an expanding system of Jewish education.
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Originally a farming community, Teaneck had grown substantially only after the George Washington Bridge was opened in 1931. A second spurt of building and population began after the Second World War. Growing numbers of blacks and Jews began settling there in the late 1950s, not without initial resistance on the part of the locals.
The Teaneck Jewish Center, which included a Conservative synagogue, was established in 1933, followed by the Bergen County Reform Temple in 1947. The first Orthodox shul, Bnai Yeshurun, was founded in 1958. At the time the Schwartzes moved to Teaneck, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Bergen County, nearly a quarter of whom resided in Teaneck.
Many of the Jews of Teaneck were professionals – accountants, lawyers, teachers, and business people. “It was a close-knit community with divisions built on geography,” Bernice recalled.
Living more than two miles from the only Orthodox shul in Teaneck, the family joined the Conservative Teaneck Jewish Center a few blocks away.
The Center’s rabbi, Judah Washer (1908-2004), was, in Bernice’s words, “originally and continuously Orthodox.” Washer had actually been sent to Teaneck in 1953 by Yeshiva University president Rabbi Samuel Belkin to soften the ground for a Modern Orthodox community. The hoped-for change did not take place, however, and the synagogue remained Conservative, but right-wing Conservative.
In those years the differences between the Conservative and Orthodox movements were not as great as they would become later on. At the time, Conservatives did not count women for a minyan (quorum) nor did they give them aliyot to recite blessings over the Torah.
The Center was walking distance from the house. To avoid mixed seating, Bernice and a few of the other Orthodox women “just sat in the back and those became our seats.”
School, however, was fully Orthodox. The Schwartz boys – Joshua, Victor, and Seth – attended Yavneh Academy, an Orthodox day school in Paterson. Founded in 1942, it was directed during those years by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Atkin. Described by a former student as “a fine educator who knew every child by name,” Atkin had a knack for dealing with a student population of which not a few were only nominally Orthodox.
“He ran a tight ship but wouldn’t comment when he saw a student out of school not wearing a yarmulke so as not to embarrass him,” Joshua recalled. “He made sure Yavneh would teach everyone basic Jewish practice from scratch so that those coming from homes where it wasn’t taught would know what to do.”
The Schwartzes were active in the school. But a few of the powerful board members were unhappy with Atkin’s educational innovations, particularly when the innovations affected their own children, and in 1965 they removed him from his position as principal. The move was not universally accepted.
“A group of full tuition-paying parents wouldn’t send our children to school and initiated a din torah, a rabbinical trial, against the board,’ Bernice recalled. The suit was dropped when Atkin was granted a large sum as severance pay, but the Schwartzes decided to remove their youngest son, Seth, from Yavneh. (Joshua was almost in high school, and Victor finished Yavneh as there was no nearby alternative for older children.)
Seth was sent to Moriah, a newly established Orthodox day school in Englewood that already boasted a first and second grade and now grew as a result of the Yavneh split. With Victor’s graduation in 1968, the Schwartz family’s Yavneh Academy experience came to an end and Bernice and Arthur became active in Moriah.
That wasn’t the end of the “slide to the right” in the Schwartz family. As Joshua, Victor, and later Seth continued on to Yeshiva University High School and College, a rumble of discord began about attending a Conservative synagogue.
“Teaneck was still small and the only Orthodox shul was not in walking distance,” said Bernice. “And then Beth Aaron opened.”
By 1970 more than a dozen Orthodox families had moved to the part of Teaneck where the Schwartz family lived, and soon a group began to hold services in a basement six blocks from the Schwartz home. The result was Congregation Beth Aaron, the first Orthodox shul south of Route 4 in Teaneck.
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School and synagogue affiliation were not the only transitions the family experienced during that period. Another was professional. By the mid-1960s Arthur had left the Paterson JCC and was working as director of group work at the Association for the Help of Retarded Children. It was during this period that President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation establishing Medicare, and the field of gerontology began to expand. When Columbia University, Arthur’s graduate school, received a grant for five doctoral candidates to study gerontology, a faculty member approached Arthur and suggested he apply for a doctorate in the field.
Arthur’s father was aghast. “He thought Arthur was crazy,” Bernice related with a chuckle. “How could he go back to school with three children?” But with Bernice’s support he applied and was accepted to Teachers College, Columbia.
How does one support a family of five on a student stipend? Bernice explained: “Theoretically he wasn’t allowed to work, but as he actually had more experience in the field than his mentor, he was allowed to teach classes off the books.”
But that was not enough to support the family, and 43-year-old Bernice went to work at Bronx Hospital, where she’d been born. For the next twenty years her employment adventures would mirror the development of mental health care for old and young in America.
Her first job was at the hospital’s geriatric clinic. “My calling card was that I was a Yiddish-speaking social worker and could communicate with the older patients.” The work, however, depressed her. “It was not easy becoming the mother of women who used to be mothers themselves and who were getting too dependent on me to make their own decisions.”
As the demographics of the Bronx changed, the hospital needed someone who could deal with abused adolescents and established a 14-bed unit for such youngsters. “And here,” Bernice noted, “my background came in handy. I had worked at that age in my single days and had grown up there so I knew the neighborhood. I was a natural, and they hired me.”
Most of her patients were girls, abused or with out of wedlock pregnancies. But this, too, was only temporary. When the hospital received an allocation, it decided to open a therapeutic nursery unit “in order to look at the little kids and see where all the problems were starting.”
Bernice was appointed director of the Bronx Hospital Therapeutic Nursery, which opened with eight children. “By the time I left, we were working with over 800,” she said. “I was the administrator. I worked with the doctors, there was a nurse, a social worker, and I worked with the children.”
With only Seth in elementary school, Bernice was working full time. Arthur, who meanwhile had completed his doctorate in 1972, began work at Albert Einstein Hospital where he was director of community and education.
“Between the two of us, we were actually working both sides of the coin,” said Bernice. While her unit dealt with hands-on therapy and prevention in the under-five group, Arthur’s staff would consult and educate older groups through housing developments, police department groups, and church organizations.
After more than a decade and a half at Bronx Hospital, Bernice found herself working at Einstein as well. “Einstein had begun a therapeutic nursery which was failing and as they were affiliated with Bronx Hospital I was mandated to go there and build up the unit.”
Bernice ended up working there for six years, until her retirement.
“I didn’t want to leave Bronx Hospital and I told Einstein I would work there until my youngest son would get his doctorate and then I would say ‘goodbye,’ which I did.”
But after so many years of giving to the community, Bernice soon ended up back in the workforce, this time at Manhattan Day School, heading a program developed by the University of Chicago called “creating thinking” for exceptional children.
She recalled: “The principal, David Kaminetsky, called me up and said, ‘I want you to go to work.’ I said, ‘I’m not working, David.’ He insisted that I come for one year to get the program started.” One year turned into four, with Bernice enjoying her work there tremendously.
Even after retiring for the “last time,” Bernice continued to be involved in social work, volunteering at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck and giving swimming lessons to disabled children at the Jewish Center Pool.
With Arthur’s retirement in 1988, the couple’s lives entered a new phase. Not only were they able to volunteer to their hearts’ content and spend time with their New York grandchildren, they also were finally able to spend more time abroad, with the overseas branch of their family: The Zionist spirit that spread among American Jews after the Six-Day War had inspired firstborn son Joshua to decide, at age fourteen, that he wanted to make his life in Israel. But that is a story to be told next month.
This installment of The Bernice Chronicles is dedicated to the memory of Bernice’s grandmother Lena Krieger Sheidler (Chaya Liba bas Yehuda Leib and Vichnia), whose yahrzeit is 24 Elul (Sept. 15 this year).