On Wednesday, November 29, The Bronx Jewish Historical Initiative inducted its third Hall of Fame Class. The ceremony took place at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which is located in the former Young Israel of the Grand Concourse building.
The Bronx Jewish Historical Initiative was established with the Bronx borough president’s office as an interactive community project exploring and sharing the history of the borough’s once large Jewish community. In 1948, approximately 650,000 Jews lived in the Bronx, but only 50,000 live there now, mostly in Riverdale.
“We want to bring the extraordinary history of the Jewish Bronx to the attention of people today who may not be aware of it. We want to build bridges between ethnicities and to honor the cultural contributions of Bronx residents, past and present,” said Howard Teich, a founding organizer.
“The Bronx Jewish Historical Initiative seeks to preserve and celebrate the Jewish history of the Bronx, to celebrate what was, what is today and how the Jewish culture can continue as an integral partner in the fabric of this wonderfully diverse borough,” explained Marti Michael, co-chair of the initiative. “In addition, we do this through tours of Jewish historic sites, stories and photos on our website, http://thebronxjewish.org, special events such as lectures and films, and, of course, the annual Bronx Jewish Hall of Fame.”
The Class of 2017 joins a significant list of Jewish Bronx natives and immigrants including Nobel laureates, entertainment luminaries, elected officials, writers, artists and communal leaders. Michael explained, “The BxJHI committee reviews suggestions made for Hall of Fame induction and reaches consensus on each year’s class.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. welcomed the honorees. In his remarks, he stated, “Here in the Bronx we can never ever forget that one of the great reasons we are here today is because we have a strong and solid foundation that was set by many different communities, especially the Jewish community.”
The event was hosted by newscaster Juliet Papa of 1010 WINS. Each honoree was interviewed on their personal history in the Bronx. Most honorees described their childhoods in the Bronx, their synagogues and schools, collecting for The Jewish National Fund (JNF), free admission to the Bronx Zoo and even just playing in the street. Many recalled the food they ate, giving a shout out to “Jahns” and “Mother’s Bakery.” In his interview, Rabbi Michael Miller greeted his childhood babysitter who was in attendance and recalled his synagogue’s chiropractor who gave the cantors adjustments on the High Holidays “so they would sound better.” Former Yankee Ron Blomberg could not attend in person but called in to the event from Georgia. He described embracing being Jewish and always waiting for “the bagel lady to bring his bagels to Yankee Stadium.” Overall, the honorees explained that the Bronx made them who they are today.
The Class of 2017 inductees were:
Ron Blomberg, the New York Yankees “Great Jewish Hope,” who made history as baseball’s first designated hitter. His autobiography, “Designated Hebrew,” describes his love of New York’s sports scene.
“To be able to play in front of eight million Jews! Can’t beat it! I must have lit candles at every bar mitzvah in the city. It was like I was related to everyone. They even named a sandwich after me at the Stage Deli.” He was the Yankees number one draft choice in 1967 and spent 10 years with the team.
Hon. June Eisland served her Riverdale community for decades, including 23 years as a member of the New York City Council. After she organized the Skyview Tenants Association, Mayor John Lindsay appointed her to run his Urban Action Task Force and Borough President Robert Abrams appointed her to the community board, which she eventually chaired. Eisland has been involved with many community organizations, including the Hebrew Home for the Aged, Francis Schervier Home, League of Women Voters, Riverdale Neighborhood House and the Riverdale Senior Center.
Miriam Hoffman came to the Bronx having survived the Russian Gulag and post-World War II DP camps. She served decades as professor of Yiddish at Columbia University, a columnist for the Yiddish-language Forward newspaper and founder of Broadway Producer Joseph Papp’s namesake Yiddish Theater. She has written over a dozen award-winning Yiddish plays, which have been produced around the world. Hoffman was honored to have her son, actor Avi Hoffman, a 2016 inductee, conduct her interview that evening.
Joel Iskowitz is a sculptor and painter whose work is displayed in the Pentagon, the Capitol and the White House. Some of his creations can be found on the obverse and reverse of the Congressional Gold Medal presented to the Apollo 11 crew, the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial Penny and as an image of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on a British coin. (He is the only American ever allowed to have designed the portrait of the queen for a British coin.)
Architect Daniel Libeskind designed The Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. He was born in post-war Poland and arrived in the Bronx in 1959 on one of the last immigrant boats to the USA. His family lived in the union-sponsored Amalgamated Housing Cooperative and he attended the Bronx High School of Science, where he began his meteoric rise as an architect. He moved to Berlin as the wall fell, to build the Jewish Museum in Berlin. He returned in 2003 to oversee the master plan for the World Trade Center redevelopment.
Rabbi Michael S. Miller has been the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) since 1986. JCRC-NY coordinates 60 major local organizations involved with intergroup relations, public affairs, intracommunal affairs, Israel and international affairs. Many are familiar with the annual Jewish Heritage-NY events held by local sports teams and the Celebrate Israel Parade. Rabbi Miller has led almost 100 missions to Israel with local elected officials. He was raised at the now defunct Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center where his late father, Rabbi Dr. Israel Miller, served as rabbi for decades prior to becoming senior vice president of Yeshiva University and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Emmy award-winning newscaster Marvin Scott has been a familiar face on local television stations for over five decades, including in the anchor position on the nightly WB11 News at 10. He is currently hosting the weekly “PIX11 News Close Up.” He first entered the media world after he photographed a major fire on the Grand Concourse from his apartment window for which, luckily, the Daily News actually paid him. In 2014, Scott was inducted into the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld is a principal in Bernstein Private Wealth Management. Prior to 2000, he served as executive assistant to NY Governor George Pataki and NY Senator Al D’Amato as a regional director with the Empire State Development Corporation and as chief of staff to the traffic commissioner in Mayor Ed Koch’s administration.
As for future events, Michael explained, “Right now, we are working on special events such as a night with individual Hall-of-Famers. We expect also to partner with tour professionals to enhance our historic tours in the coming year.”
By Judy Berger