Coney Island Memoirs – Affirmative Action

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by 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.

Rabbi Lefkowitz is the Rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, in Chicago. During his nearly fifty year career, the Rabbi held positions in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Working under the leadership of Rav Israel Jacobson, zt”l and Rabbi Jacob J, Hecht o.b.m. he played a significant role in the establishing of Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah, the first Baal Teshuva Yeshiva under the aegis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l.

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27 Responses

  1. Philip Lefkowitz says:

    A short response to David2 is in order. Coney Island, at least the Coney Island I was confronted with in the 60s, was a world unto itself. I had the most diffcult problem even getting my Hebrew School boys to play in the local YMHA. The Synagogue was poor, most of its members were poor, there was little effort to assist in dealing with the problems confronted by my seniors by Black teens who prayed upon them, I could go on and on… We can always do more – that is a fact of life.

    As a very part-time rabbi I tried my bwst to deal with a miriad of problems even developing a summer program – a remedial reading and recreation program, for the summer open to local children – about 200 kids, mostly Black. We were able to boost the reading level of the kids, a major issue for Blacks and Puerto Ricans at that time, some up to 2 years. We engaged the local children from the area with our Jewish seniors to create a more accpeting environment for all.

    As for the steps you suggested that SHOULD have been taken let me state that, again, you are correct. Much of what you suggested requires a budget. There was none. Let me add, that around the Block was Mrs. Cohen and her, what we refer to today as J for J group with an annuual bude=get of over $50,000.00. With support from the Baptists, she provided food, clothing, summer camp you name it. Pushing her grandchild in a baby carriage she would talk to folks in Yiddish (my Yiddish was poor) explaining that the Mashiach has already come. Missionery efforts to the Jews was an established part of Coney Ilsland for many years. In the summer they would rent a stand on the boardwalk and preach the “good news” to Jews.

    Running a Purim party in Schul, with clown, refreshments etc., we had to deal with her troops as they worked the crowd in the rear of the Schul handing out material inviting my community to events, parties, assistance of all kinds.

    I was a young Rabbi, just starting out. The challenges of the Coney Island community I was confronting would be formidable for an experienced Rabbi with substantial funds and Jewish organizational support.

    In fact after I left the community, while I was still in Brooklyn, yearly I brought teens from my new Congregation to distribute food for Passover to approximately two hundred families.

    I did mention my feelings regarding not being able to do more for Jerry in my article.

    Rabbi Lefkowitz

  2. Friar Yid says:

    A. Schreiber,

    the reality is that if you see them succeeding, you can be confident they got there on merit.

    I would apply that statement to every professional, regardless of race or gender. Put another way, what matters more when you hire a doctor or lawyer: their history of successes, or the possibility that waaaay back in their college/grad school application days, their race or gender was given extra weight?

    My impression is that a more common reluctance when it comes to professionals is not based on race or gender, but age. Younger doctors or lawyers have had less experience and so there is a smaller success rate to judge them on. Once someone has been doing their job for a while, you can judge them on their merits– not, as you suggest, on their race.

  3. dovid2 says:

    The yahrzeit of Robert Crane, of blessed memory, is a few days from now, on the 17th day of Syvan. He and his eshes ish saved hundreds of Jews from sure death during WWII. How did they pull such a feat, given that their means were modest? It was because of their big hearts that gave them no peace of mind knowing that fellow Jews are in danger of being killed. They sprang into action, consulted with legendary Mike Tress and started writing hundreds of affidavits vouching for the upkeep of Yiden in Europe whom they never met. Their actions were crowned with great Siyata DiShmaya and hundreds of Jews were saved. They wrote so many such affidavits that it triggered an investigation by the State Department. They were asked how come they had so many relatives. They answered that Jews are all related. They were blessed with long lives that they lived to the fullest in their modest way. Their life was one of Torah and maassim tovim. Uncle Robert finished Shas, I think twice, a tremendous feat because I think he didn’t have a yeshiva background. He also sat up a G’mach single-handedly. They gave charity generously to everyone who knocked at their door.

    What do the Cranes have to do with Affirmative Action? Nothing. What did Jerry have to do with Affirmative Action? Very little. It did affect his life tangentially. But Jerry didn’t fall victim to Affirmative Action as the write-up above and the comments below it suggest. His end was inevitable, neither because of his actions, nor due to his bad character (“Jerry, was a quiet, sweet boy”.). His end was inevitable not even because of his unfortunate circumstances. Per the write-up, He did his part. He gave it his all. His end was inevitable because his fellow Jews’ indifference who let him down. The challenges of his life circumstances were greater than he could cope with. That’s when the community should have stepped in. Everyone, except for the shul secretary, looked the other way. It was the responsibility of his fellow Jews and not that of the Affirmative Action or other societal initiatives to prop him up. The Rov with other responsible members of the shul should have tried to find out whether Jerry’s mother had a chance to snap out of her alcohol dependency and if not, consult the g’dolim of the time (Rov Moshe and Rov Yaakov were around and accessible) whether Jerry should have moved out and start his life anew. At the same time, the Rov of the shul should have made sure Jerry had well-meaning and well-informed mentors to guide him to achieve his goals, because Jerry by himself was an easy case. He was pleasant and hard working, and his goals were achievable. Jerry killed himself because he was abandoned.

    I read the 24 comments posted so far to this write-up. The majority of them are ‘scholarly’ musings and pontifications about the merits of the Affirmative Action. How can it be we don’t see the tragedy that took place? Are our hearts a piece of dead meat? If that’s they way we react to this story, that’s the way we must react to tragedies in the making, taking place right now under our nose in our communities. The changes in the economy displaced many jobs. There are hundreds of Yiden, heads of families, who have been out of work for several years now through no fault of theirs. Whole industries are down or ceased to exist. Their self-respect is shattered. They may have lost the respect of their families as well. In many cases, their family life became dysfunctional. Each of these Yiden has a set of skills, core competencies that can be put to good use in other industries. But it takes effort, networking, and considerable effort on the part of the members of the community. What are you doing about this? Look the other way and when the Jerry in your community (there must be one or two) snaps, blame Affirmative Action, or the economy, or Obama who blames Bush, who blames Clinton? That’s not the way the Cranes acted. They didn’t have more means than you and I have, but that didn’t stop them from saving hundreds of Jews.

    When the Air France airplane was hijacked to Uganda with more than hundred Jews on board, Rabbi Chaim Shmulewitz screamed that we should feel as if our own brothers, fathers, and mothers were in the airplane, and daven and say tehilim for them as such and not just mumble something and feel we have done our part (or blame airport security for the disaster). The much maligned medinat Israel does feel achrayus for the Yiden who fell captive into the hands of the enemy and tries to to get them free.

    Remember what the Cranes told the State Department: “Jews are all related“. If you can’t help him, think who else could. And daven for him and say tehilim for him. We will give din v’chesbon for how we handled each one of the Jerry’s in our midst. There is no escaping from it.

  4. Philip Lefkowitz says:

    Dear Rav Galinsky,

    Thank you. I’ll take your word for it that the Jewish exodus began when the coops were built. Although living in Luna Park, I came from Besonhurst. I remember your Schul as a beautiful building with a lovely olam and a wonderful Yeshiva K’tana, as well as your valiant efforts for Yiddishkeit and the Coney Island Jewish community.

    Regards,

    Rabbi Lefkowitz

  5. Reb Yid says:

    Six or seven years ago the Times published an excellent, weeklong series on class in America. If you Google New York Times and Class Matters you’ll find the whole series on-line.

    What it showed is that, basically, in the aggregate the rich are getting richer and more broadly it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to move up or down from the class (“defined as a combination of income, education, wealth and occupation”) into which they were born. Any individual might be able to surmount these obstacles but on the whole the myth of the American Dream is becoming a lot less achievable than it was for our parents or grandparents.

    Race and ethnicity are clearly related to class; while future affirmative action policies may not want to single out race, by incorporating class (as well as other factors) it will undoubtedly benefit many deserving individuals from particular racial and ethnic backgrounds who have the deck stacked against them. By the way, other beneficiaries of such a policy would be Haredi and Hasidic Jews.

  6. Mallen Galinsky says:

    cvmay

    Thanks for setting the record straight. It was after Luna Park and the Trump and Warbasse houses opened that Coney Island Jews fled en masse, but in the mid sixties there were still hundreds of Jews in the Shules. We did not move out of Coney Island (to Sea Gate) until 1969. In 1970 we moved to Borough Park but came back to Sharei Zedek every year for the High Holy Days, until we moved to Israel in 1976. The late Rabbi Isaac Brun moved to Israel on August 10, 1965.

    Mallen Galinsky

  7. Charlie Hall says:

    “Only a fool would use a black lawyer or doctor or professional today, and the reality is that most people dont. Because you have no idea if they got where they are because of talent, or because of affirmative action.”

    This is total racist and sexist BS. I’ve been teaching medical school for 14 years and while some students are more motivated than others, I have yet to meet a student of any race, sex or ethnicity who was not capable of doing the work. The fact is, so many people want to be doctors that there would be no need to admit unqualified students even if one wanted to give unfair preferences, which have been illegal since the Bakke case in the 1970s.

    And legacy preference is not an “infinitesimal chance” at selective universities. At Harvard, about one eighth of the undergraduate students are legacies. As an article in The Crimson of May 11, 2011 points out, money, not merit, can matter.

    I have no sympathy for the folks who decry minority affirmative action and defend legacies. The effect of such combination of policies is discrimination in favor of rich white non-Jews.

    I like to think I have gotten where I’ve gotten based on pure skill, but as a white male I benefitted from (1) going to a segregated all-white elementary school that was far better than the black schools in my county, and (2) applying to Harvard the last year that by design it was easier for men to get in than women. A high school classmate who was every bit as good a student as I was, with a higher high school GPA, only got waitlisted and ended up attending another institution.

  8. A. Schreiber says:

    Only a fool would use a black lawyer or doctor or professional today, and the reality is that most people dont. Because you have no idea if they got where they are because of talent, or because of affirmative action. The transcript or diploma doesnt tell you who was quietly “helped” with extra time or credit along the way. That’s the sad thing about affirmative action. Sure its possible they got their jobs on merit, but its equally possible they got there with help, and why take a chance when you’re not sure. With a white male, on the other hand, while there is a theoretical infestimal change he got some sort of legacy assistance to get in the door, the reality is that if you see them succeeding, you can be confident they got there on merit.

    Although there are other complexities to the mix, the above is true with female professionals too. You just dont know on what basis they got their positions. With white males, the odds are enormously greater that they got there on pure skill alone.

  9. Zadok says:

    IMHO ironically Affirmative Action has also been a factor in the growth of the kollel movement.Rabbi Berel Wein once made the observation that a part of the success of the Kollel movement was that social programs removed the need to work for many. But there is also a correlation to AA. When I was child in the seventies a majority (yes majority) of the “erlicher Baaley Batim’ that the blog world loves to wax so nostalgically about (that I remember) were either employed by the government or academic institutions.Due to Affirmative Action their children no longer had those options available to them.Having no good job options they ended in staying in kollel. I personally know people in Kollel for many years who would leave on the spot if they were offered the type of government (or non government) job his father, the erlicher baal habos, had.Even if it requires a college education.Being that the job options he does have will probably either leave him on programs anyhow and not enough time to be an erlicher baal habos they remain.

    Despite my personal vehement opposition to both AA and social welfare programs, I begrudgingly see the Yad Hashem in them for the reason given above.

    The changed economic reality (I don’t refer to AA alone with this)it also something to consider when people complain about the disappearance of the erlicher baaly batim of the Seventies in favor of the Kollel movement.

  10. cvmay says:

    “Cross Currents blames affirmative action for a very unhappy person killing himself”.

    Why CROSS CURRENTS…..wouldn’t it be more accuracte to state that the Author blames affirmative action?

  11. AA says:

    Cross Currents blames affirmative action for a very unhappy person killing himself. They could just as easily blame it on flourescent lights. An unprovable and transparently biased attack.

  12. Raymond says:

    The psychological state of the Jerry mentioned in Philip Lefkowitz’s article is not at all the central point of his article. The point of the article is that there are countless other Jerry’s, psychologically healthy ones at that, who have been passed over for jobs or admissions to universities, solely because they were not the right skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. Such a policy is both morally wrong and destructive to our society, regardless of the particular group being favored solely on the basis of how they were born.

  13. cvmay says:

    Ori: You do have a point yet he had to aggressively pursue and search for minority (& poor) blacks, even though there was a pool of white & poor men available (limited; since their eyes were set on white-collar work).

  14. Ori Pomerantz says:

    cvmay: My father worked in the field of plumbing, heating and contracting and was bound to the laws of Affirmative Action. He hired many minority males who learned the trade, gained employment, started business of their own and took their families from poverty to a middle class life style. There were not many middle-class whites (for sure not Jews)who inquired or were interested in this field of work.

    Ori: Doesn’t that mean the laws were superfluous, and your father would have hired those minority assistant anyway because they were the ones who wanted the jobs?

  15. Philip Lefkowitz says:

    Dear Mr. Rsisman,

    I agree There were other alternatives to Brooklyn College Jerry could have considered. I cannot tell you if he did make such appliciation. I shared this true story as I felt it was a side of affirmative action that needs to be considered as reflected in the upcoming case before the Supreme Court I mentioned in my article.

  16. Interested says:

    Rabbi Lefkowitz,

    Though even fifty years later my heart aches for the sad tale of Jerry, one tragic anecdote doth not a national policy make. I’m certain that for every Jerry of those days there was an equal black student who–had affirmative action NOT let him into the higher education system–could also have ended up dealing drugs and taking his own life. The difference is–Jewish families like Jerry’s did not have the same systematic disenfranchisement that black Americans had (note: I said the _same_. I would never deny the centuries of antisemitic preferential treatment in America). The black version of Jerry, in general, would have started being dealt an even LOWER hand than the poor, child of an alcoholic ex-prostitute Jewish child.

    This is not to defend every aspect of the original implementation of Affirmative Action. Clearly it was flawed, and the past fifty years have seen further refinements, and the next fifty will likely see more. However, it is unfair and unreasonable to fail to see any positive in these wide-ranging programs, simply because of a single negative (however tragic) case. Policy can not, and should not, be wholly decided based on single anecdotes.

  17. SkepticalYid says:

    1. Charter schools have not been proven to provide a more successful educational alternative. While they admit every student who applies, they quickly discard special needs students and send them back to the public school system.
    2. If an African American student has a GPA so close Jerry’s GPA he clearly is a motivated student. You stereotype affirmative action recipients as all being unmotivated.
    3. Persecution of African Americans extended well beyond the end of slavery. There was no real attempt to address the multitude of injustices faced by them until the 1970s.
    4. One could just as easily argue that legacy students who are accepted at universities because mommy or daddy was an alumnus or gave a large donation are recipients of affirmative action. An underperforming student who comes from money and has preferential admission apparently is not an issue here.
    5. Jerry clearly was not as well grounded as you choose to believe. No one commits suicide because of one major disappointment unless they are prone to some form of depression. Perhaps in Jerry’s case it was situational depression. As other posters have mentioned, he could have applied to a community college and transferred at a later date.

  18. Raymond says:

    Affirmative action, quotas, set-asides…whatever term one chooses to use, the fact remains that such policies are clearly discriminatory, and often racist. The whole point of a color blind society is to heed the words of the late great Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, who told this nation to judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Yet affirmative action is the very opposite of his dream, as it most definitely judges people by the group that they happened to be born into.

    And then I would also like to pose what should be a rhetorical question, namely, what is more crucial to the survival of our society, medicine or sports? Obviously medicine is, as it saves lives. And yet, when it comes to basketball, which is so completely dominated by one racial group, there is no serious talk about implementing affirmative action. I see no short, handicapped players mandated into playing on those basketball courts. Being that saving lives is just a bit more important than any basketball game, why then are such policies mandated when it comes to medical school? I find myself not trusting doctors belonging to some minority classes, as I suspect them of becoming doctors not through their abilities, but through government mandated affirmative action.

    Such policies need to stop. We need to judge people on their individual merits, and not on factors beyond their control, such as which group they happened to be born into. This is still America, not some repressive totalitarian regime.

  19. cvmay says:

    Dear Readers and Rabbi Lefkowitz,

    “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”.*****

    I had to reread the Coney Island Memoirs three times to make sure that I was reading correctly. I grew up in Coney Island (where my parents, Mr. & Mrs. Stanley Schumsky still live on Neptune Ave.) and in the 1960 was attending the growing and flourishing Yeshiva Sharei Zedek on Mermaid and W. 23rd St. The principal was Rabbi Brun, a Talmid Chocham and dean was Rav Mallin Galinsky who was also the Rav of Cong. Sharei Zedek a huge shul which housed close to 250 people on Yom Tovim. In the mid 1970, both of these Rabbanim made aliyah and the school continued under Rav Elochonen Sheinerman. My grandfather, Mr. Desick owned a kosher fish store on Mermaid avenue which served the families who desired kosher fish. During the summer months, the families of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l vacationed in bungalows on Surf Ave. and purchased fish from my grandfather. My family attended the Young Israel under the tutelage of Rav Kurzrock, my dad was president for years while my uncles were the kohanim and grandfather the Levi. Among the congregation were professionals, businessmen, storekeepers, etc. I recall Rabbi Langer, (Moshe Scherer’s son in law)a shul regular, who was finishing his college courses at that time. There was a shabbos and daily minyon and in the early 70s I ran the youth/children’s minyon, when Rabbi Goldman took over the shul. Chanukah and Purim, we had special parties for the Yeshiva Sharei Zedek & talmud torah youth. There was also a large amount of Jews living in Sea Gate who attended the Yeshiva and participated in Shabbos Groups at the YI and Sea Gate Shul. Yes there was a large population of blacks and PR all living peacefully with each in the 1960-1975.

    Regarding Affirmative Action: My father worked in the field of plumbing, heating and contracting and was bound to the laws of Affirmative Action. He hired many minority males who learned the trade, gained employment, started business of their own and took their families from poverty to a middle class life style. There were not many middle-class whites (for sure not Jews)who inquired or were interested in this field of work.
    Very sorry to hear this story about Jerry….there were chesed programs and individuals that were pro-active with the Youth even then. He slipped between the cracks and had a sorrowful ending.

    ****Articles and Posts are written according to how an Author viewed the world events of the time, not always with the facts & accuracies that others lived, recalled or experienced the same time plan.

  20. dovid2 says:

    What’s this business of blaming affirmative action and the education system for Jerry’s failure and suicide and not the Jewish community? Jerry wasn’t responsible for his life circumstances (dire poverty, alcoholic single mother, ect.). He was born in it. He was willing to do his part and work hard. It is us who failed him for not holding his hand until the finishing line. We failed him and conveniently blame the system for favoring blacks.

  21. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Nobody who is serious about applying to college puts their eggs in one basket. There were other alternatives, even in the City University system. He could have gone to Kingsborough and transferred after two years. There is something missing in this story.

  22. Philip Lefkowitz says:

    As for disadvantaged youth, one answer that has already seen success is alternative forms of education to the public school – for example Charter Schools. Ultimately there must be a desire on the part of the student and the parentor no action by society will be of any help.

    While I agree the laws have changed, the advantage of affirmative action is now offered to many other groups as well, it would still not be available to Jerry as he was Jewish.

    There is no arguing with the need for more drug treatment and suicide prevention. I would suggest that Jerry, who was able to cope with a very difficult life, would not have ended his life as he did were it not for the devestation he felt by the rejection of Brooklyn College. I knew him well. He was a well grounded individual.

  23. E. Fink says:

    Do you have an alternative suggestion that would enable disadvantaged youths from minority groups to attend college?

    And the current laws governing affirmative action would not allow the kind of scenario that you describe in this article. Race is only permitted to be one factor of many in a school’s decision. It cannot be the deciding factor.

  24. Charlie Hall says:

    The kind of affirmative action that cost Jerry his place at Brooklyn College (which for decades has had open admissions) was prohibited by the courts quite some time ago. Yet they have allowed the “legacy” preferences to remain. Alumni children at Harvard have twice the acceptance rate of non-alumni children — despite the fact that the university used to have quotas that discriminated against Jews. The other affirmative action that is all over academia is for athletes, who are generally admitted everywhere regardless of qualifications. (The interesting thing about the athletes is that in some institutions their graduation rate is no worse than the allegedly fully qualified students, which may say something about the meaning of standardized tests and other factors that are used for admissions.)

    Yet the truth is that affirmative action really matters very little to most academic admissions. Most undergraduate colleges accept every single applicant whom they think has the capability of doing the work. And for the truly selective colleges, they turn down most applicants and have difficulty distinguishing between the thousands of students applying with perfect or nearly perfect SAT scores. Graduate school is even worse — most graduate programs are absolutely desparate for US Citizen graduate students. Medical school is the opposite; most students who could do the work in medical school and who make good doctors do not get accepted. And you don’t want the only qualification to get into medical school to be simply mastery of standardized tests!

  25. Friar Yid says:

    This story says more about the need for suicide prevention and drug treatment support than a strong argument against affirmative action.

  26. Yehuda says:

    Excellent, heart-wrenching article – a few thoughts though:
    In California, Affirmative Action, at least the explicit type, has been illegal for a few years now. Public universities now use a ‘holistic admissions’ process whereby they apparently look at every student individually and can consider race, but are not allowed to give weight to race qua race, only as a proxy for general hardships and intellectual diversity. Under this system, at least in theory, Jerry’s situation would have been different. In practice, it produces pretty much exactly the same numbers as the affirmative action system that was previously in place, so there is really no way of knowing what is going on.
    Secondly, Asian-Americans were actually given *negative* weight under the affirmative action system that was previously in place; because they achieved disproportionately high on their grades and test scores, they were explicitly disadvantaged as compared to white students. (One can only imagine that if the universities attempted to ethnically balance intra-white groups, Jews would have been disadvantaged as well)
    Another problem that I think the author missed is that affirmative action can actually have the perverse effect of perpetuating prejudice. If white students know that the black students in their college are there on affirmative action, they assume lower intelligence – and often are right, because there isn’t really a good way of distinguishing in admissions between a student whose grades were artificially lowered by racial hardship and one who is just not as bright as his peers; the university is bound to let in some unqualified students. Minority students, as is natural, tend to form insular support groups; this prevents white students from realizing when they are wrong. Blacks and others find that the barrier to entry keeps getting moved forward – because although affirmative action can be taken in higher education, it’s hard to convince a businessman to hire a less qualified employee simply because of race. And if the future businessmen are educated in universities with affirmative action policies, they are often have already developed prejudice.

  27. Bob Miller says:

    Nowadays, we even have people who pose as 1/32 Cherokee to get a leg up in the academic world.