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My Jewish Journey started on Welfare Island in the 1960’s. At the time, I was a student and worked at Goldwater Hospital as a dental assisting student in the Dentistry Clinic.

 

Since I later became President of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, you may be surprised to hear that I was completely oblivious to the sites on the Island and paid no attention to the synagogue built by the National Council of Jewish Women 30 years before, nor to any other abandoned sites.

 

The history of Jewish life on Roosevelt Island does not appear in full bloom on Main Street. It is not as obvious as the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Rather, it is tucked away in libraries, books, dilapidated collections and grandiose archives.

 

Here are some of the key events in the long ago past and within recent memory.

In the late 1890’s, the famed anarchist Emma Goldman was imprisoned on Blackwell’s Island for one year. In her biography, she recounts two relevant anecdotes:

I was called before the head matron, a tall woman with a stolid face. She began taking my pedigree. "What religion?" was her first question. "None, I am an atheist."

"Atheism is prohibited here. You will have to go to church." I replied that I would do nothing, of the kind. I did not believe in anything the Church stood for and, not being a hypocrite, I would not attend. Besides, I came from Jewish people. Was there a synagogue?

She said curtly that there were services for the Jewish convicts on Saturday afternoon, but, as I was the only Jewish female prisoner, she could not permit me to go among so many men.

During the Jewish Easter holidays, I was again called to the Warden's office. I found my grandmother there. She had repeatedly begged Ed to take her to see me, but he had declined in order to spare her the painful experience. The devoted soul could not be stopped. With her broken English, she had made her way to the Commissioner of Corrections, procured a pass, and come to the penitentiary. She handed me a large white handkerchief containing matzoth, gefüllte fish, and some Easter cake of her own baking. She tried to explain to the Warden what a good Jewish daughter her Chavele was; in fact, better than any rabbi's wife, because she gave everything to the poor. She was fearfully wrought up when the moment of departure came, and I tried to soothe her, begging her not to break down before the Warden. She bravely dried her tears and walked out straight and proud, but I knew she would weep bitterly as soon as she got out of sight. No doubt she also prayed to her God for her Chavele.

 

Imagine, Goldman got food for her seder delivered!

 

Turning to the archives at Goldwater Hospital, in the late 1990’s, former (then-)Jewish Chaplin Rabbi Kloner let me peruse a cabinet where hundreds of old photos and numerous visitor/guest books were stored, in total disarray.

 

As I organized the material, it was a walk through local Jewish history, and the Welfare Island Synagogogue.

 

The synagogue, founded by the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) for worship by patients, opened in 1927 on a site that is now behind the back of building 551 of Island House.

 

Soon after the opening celebrations of the Council Synagogue, there arose a conflict. The New York Times reported that the NCJW wanted a Reform Jewish temple and financially supported the building. A group of Jewish residents of the different island institutions held a strike to force the synagogue to open for three services a day. At the request of the NCJW, the rabbi resigned. There is no record nor news article indicating that the synagogue ever opened for more than Shabbat and Holiday services.

 

The Welfare Island Synagogue guest book includes signatures of NYC Comptroller Bird S. Coler, Rabbi D. Sola Poole, of Congregation Shereath Israel and countless notable New Yorkers who supported the Jewish chaplaincy. There also were photos of special events held in the sanctuary over the years.

 

In the 1940’s, part of the synagogue was relocated to Goldwater Hospital and different chapters from the National Council of Jewish Women, representing both Reform temples and Conservative synagogues, would host events. For example:

            Purim Party in March, 1947 by the Bronx Juniors.

            Entertainment by the sisterhood of Tremont Temple (1947)

            Fordham Branch Party 1948

            Sisterhood of Park Avenue Synagogue

 

The names of Jewish staff and administrators who lived and worked on the island are often mentioned in the records. One sad story is that Mr. Mandel, a staff member, passed away suddenly. The island administrators visited the widow almost immediately and gave her six weeks to vacate her Cottage Row home because her deceased husband no longer worked for the Hospital.


In the 1950s, the Jewish Synagogue at Goldwater was located along the main hall. On holidays, it was crowded with hundreds of Jewish residents and staff.

 

The Council Synagogue was abandoned in 1960’s but Rabbi Grossman continued to live there for a few years. His congregation was moved to the new Coler Hospital and he led services and attended the residents and staff there.

 

The Council synagogue finally was demolished in anticipation of the construction for the new residential community.

 

In June 1970, a new synagogue was dedicated at Goldwater and three new chapels were opened. Passover Seders, held in the auditorium, were at capacity with all senior staff and employees.

 

The joy of discovery involves our Rabbi Leana Moritt. At a social event, she met Dr. Caroline Silberman Koeffler, one of the first executive directors of Coler from 1957 to 1960. She was the only female director to this date and her name is inscribed in a plaque in the Coler lobby.

 

Over the 19th and 20th centuries, the richest Jews in New York were members of Temple Emanu-El and its predecessor, Temple Beth El. Their generosity is listed in the Report of the Visiting Chaplain from the Jewish Ministers Association of New York in 1893, as filed in the archives of Temple Emanu-El, as are the stories of the recipients of their charity, including the residents and institutions of  Blackwell’s Island.

 

There are many more tidbits that  tell the life of the Jews on the Island. My Jewish Journey here is a jigsaw puzzle putting together hundreds of pieces into a giant story.

 

Judith Berdy