Coney Island Memoirs - Affirmative Action

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

It was the 1960s, a tumultuous time for the civil rights movement in the United States. Cities were burning, race riots where breaking out everywhere. In New York City, Mayor John Lindsey was doing his utmost to placate the simmering anger boiling over in the Black community. And I, a young Rabbi of 23, was the Rabbi of the Beis Medrash Machzekie Rav, better known as the 31st Street Talmud Torah in the heart of Coney Island.

For years Coney Island had a significant and active Jewish community. In the 60s that community had largely disappeared. Yet from Stillwell Avenue to Seagate there were still several Synagogues, most with part-time Rabbis. The majority of the population of Coney Island was African American and Puerto Rican. It was the hood – a tough ghetto style neighborhood.

Other than those Jews who lived in the City’s middle class housing project on Surf Avenue, across the street from the Brooklyn Hebrew Home and Hospital for the Aged, the former Half Moon Hotel, and attended the Young Israel of Coney Island, its Rabbi now Rosh Bet Din of the Igud Harabonim, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, Rabbi Herschel Kurzrock shlit”a, most of the Jewish population remained because they were unable to move or too old to start life anew in another community. Oh yes, I almost forgot, a fledgling Jewish newspaper had its office in the former Brooklyn Eagle building on Surf Avenue. Rabbi Shalom Klass z”l was making a valiant effort at launching the first English, Orthodox Jewish newspaper – The Jewish Press.

My congregation numbered in its ranks those who were formerly involved in the “carnie” and related businesses so much a part of the history of Coney Island. Some had owned bungalows, which were rented for the summer months. Others had owned rides or food stands in the now shrunken amusement area. And then there were those who in their youth played an active role in one of the more sleazy “industries” of the neighborhood, prostitution.

National Jewish leadership at the time was actively and vocally supporting the civil rights movement including one of its more controversial efforts – affirmative action. Developed to respond to the inequities visited upon Black America by slavery and racial hatred, it was an attempt to level the playing field for young African Americans attempting to advance themselves through higher education. Simply put, African American students applying for entrance into a college were given additional points on their cumulative high school average much as is done for veterans when they apply for civil service positions. This was touted as a means to finally give Black America its rightful piece of the American economic pie.

The United States Supreme Court will once again review the legality of affirmative action as a permanent part of our American way of life in the fall. The case to be considered is brought by a white girl claiming she was rejected for admission to a university because of the bigotry, the racial discrimination inherent in its acceptance policy, because of affirmative action.

Back to Coney Island. One of the teenagers in the Schul of my early years in the Rabbinate, lets call him Jerry, was a quiet, sweet boy who lived in abject poverty with his alcoholic mother formerly a prostitute, who spent her days drinking in the local bar. Jerry looked after her and their modest basement apartment. Jean, our Synagogue’s secretary, would tell me she often saw Jerry standing at the bar’s door begging his mother to come home. A former New York City public school teacher, Jean had taken Jerry under her wing. It was Jerry’s sole desire to attend Brooklyn College and become a teacher.

Jerry did his best to study in spite of the miserable circumstances of his life. When it came to the SATs and New York State Regency exams, he spent every minute he had available in his books; many hours in the Synagogue office under the tutelage of Jean. He was determined to attend Brooklyn College and become a teacher.

When he received his letter from Brooklyn College informing him he wasn’t accepted because his cumulative high school average was two points below the acceptable number, he was devastated. All the more was this the case because a friend of his, an African American boy, who’s own mother whiled away her days on the bar stool next to Jerry’s mother, was accepted. His cumulative average was a point lower than Jerry’s.

I called the Dean of the school on Jerry’s behalf. I was told that Brooklyn College was required to utilize affirmative action in its acceptance policy. I begged the Dean, given Jerry’s horrible life circumstance and his tremendous effort educationally, to find a means by which to approve Jerry’s application. And this is what the Dean, a Jew, told me. “I’m sorry, the fact is Jerry is not Black. Were he to be an African American we would be more than happy to accept him as a student at Brooklyn College.”

I married and moved to Boro Park a few months later. Soon after, I received a phone call from Jean, my former Synagogue’s secretary. She told me Jerry had moved his Mom and himself out of their basement apartment on 31st Street to a two-bedroom apartment in Brighton Beach. Unfortunately, weeks after moving, Jerry leaped to his death from the roof of the apartment building. He was nineteen years old.

Later the full story became known. Jerry never recovered from his rejection by Brooklyn College. Desperate to find a way out of their circumstances, Jerry began to deal narcotics. That was how he was able to put together the funds for their new apartment. Eventually, with the ready availability of narcotics, coupled with his own depression, his sense that his life had no future, he began to use himself. A heroin addict, his cycle of depression became worse. And one day when it all became too much for him to bear, he climbed the four flights of stairs to the roof and jumped to his death.

Any time I hear the words affirmative action, I think of Jerry. How sad it is, when society attempts to address a wrong visited upon one group, it often has a negative impact upon another. As you know the support for affirmative action in the Jewish community has waned over the years. This occurred because Jews statistically have one of the highest percentages of youngsters who go on to higher education. It was inevitable that affirmative action would cost Jewish college bound students their place in the college classroom.

Today, African American students in California are faced with another challenge. Affirmative action is available to other minorities as well. Asian American students are utilizing affirmative action. Coupled with their own educational drive their zeal for knowledge and their and their parents’ passion to achieve the “American dream”, they are most successful in their scholastic pursuits. The result – the Asian American student is now taking the seat in the college classroom which affirmative action was to provide for the Black student. An altruistic idea to remedy an injustice has metamorphosized into a tool for the very inequity it was created to address.

Our society in its righteous zeal to right a wrong forgot the Jerrys of this world. I am sure Jerry would have been a great teacher. His life experience would have given him a natural simpatico helping him to embolden the most deprived of children in his/her educational pursuits. What a loss for our society.

Ultimately the best approach to remedy this dilemma, the approach that traditionally has been the American ideal, that of placing the same demands, the same requirements before each of us while being ever vigilant to weed out bigotry and hatred wherever they sprout, is the only way to insure a quality education for all. Affirmative action, although well intentioned and over the years yielding some positive results, has proven to be an ineffective way to deal with the inequities of our society.