A Gentleman and a Scholar

The YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood is the JCC that I write about most frequently in my dissertation, and it is the JCC that I have studied the longest and whose history I know the best. Over the past five years, I have read through over 50 years of documents--meeting minutes, brochures, newsletters, and correspondence--and done oral history interviews with some the agency's longest-serving staff. After surveying almost 100 years of the Y's history, there are a few characters who stand out in my mind. They distinguish themselves from the blurry ebb and flow for their longevity, their compassion, or their quirkiness. Judge David C. Lewis, a member of the Y's Board of Directors, exhibited all three traits. 

Judge David C. Lewis served on the Y's Board for over forty years. A lawyer by training, as a young man he served as a State Assemblyman and a Municipal Court justice. Up until his death in 1975, at age 90, he remained an active lay leader at the Y. During his years of service, he often agitated for the Y to expand its services beyond the Jewish community and advocated serving all those in need. He became increasingly brash as he aged, but retained a sentimentality for the organization to which he was so devoted.

The first few times I read through the minutes of the Y's Board meetings I found Judge Lewis curmudgeonly. He often insisted that his declarations or positions be inscribed into the meeting minutes; sometimes, a Board meeting would begin with his protest that a point of his had been left out of the past month's minutes, which would inscribe his view into the records of both meetings. More recently I have come to see this behavior as a tenacious defense of his liberal values.

While by no means a racial progressive or an anti-racist, Judge Lewis regularly ruffled feathers by insisting that the Y extend its services to the growing black community in northern Manhattan. He not only believed this was the right thing to do, but saw it as being in Jews' best interest "to avert or alleviate the inevitable frictions which may arise between the two communities." In 1964 and again in 1968, he used the Y's annual meeting with the Distribution Committee of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York--the organization that gave over $100,000 to the Y each year to subsidize its operations--as an opportunity to advocate "the formulation of a policy with some of the Negro leadership in the community to allow [Y] facilities to be used by the non-Jewish community in programs sponsored by the non-Jewish participants." Both times, his fellow Board members scrambled to assure the Distribution Committee that few non-Jews belonged to the Y . In 1968, a member of the Distribution Committee even told Judge Lewis that "he did not believe that this meeting was the context in which to discuss" this issue. 

My interpretation of Judge Lewis shifted as my understandings of the 1960s and '70s crystalized. Lewis moved in circles where many of his colleagues publicly described themselves as liberals and supported liberal causes such as racial integration, anti-poverty programs, and affirmative action, but who resisted when policies integrated their private spaces, threatened their middle class status, or imposed quotas. Judge Lewis spoke up in defiance of this double standard. Although other Board members at the Y may have felt similarly, the resistance to recording his views and the reluctance to continue discussions about his ideas indicates that his was not the consensus or the popular view.

In our current political climate, I am holding tight to Judge Lewis's example. May we all speak out against double standards, and insist that others listen to our ideas for making our communities more cosmopolitan and pluralistic. Within the Jewish community, this responsibility is especially vital. We should heed the words that Judge Lewis had inscribed into the minutes of the December, 1974 meeting of the Y Board of Directors:

‘Judge Lewis notices and deplores, as an obsession of the Board and other agencies, service to Jews to the exclusion of everybody else. He recommends that we open our minds to the needs of the non-Jewish community. It is our duty to act accordingly as well as in our own interests. We need all the friends we can get - always.’

Upon his death in April of 1975, the Y Board shared the following poem authored by Lewis, entitled "Faith." Often he would recite poems at Y functions, to honor longtime lay leaders, install new Board members, or laud Y groups like the Golden Age Club. His poetry was earnest and idealistic, if not particularly good. "Faith" retains it's resonance, however, in spite of its sentimentality.

Let not the disappointment of yesterday;
frustrate your hopes for tomorrow.

Let not regret of the failures in days gone by;
weaken your will for success in the days to come.

Let not past defeat;
bar future victory.

While time has no beginning; and no ending;
every day, is a new day in the life of man.

A day of renewed hope and courage;
Keeping alive, a lifelong faith, of man in himself.



From All Sides

Yesterday I put together a new table of data to calculate what percentage of the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood's income in the 1970s came from the government grants they received to provide social services to older adults. I wanted to know how dependent the Y was on this stream of funding, as compared to its annual allocation from the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York (FJP) or to its revenue from membership dues and special activities fees. I was surprised to find that government grants made up an average of 57% percent of the Y's non-Federation income (Total Other Income, or TOI) between 1973-79. 

Government Grants as a Percent of the Y's Total Other Income (i.e. non-FJP income). All work is property of Avigail S. Oren. Please do not use without permission.

I was surprised because I had long hypothesized that the Y benefitted from these government grants, because they made the Y less financially vulnerable to fluctuations in their annual allocation from FJP. Clearly, although the government funds balanced out the risk of a possible decrease in their FJP allocations in any given year, it did not do enough to diversify the Y's sources of income. On average, between 1973-79 one-third of the Y's total income depended on the government, one-third on FJP's allocation, and one-third on membership dues and fees. Government money may have buffered the Y in years when their FJP allocation decreased, but it too was subject to fluctuations and possible cuts.

These numbers helped me to recognize a great truth in life: any given solution may not solve all aspects of a problem, and often it can create new problems. While government money provided a measure of financial stability to the Y in the early 1970s, the Y suffered doubly in 1975 when the toxic market forces of hyperinflation, spiking energy prices, and New York City's fiscal crisis led to cuts in both its government and FJP funding. It's a valuable reminder that income diversification is essential for individuals, businesses, and voluntary/charitable organizations alike, and that leaders must consider (and plan for) the consequences of pursuing each new stream of income.  

Rock Concert

This past week, I have been writing a case study about the Senior Citizens Center established at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood in 1973. As a result, I have been thoroughly rereading the minutes of the meetings held by the Y's Board of Directors in the 1970s. Although the Board devoted much of its discussion to its new programs for older adults, the minutes reflect that the Board was also concerned by declining participation in their programs for teenagers and young adults. They often discussed strategies to reengage lapsed members and recruit new ones.

One suggestion that arose again and again was a "rock" concert [puzzling quotation marks theirs, not mine]. Board members proposed a rock concert on three separate occasions in 1971 and 1972, without ever elaborating on what bands they could possibly get to play such a show. Neither did they reflect on the fact that teenagers may not be interested in an act or band that a group of middle-aged adults found palatable. 

In 1978, the Y actually did follow through on the strategy. In May of that year, the Y's Teen Supervisor, Stan Friedman, suggested to the members of the Board's Program Committee that they re-launch the Teen Program with a rock concert. The minutes recorded: "Members would be allowed to bring one friend. Again, a special invitation would go to the list of Jewish Teens. Stan said that a former gym member of the Y, Dennis Minogue, is now a band manager."

The concert was held in December, and in the intervening months the goal shifted from recruiting teenagers to recruiting college-aged young adults into a new Y program for this age group. Although staff member Martin Englisher reported to the Y Board that 110 people had attended the show, most were non-Jewish high school students who were not Y members. Englisher concluded, "It was felt that the concert, although it went well, did not really serve the Y's purpose."

Most remarkably, the rock concert continues to be an idea that adults suggest for teen recruitment and engagement. I texted a friend who works with teenagers in the Jewish community about the Y's history with rock concerts--admittedly, my description was hyperbolic--and she responded that this is an idea she still hears with regularity, despite rock music's precipitous decline in popularity in the 21st century.

The problem with suggesting a rock concert, besides its being freighted with nostalgia, is that it is not something that teenagers need. A rock concert is something that adults think teens want, and no one likes to be told what they should want or what they should find meaningful. With history on my side, I urge the adults who lead Jewish communal organizations to retire this strategy. 

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

I received generous grant funding to spend July conducting oral history interviews for my dissertation. Oral history is the practice of interviewing (and, commonly, recording) an individual as they recollect their life or an important historical event. I am asking longtime members of the YM-YWHA and longtime residents of Washington Heights-Inwood to tell me about what it was like in the neighborhood during the 1970s and '80s. Although each interview is different, the common questions that I've posed to each interviewee ask them to describe how the Y managed to provide for the social welfare of northern Manhattan's Jewish community at the same time that they served the needs of the non-Jewish community, particularly the growing population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. 

These oral histories are valuable to me for a few reasons. Most basically, the more sources you have describing a historical event, the better. Whether they confirm each others' descriptions or contradict one another, a multiplicity of accounts yields insight. Moreover, with the addition of these testimonies my interpretation of historical events becomes less dependent on organizational records from the Y or the Jewish Welfare Board or the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. It gives me individual perspectives to consider, beyond the view provided in the Y's Board meeting minutes. Finally, it allows me to ask about issues or events that were left out of other records. 

So far, I've spoken with two staff members at the Y and a community activist who participated in this history in the 1970s and '80s (and have continued to contribute up to the present day). In the coming week, I am scheduled to interview two Y Board members who've had similarly lengthy tenures. I hope to continue adding more individuals to my docket in the coming weeks!

Riverdale, Bronx, NY

I must conclude by expressing gratitude to the American Academy of Jewish Research and the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History for making this research possible.