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.