Bronx House, Social Workers and a Poor Bronx Kid
n 1940, I was nine years old. I lived with just my mother at 494 Claremont Parkway, across the street from the southernmost start of Bathgate Avenue. At the end of the block and across the street was P.S.42, where I went from grades 1 through 6. Three blocks away was Bronx House. My mother applied for a scholarship and I was awarded a scholarship for a two-week stay at Camp Bronx House.
On a warm summer's day in late June, at 7am, three school busses were lined up on Washington Avenue. On the sidewalk, I lined up among 150 youngsters ages 6 through 16, all waiting to begin our two-week adventure. In addition to the counselors who would accompany us, there was a nurse who scanned the children for lice in their hair. Two sobbing children were refused a place on the bus. The nurse patiently explained to their distraught mothers that this condition was contagious, but that hopefully these little girls could go on the next trip, two weeks hence.
The busses started; one block south to Claremont Parkway, west to the Grand Concourse then north to Highway 22 up to the camp in Copake N.Y. My adventure and life-changing experiences were about to begin with my introduction to Bronx House and Camp Bronx House.
A few hours later, the busses arrived at the beautiful country site of the camp in the Berkshire Mountains, near the tri-corner where New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts converge. At camp we were greeted by the counselors with the song that I later heard in many other camps:
We welcome you to Camp Bronx House,
It was the happiest two weeks of my young life. No rantings from a physically abusive father, no roaches or mice running under my bed, no shortage of food. Instead, cleanliness, good food, the fresh air of the country and the valleys and mountains close by; swimming in a lake, close exposure to children similar to me and to many others different from me, mind-enhancing activities and, most important, nice, pleasant, interested adults who cared for and taught me. We learned square and round dancing, (no city dancing or popular songs were encouraged); the sign alphabet of the deaf, American folk and bluegrass music , and the songs and dances of many nations of Africa, Israel, and others. I continued going to the camp every summer for the next 11 years as a camper, kitchen staff, junior counselor and eventually as a counselor.
While the majority of the campers and staff were working class Jews, there were always campers of other religions and races (as in Bronx House), some referrals from the Jewish Board of Guardians of children with emotional or behavioral problems, and some deaf children. More was gained by all of us in two weeks of camping than in a whole year at a community center.
In 1944, after five years of camp and 14 years old, a friend from Junior High School brought me to Bronx House and I was accepted into one of the social clubs there called the Cheyennes. I was short, not good at basketball (a severe handicap in my Bronx), not possessing many feelings of self-worth, yet doing okay in school. I have often noticed that many people who don't have pride in themselves try to get recognition by being a smart ass. That surely was me. The only reason the Cheyennes let me join them had been at the behest of my friend and the intervention of a social worker at Bronx House who knew me from camp.
A word now about the history and mission of Bronx House (continuing in the summer at Camp Bronx House), before I continue my saga for, you see, I cannot say I had an epiphany, but rather a long and beautiful journey producing ever so small insights that added up. I was literally rescued by the dedication of the social workers, particularly George Brager and Murray Ortof, and, I hope, made into a 'mensch.'
Bronx House had been established in 1911 to help in the adjustment of many newcomers to the country, particularly Jews. In 1928, a four-story brick building was erected on Washington Avenue, with a gymnasium, a music school with classes in voice, violin, piano and wind instruments, art classes, Hebrew school, woodworking shop, day care center and more. Bronx House became nationally famous for the training of social work graduate students, community organization projects, outreach programs, and, most importantly for me, it attracted social group workers who positively impacted the lives of very many of us working class youth. We belonged to social clubs, supervised by graduate students obtaining their Master of Social Work degrees from Columbia and other universities, or by full-time staff, as we became young adults at 17 or 18.
The neighborhood surrounding Bronx House was largely Jewish, but included significant populations of African American, Italian, and Hispanic, as well as smaller numbers of other ethnic groups. We were almost all first generation Americans and in our homes, the first language might be Yiddish, Russian, Ladino, Spanish, Italian, Greek, possibly a few others. I personally heard all of these languages spoken in my friends' homes and my immediate friends included all of these groups.
We grew up at Bronx House; we had our Junior and Senior lounges, our dances, and our great basketball rivalries. For three years, when I was in my late teens, we performed Broadway shows, including Finian's Rainbow, Call Me Mister Roberts (a combination of 2 shows), Oklahoma, Carousel andSouth Pacific. I grew to love Broadway shows, classical music and even the opera.
Murray and George
Murray Ortof, who later earned a PhD, was brilliant, sometimes volatile, funny, thought provoking, and a little to the left of Joe Stalin. But at Bronx House and at camp, and two more summers when I worked at Camp Juvenile (now Camp Hurley) where he became director, he was my mentor and older advisor. He wasn't really my therapist, because sometimes he needed therapy more than me, but served as a self-styled life coach. He intervened with my older brother for me to work at camp when I was 16, rather than stay in the city and work for him at his farmer's supply business of bushels, crates and boxes to pack their crops. He encouraged me to go to CCNY at night while I had to work during the day, and he was interested in my courses at CCNY. But whether sharing a coffee, or at the agency, or the camp, or after the Broadway show he took me to, he cared for and about me like no other person I had known. When I graduated from junior high at 14, and feeling very little self-worth, he wrote in my autograph book, 'from little sparks, big flames grow.'
George Brager also earned a PhD, became an author, writer and eventually Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work at Columbia. Also brilliant, he too was my mentor, advisor, coach and truly cared for me and my welfare. Where Murray was erratic, George was stable. Where Murray was very left-wing in his politics, George was much more moderate and centrist. He taught me, and it served me well later on during my 33 years as a Juvenile and the Appellate Court Judge. To quote H.L. Menken, 'For every human problem, there is a simple solution: clear, concise and wrong.' In other words, the answers to most questions seldom come from extreme, dogmatic beliefs, thoughts or opinions that are followed blindly. As a Judge for 33 years, I found, as George had taught me, that the truth is more often in the middle. At that point in my life, in my twenties, I continued to look to George for solid information, in order to make wise choices.
The path to personal growth and maturity is difficult, even under the best of circumstances. Growing up at 17 without guidance from anyone in the family, and having to work full-time and taking 12 hours of night classes a week at CCNY added extra burdens and demands. But I was still going to camp every summer, and involved with Bronx House in some capacity or another.
One year, the Senior Division had a monthly paper and newsletter and my best friend Bernie Clyne and I wrote a column, a thinly disguised story about George. George praised my writing ability and after work over coffee, the subject of 'hostility' came up. Waiting for the right time, and as a great, professional social worker, he said that there was a lot of subtle hostility towards him in that article.
'Are you crazy?' I said. 'You're the closest thing to a father I ever had. I would never, ever, insult you!'
He explained that I would never intentionally be hostile to him, but that this was on a subconscious level. That marked the true beginning of my insight into why I was sometimes, unbeknownst to me, hostile to others. (Remember earlier when I said I was a smart ass?) Over the next few years, he would remind me when I would 'relapse.' This could happen when riding in his car, or at a Broadway show, or any place, and all it took were a couple of words and a friendly smile from George to reinforce my insight and gradual change in behavior. After three and a half years of CCNY at night, I switched to the day program and worked at various social agencies at night and weekends.
Concurrent with all this, I grew from 5'6" to 6'1", became a fairly good basketball player, did well at acting in the plays at Bronx House and Camp Bronx House, learned to call square dances, and experienced other positive developments. But the most important of all was developing a positive self image and the confidence that goes with it. After graduation from CCNY, I served in the U.S.Army for two years. I then earned a Masters Degree in Social Work from Western Reserve University, where I met my future wife. We were married in New Orleans, her home, and I once again went to night school; this time, for 4 years at Loyola University School of Law, while working as a probation officer in the Juvenile Court for New Orleans. Upon graduation, I practiced law for ten years, and was subsequently elected Judge to the Juvenile Court for Jefferson Parish in Louisiana. I served there for 14 years and then was elected Judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, State of Louisiana, where I served for 19 years, until retirement.
I remember so many incidents, encounters and experiences with George, Murray and many other social workers such as Harry Specht and Charles Grosser in my teen and young adult years, and I once again express my gratitude to the social workers and friends at Bronx House and Camp Bronx House for giving me the insight, strength and self confidence to succeed. They were, each in his own way, father figures, mentors and guides for me. I cherish their memories to this day, and, through their example, I have striven to be of genuine significance to others, as these social workers were of such significance to me.