Posts Tagged ‘Park Avenue Synagogue’

The Battle For Proper Maternity Leave

November 21, 2011

This piece first appeared as “When I Was Fired for Being Pregnant” on The Sisterhood blog at the Forward.

An op-ed piece in the Huffington Post by a 17-year-old Jewish high school student brought up some suppressed memories. This was not only because she wrote about the issue of paid maternity leave, but also the fact that she goes to a New York Jewish day school at which I once worked — and where I was treated badly because I asked for that benefit.

Emma Goldberg (the daughter of Forward senior columnist J.J. Goldberg and Advancing Women Professionals’ founding President Shifra Bronznick) wrote that she was surprised and worried to see her teacher at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School return to work only four weeks after having given birth. Apparently, the teacher, like many other women, could not afford to go without a salary for more than a month. Consequently, she spoke with the school’s administration about its maternity leave policy, did a lot of research on the topic, and wrote a strong piece calling for longer paid maternity leaves in all workplaces.

As much as it heartening to see a Jewish teenager so aware and so activist on this issue, it is also disheartening to see that nothing has changed in the close to 20 years since I was a young woman trying to concurrently build a career and a family. At least Goldberg, as a high school senior, is already aware of the uphill battle working mothers face and knows where she might be able to seek help or support when she herself reaches the point at which she needs to take maternity leave. In this regard, she is in a better place than I was when I was in my late 20s.

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© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

A Fragment of 9/11

September 9, 2011

This piece first appeared as “Howard Lutnick on 9/11 and Remembering What Is Important” on The Shmooze blog of the Forward.

We all have 9/11 memories etched into our brains, and it’s funny how your mind can play tricks on you.

On September 11, 2001, I was beginning my first year as director of education at Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The next day, when the scope of the devastation was becoming clearer, the senior staff was called in for an emergency meeting. Given that so many of our members worked on Wall Street, we were bracing for news of many deaths within our community.

Fortunately, it turned out that very few synagogue members lost their lives — though almost everyone had been touched by the tragedy in some way.

One quick-to-emerge piece of Park Avenue Synagogue 9/11 lore was that the life of Howard Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, had been spared by a stroke of luck. Lutnick had been at PAS that morning, dropping off his son for his first day at the synagogue’s nursery school, at the moment the plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.

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© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

The Roller Skater

November 24, 2009

I recently learned that Vivian Finkel died this past June. She wasn’t a great stateswoman, famous entertainer or business mogul. She did, however, help shape the lives of countless Jewish children in Manhattan over the course of more than fifty years. And that counts for a lot, at least in my book.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Park Avenue Synagogue choir singing his Hashkiveinu, 1945. This was the era in which Vivian began teaching in the synagogue's religious school.

Her obituary in The New York Times was modest. It was short and sweet, unlike Vivian the person who was short and spicy. And salty, too. She could be tough, but always in service of helping her students reach the high standards she set for them. And also unlike her obituary, Vivian was far from humble about her achievements. But after not only surviving, but thriving in the challenging environment of synagogue after school education for so incredibly long, her tooting her own horn was more than justified.

The 19th century Moorish style sanctuary at Park Avenue Synagogue, NYC

I was Vivian’s mentee, colleague, and boss at varying times over the course of a decade. We met at Park Avenue Synagogue in the early 1990’s, when I was beginning my career in Jewish education and she was already in her fifth decade of teaching there. I learned some tricks of the trade by working alongside her for a few years, and was again receptive to her sage advice when I returned to the synagogue a number of years later to direct the education program. Although I did not always see eye to eye with her, I very much appreciated the confidence she had in me and my abilities. The Vivian Finkel stamp of approval was not bestowed on just anyone, so I valued mine greatly. I still do a decade later and thousands of miles away.

Vivian worked to make Hebrew come alive for her students. (The Message by Oded Ezer, 2001)

Geveret (Mrs.) Finkel, also known as HaMorah (Teacher) Vivian, was quite the character. She had presence. And she had style, coming to work every weekday afternoon and Shabbat morning dressed to the nines and fully coiffed. She was from the generation of religious school teachers who not only championed the teaching of the Hebrew language to American Jewish students (and successfully taught it to them), but also viewed themselves as true professionals. There are still many Hebrew school teachers who take their work very seriously, but there are few left who rise to the level of skill, competency and dedication of Vivian Finkel.

I remember one time when I was at a loss as to how to get a certain student and his parents to understand the importance of and to adhere to the school’s attendance policy (three times per week – two days after school plus Shabbat mornings). This was when I was principal and Vivian had already officially retired, though she still seemed to find reasons to come by the school frequently.When Vivian dropped into my office to say hello, I asked her advice. She told me a story:

Could this girl, like Vivian, be on her way to Hebrew school? (Image by H. Armstrong Roberts/CORBIS)

“When I was a young girl I didn’t want to go to Hebrew school. I loved to roller skate and I wanted to go roller skating with my friends instead of going to Hebrew school. My father told me I had to go to Hebrew school, and I protested. And then he told me this: ‘Vivian, there will come a time when you will no longer roller skate, but you will be a Jew all your life.’ So what did I do? I went to Hebrew school like my father told me to…only I roller skated there.”

I am sure that Vivian did hang up her roller skates at some point, but her energy and vigor continued for many, many years. I heard that she did eventually slow down in the period preceding her passing as a nonagenarian, especially after her beloved husband Milton died. I never had the opportunity to ask Vivian about her eschatological beliefs, but I hope she, wherever she is now, knows she can rest assured that her little story, its lesson and she herself will be well and fondly remembered. Her legacy skates on.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Update:  The Jewish Women’s Archive has re-published this tribute to the late Vivian Finkel in its “We Remember: Reminiscences About Recently Deceased Jewish Women Who Made a Difference in Our World” section. Click here to read it and see archival photos of Finkel courtesy of her daughter.