Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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 third part, “Bernice and the Women’s Land Army,” appeared as the front-page essay in the March 17 issue; part five will appear in May.
How do you keep Jewish children occupied after school when there are no organized extracurricular activities in your neighborhood – or if any do exist, you can’t afford them, particularly when you are taking care of smaller children or aged parents at home and possibly working as well?
What can you offer teenagers to keep them off the streets, out of “gambling halls” or worse? Finally, where can you find an after-school framework that upholds the Jewish values you are trying to instill in them at home?
These questions aren’t new but they became particularly relevant during the 1930s and ‘40s in America. First, the Great Depression drastically cut most families’ incomes, forcing many mothers to become breadwinners. And then came the Second World War and its aftermath, when older teens and young men were drafted, leaving a dearth of role models for younger boys.
One answer was the “Y,” the Young Men’s (and Women’s) Hebrew Association – YMHA-YWHA – which provided activities for Jewish children, teenagers, and older groups. Founded in New York City in 1874 to foster Jewish spiritual and cultural life in a social setting, the first independent YMHA was established in New York in 1902. As the Y’s expanded during the 1930s and ‘40s, some became a home away from home – and more – for many Jewish children.
One of them was my mother-in-law, Bernice Schwartz, known then as Bernice Cohen.
“I first saw the Bronx Y was when I was around seven years old and my mother took me to the office to register me for Hebrew school there,” she recalled. “It was a big building, took up a whole corner on Fulton Avenue, with a very impressive set of front doors that were part glass part wood, and there were three sets of double doors at the front entrance.”
Bernice soon learned how big the Bronx Y (the Crotona Y) actually was. Built originally as a church in 1906, in 1920 the Diocese of New York sold the building to the Bronx Jewish Institute for $177,500, a magnificent sum in those days.
Both the Institute and the Jewish Education Association, which took responsibility for the building two years later, were drained by its funding. In 1922 it merged with an existing Bronx Y nearby and in 1924 the institution was taken over by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The amalgamated Y, offering educational, social, and religious activities to the Bronx Jewish community, functioned at 1511 Fulton Avenue until 1950, after which it moved to a new location on the Grand Concourse.
What was so impressive about the Y? “Everything,” was Bernice’s succinct answer. Only after seeing a picture of the stately building online did I fully understand her emphatic reply. The building’s most arresting external feature was undoubtedly its size – five expansive floors with an enclosed roof garden – making it the largest building in the neighborhood during the time it functioned as a Y.
But the interior was equally impressive. The ground floor had a large auditorium surrounded by a balcony. “The marble staircase,” said Bernice, “led from the entrance to the fifth floor. There was no elevator; you walked!”
No matter how impressive a façade may be, the reputation of a service institution must be built on more than its physical structure, and so it was with the Y. During the 1930s and ‘40s, the years when Bernice “lived” at the Y, the establishment offered a plethora of religious services and social activities to the surrounding Jewish communities for a monthly fee of 25 cents.
“We all paid membership dues, but the Y had a board of prominent Jewish businessmen who actually paid for everything,” explained Bernice.
Directed for years by educator and realtor Abraham W. Rosenthal (1895-1988), president of the National Association of Jewish Community Center Secretaries and father of actress Lee Grant, the board covered the institution’s daily expenses, enabling families on limited incomes to send their children to the Y. Other board members included furniture king Israel Sachs (1870-1949), accounting Professor Emanuel Saxe (1899-1987), and civil rights attorney Larry Segal.
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How does one turn a public establishment into an indispensable part of the fabric of everyday Jewish communal life? That question faced the founders of the Bronx Y and propelled them to create a hybrid institution that followed a trend, already developing in early 20th century America, of mixing the secular with the sacred. In cases where synagogues were losing membership to social clubs, the result was a “synagogue-center” (“shul with a pool”) that added auxiliary activities to an existing religious institution.
In the YMHAs, the existing social centers increasingly incorporated religious activities into their programs in the hope of becoming centers of Jewish life. The Jewish Y movement had originally been founded by Reform Jews, and most YMHAs became platforms for Reform and Conservative rabbis. The Bronx Y, however, was exceptional in that it became an Orthodox congregation with an Orthodox rabbi, Solomon Reichman.
The tall and dapper European-born Reichman (1898-1984), who eventually became a prominent religious and civil leader, was ordained at the Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania and served as a member of the executive board of the Rabbinical Council of America. Not only was he responsible for the Y’s Talmud Torah during the 1930s, which eventually educated over 800 children a year, he also ran an active shul on the premises. Weekday services were held at the caretaker’s home around the corner or at Rabbi Reichman’s house. Friday night, Shabbat, and holiday services were held in main Y building.
The Y, Bernice recounted, was run as an Orthodox institution, strictly kosher, “closed” on Shabbos in terms of weekday activities, and opened by the gentile porter for prayer and synagogue services.
“On Shabbos the Y was opened only as the rabbi arrived, and as soon as he walked out of the door the building was closed. Folding chairs were set up in the ground-floor auditorium that became the shul, while the surrounding balcony became the women’s section.”
Despite living down the block from the Y and becoming extremely close to Rabbi Reichman and his elegant Connecticut-born wife, Miriam, Bernice’s family did not attend services there.
“My grandfather insisted on going to shul with his shoemakers chevrah in a little store nearby – the Shomrei Shabbos Shoemakers Shul.”
As a child, however, Bernice attended the Talmud Torah’s children’s services at the Y.
“On Saturday morning, when the big shul was functioning with Rabbi Reichman, we had our own children’s beis medrash run by one of the teachers who lived close by, Harry Halfin. He was the resident rabbi of the kids, a very sweet guy with a sweet smile. He really liked what he was doing and all the kids liked him, so we came. He taught us to daven, and there was always a cookie and a piece of candy before we went home.”
One former Y member who attended adult services reminisced: “The synagogue would hold as many as 1,500 people on the High Holidays. During the year, when the folding chairs would be put away, they would hold dances for the younger set on Wednesday and Saturday nights. I met the young man who would become my husband at the synagogue’s Thanksgiving Day Dance.”
Another recalled how on the High Holidays the shul was so crowded that people overflowed onto the street. “On Yom Kippur the weather was usually hot and sunny. There was no air conditioning. Several women would faint from the heat and lack of food. There was always a commotion when they were carried out.”
The Y synagogue was used for all family occasions, from weddings to funerals. One Y member recalled the “public weddings” held for brides with no family or who were too poor to make a wedding. “The public was invited in to form an audience and the children were given handfuls of rice to throw.”
Another recalled how at funerals Rabbi Reichman would eulogize the deceased from the top step of the Y’s entrance “The curious children listened and learned who had died and how wonderful he had been.”
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The Y was more than a religious center, of course. In addition to the offices and the Talmud Torah classrooms that were Bernice’s first introduction to “Y life,” the Y featured activities to keep youngsters and adults of all ages and interests busy.
Y members paid an additional dollar a month for the Talmud Torah, but Talmud Torah pupils who were not Y members were entitled to use certain Y facilities. All groups could use the Judaica library, while those looking for indoor play would spend time in the large game room on the third floor.
“We had ping pong tables and gymnastic equipment including parallel and monkey bars,” said Bernice, “and this was in addition to a fully equipped gym and basketball court on the fifth floor, with an elliptical track running around it.”
“Let’s keep our youth off the streets” was one of the unwritten Y precepts. As children got older, Bernice remembered, “they could use the arts and crafts room and a teenage lounge where thirteen to eighteen year olds could hang out instead of going, chalilah, to pool halls. The big attraction was the large bowling alley in the basement with at least four regulation-length alleys and two pool tables. It cost five cents a game.”
When television became popular the Y purchased a small TV set for the basement “and the world stopped Tuesday nights for Texaco and Milton Berle, as none of us had televisions at home.”
Bernice was quick to note that culture at the Y was not limited to television. “There were all sorts of outlets for creative activity. Those with a literary bent could write for the Y newspaper, the YMHA Observer, while budding actors joined the Thalian Masquers, a theatrical group that performed many plays of the day.”
Asked about her favorite Y activity, Bernice didn’t hesitate: “The political intrigues.” She described her entry into the world of Y clubs that would later act as the basis for her future career as a group worker.
“During the 1930s there were no organized after-school activities, so the Y developed a structure known as ‘the clubs; as a recreational outlet for Jewish children. For the cost of membership Jewish children from all over the area could join a club as well as use the Y facilities.”
Boys and girls had separate clubs differentiated by age: junior (9-11), intermediate (11-13), and senior (14-16). As soon as six children were in a club, the Y assigned them a club leader, usually a committed college student who began as a volunteer. Groups provided pre-teens and younger teenagers with an opportunity to spend time with their friends in a sheltered, safe, and supervised environment.
Each age group was formed into a division with its own professional division head and political council – a group board that decided on programming. There were debating groups, dramatic groups, sports groups, and singing groups.
“I began my political career in the Bronx Y when I became president of the junior council,” said Bernice. “I was nine or ten at the time. And that actually was the beginning of my love affair with the Bronx Y.”
It was also the beginning of Bernice’s rise through the Y club ranks until she was eventually voted president of the House Council, a body supervising all divisions and age groups. The position gave her a seat on the Y’s Board of Directors as the first youth representative ever to hold such a position.
“By then I was 14 or 15. I was the first female board member, the first teenage board member, and that was my claim to fame at the Bronx Y.”
A high school junior, Bernice suddenly found herself sitting and discussing the Y’s financial and administrative responsibilities, policy enforcement, and staff payments with men such as Rosenthal, Saxe, Sachs, and Segal. How did they take to having a 15-year-old girl sitting with them? As Bernice put it, “We loved each other, and I’m not being facetious. They were tremendous men and I had a marvelous time with them.”
Bernice retained her connection with the Y after she graduated from high school in 1939 and began her studies at Hunter College. “I would go and hang out at the lounge, and eventually became a volunteer club leader.”
In 1945, two years after getting her degree in sociology, Bernice returned to the Y as a group worker and the director of the Junior Division. Simultaneously she began her graduate studies in public administration at NYU. It was during those studies that she was offered the chance for a trip of a lifetime, one that would indeed change the course of her life. But that is a story of its own.
This installment of the Bernice Chronicles is dedicated to the memory of Bernice’s late husband, Arthur Schwartz (Avraham Leib ben Shimon Chayim and Malka Leah), whose first yahrzeit was on 22 Nissan (April 18 this year).