If Riverdale’s Jewish community had a queen, it would be Lee First.
Lee helped shape Riverdale’s vibrant Orthodox community. She has lived there for two generations, through many ups and downs. Everyone with any connection to Riverdale seems to know “Judge Gorgeous.”
Recently, Lee, mother to Jewish Link columnist Mitchell First, was feted at a gala 90th birthday party. The crème of Riverdale society was there to celebrate, including former Senator Joseph Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, among the 200 invitees. Lee sashayed into the room and, with her characteristic humor, greeted the guests: “Welcome to all my friends who can still hear, walk and see.”
Lee has been a Riverdale mainstay for so long that, in her words, “I don’t tell history, I am history.” Lee’s trajectory took her to Riverdale from Switzerland, from which she fled at the outbreak of WWII. She still speaks with the cadence of Swiss German.
When Lee moved to Riverdale in the 1950s, the area was a far cry from today’s bursting-at-the-seams bustling Jewish neighborhood. It was an Orthodox zero, with not one Orthodox shul, school, yeshiva or shomer Shabbat restaurant. No one moved to Riverdale because of Jewish life.
Riverdale at that time seemed quaintly rural, with far more green than concrete. There were few high rises or shopping centers. It was a leafy oasis known for prep schools and country estates along the Hudson. It was so quiet that children played ball on the streets. Lee remembers walking to the RJC from Palisade Avenue without seeing a single apartment building, just overgrown lots. This green outpost was the furthest thing from a Jewish neighborhood.
How did sleepy Riverdale blossom into a center of Jewish Orthodox life?
During the post-war boom, American Orthodoxy was looking to grow. Yeshiva University, then as now the nerve center of Modern Orthodoxy, wanted to expand Modern Orthodoxy into new communities. Riverdale, with its pristine beauty, closeness to Manhattan and short drive from Washington Heights, was ideal.
Rabbi Jack Sable, who received semicha from YU, was encouraged to create a Modern Orthodox community in Riverdale. Yeshiva University helped finance the first Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale, the Riverdale Jewish Center. When Jack passed away at 87, former RJC rabbi, Irving Greenberg, eulogized him as the Daniel Boone of Riverdale Orthodox life. The RJC was known as “the house that Jack built.”
Jews were just beginning to move into the neighborhood in the post-war exodus to suburbia, yet they were not always welcome. Lee’s late husband, Harry, was shocked that he had fought the Nazis in Europe only to face anti-Jewish discrimination in his own neighborhood.
Few Jews in the area were strictly Orthodox, but many were supportive. Rabbi Sable knocked on doors, inviting Jews of all stripes to join the newly created RJC. Some walked to shul, others rode. The nucleus of the RJC were the Yekkes, or German Jews. These were no-nonsense Orthodox Jews, scrupulous in their observance. German Jews are famously known as community builders and organizers. The RJC became the anchor of Orthodoxy in Riverdale, the only act in town for many years.
Today, Riverdale’s Orthodox community has more stripes than a tallit: Sephardic, chasidish, Chabad, yeshivish. In the early years, all stripes were united in one shul, like the proverbial red brick schoolhouse. All of Riverdale’s Orthodox Jews knew each other and got along like one big happy family.
During the 1950s, American Orthodoxy was coming into its own. It was less strict and developed than it is today. Some Orthodox shuls had mixed dancing and used microphones on Shabbbat. Lee has joked, “Today people are becoming so frum they can’t eat in their own homes.” She rhapsodizes about the simple life in Riverdale at that time, when people left their doors unlocked. Riverdale Jews had no social center, and the place to hang out on Saturday nights was the Riverdale Cinema. Lee’s late husband, Harry, would quip, “There were so many yarmulkes, you could have a minyan.”
As years passed, Riverdale’s Orthodox community grew exponentially, but gone was the sense of unity and camaraderie of the past. Lee looks back at the establishment of the Riverdale mikvah as an event that united all of Riverdale’s Orthodox communities. Lee finds closeness and kinship among the young couples at the RJC who appear to be cut from the same Modern Orthodox cloth, having attended the same camps, yeshivas and colleges.
Lee is Riverdale’s unsung hero. She founded Riverdale’s Orthodox institutions but never held official office, as in those days women played pivotal roles in founding RJC and SAR but, for the most part, didn’t serve in leadership roles. As the Yiddish saying goes: “The pot does the cooking but the plate gets all the credit.”
Lee recently attended a community function and was shocked that a young man asked her for her ticket without recognizing her. “I was never so insulted in my life,” she quipped.
Lee’s passion is Torah and the establishment of the Orthodox community in Riverdale, but that doesn’t put challah on the table. Lee First was a true “first.” She had a successful career as a lawyer and judge, but when she started out, women lawyers were rare, female judges much rarer and religious female judges basically nonexistent. One day in court, a lawyer was so flabbergasted at the concept of a woman judge that he did not recognize Lee as the presiding judge.
Lee’s strong Torah values informed her practice as lawyer and judge. She brooked no corruption of any sort. She would often season her verdicts with quotes from Halacha. On Friday nights, she hosted Jewish judges and other law professionals who expressed an interest in learning about a lifestyle dictated by Halacha.
Under Lee’s judicial watch, she instituted as system whereby a judge would have to issue a verdict within a month. “A case that’s drawn out for longer than a month constitutes a real delay of justice,” she said.
The rabbis of the Talmud ponder, “What did God do with all his time after he finished creating the world?” The answer: matchmaking. In the spirit of imitatio dei (emulating God), Lee is an active shadhan, running a matchmaking group. She also has her hands full with her 40-plus grandchildren and countless great grandchildren, who live in charedi communities in Israel.
As the queen of Riverdale’s Orthodox community who has known the community intimately since its inception, what does she think makes Riverdale unique? Lee believes that Riverdale is more individualistic and tolerant than most Orthodox communities. There is more appreciation and acceptance of divergent personalities and lifestyles.
Happy birthday, Judge Gorgeous!
By Jeff Klapper