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The Long Goodbye

For generations, Jewish educators dominated New York's public schools. Now that era is over. Does anybody care? Meet Milton Fein, the lastof the Mohicans.


Milton Fein shuffled in his pigeon-toed way into a meeting of Bronx principals one morning last April. The administrators had gathered in an elementary-school library to hear a professor conduct a seminar on bilingual education, a program that Fein supported, even as its constantly changing theories and bureaucratic proscriptions dizzied him. To add to his discomfort, he had arrived uncharacteristically late.

In the past, Fein would have driven with his friend Norman Kaufman, who headed Junior High School 141 in Riverdale, just up the hill from Fein's Public School 7 in Kingsbridge. They wouldhave chatted on the way about school-board elections and the latest Arthur Miller revival, and then gone to the Riverdale Diner after the meeting for the Greek salads that Fein always joked were the size of Greek islands. But Kaufman had retired five years ago, and this morning Fein had carpooled with a younger principal, who picked him up twenty minutes behind schedule and had trouble finding a parking space.

Fein made his way to the only empty seats, at the front of the room. Swiveling in his chair to survey the audience, he thought mostly of the missing. The list only started with Norman Kaufman. Sheldon Salzberg, once the principal of P.S. 94, had moved to Florida. The other Sheldon, Lindenbaum of P.S. 122, had resigned a year ago. David Rothstein of P.S. 24 had just had a retirement party. Fein realized he must have attended a dozen affairs like it in the past few years, often serving as the emcee. For the first time, he pondered his own future.

"I thought, 'Am I staying too long? Am I a fish out of water?' " he recalls several months later. "I looked around the room, and there were people I respected -- excellent principals -- but people I couldn't relate to the same way I did with the Shellys and Dave and Norman. We had our little shtick. We came up together. We had the same experiences. That camaraderie wasn't there for me anymore. I began to feel like an old person. The old Jew."

Not long after the conference, Fein put in for retirement. It was no mere coincidence that he and his vanished friends are all Jewish. In their separate departures, they form part of a greater exodus -- the end of the era of the Jewish educator in New York's public schools. In the world's most populous Jewish city, it is true, many Jews will continue to teach and counsel and supervise in the public schools. Never again, however, will Jews dominate and define public education as they did from the Great Depression nearly to the present. Whether the schools of the future will be better or worse than those shaped by Jews, they will surely be different.

Starting in the thirties, and for decades afterward, Jews constituted the largest single ethnic group among the city schools' teachers and principals, frequently forming an absolute majority. By both numbers and force of personality, they virtually created the institutional culture of meritocracy and union power. When both of those ideals came under attack in the decentralization war of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968, Jewish educators more than any others bore the blame for public education's failures in the black and Puerto Rican slums. Long hailed as the architects of the Golden Age of public schooling in New York, they were suddenly reviled as racists who could not uplift minority children as they had their own.

Thirty years after the bloodletting, as few as one third of the city's teachers are Jewish, and that proportion will shrink in the future because so many of them are nearing retirement age. (Exact figures do not exist, because the school board is legally forbidden from determining the religion of its employees.) Just fourteen years ago, nearly half of the 32 community-school-district superintendents were Jewish; today, fewer than one sixth are. For the first time in decades, no Jew presides as the high-school superintendent for any borough.

The lingering wounds of Ocean Hill-Brownsville help explain the odd silence that surrounds the Jewish disappearance from the school system. Yet with every buyout from the Board of Education, with every retirement dinner at a catering hall like Russo's in Howard Beach or Marina del Rey in Throgs Neck, the social history of New York City quietly changes forever.

"Being Jewish was part of being a teacher," Fein says. "People in Judaism are taught going to school is a good thing. School and shul -- the place for praying -- are the same word. And that attitude becomes part of your soul."

His words only hint at the complex roles that Jewish educators have played in New York, and his life demonstrates them all. At 63, Fein has been a radical, a union man, a bureaucrat, a politician, an innovator, a cutup, a lover of culture, and, finally, an anachronism.

To the strains of a piano rendition of the "Ode to Joy," Milton Fein ambled down the center aisle of the P.S. 7 auditorium, here welcoming a former teacher, there shushing a talkative third-grader, noting with distress a trickle of soda wriggling down the floor. On this Wednesday, twenty days before Fein's last as principal, the school was celebrating "The Gifts of Music." Cardboard treble clefs, spangled with glitter, hung from the stage. Eight pupils wore sandwich boards, each bearing one note of a scale. Fein gave an improbably dainty wave, all dancing fingers, to a third-grader named Christina Suarez, done up by her mother in Shirley Temple curls to recite a poem.

Then, as parents clicked flashes and hoisted video recorders to shoulders, the schoolchildren sang their way through a program of Copland and Gershwin and even "Rock Around the Clock." When the performance concluded, Fein himself took the microphone to proclaim, "The Lion King has nothing on P.S. 7." He made a point of complimenting the parents who attended. More than a few had been his students, and they recognized his stocky build and ruddy face, his gray-black hair and pouched eyes, somehow weary and whimsical all at once. "I'm gonna miss you," one woman told Fein as the audience dispersed. "God bless you."

Already this morning, Fein had met with a different sort of parent, a mother convinced that someone in P.S. 7 had beaten her son the previous day. Fein inspected the boy, found no marks on him. He thought he smelled liquor on the mother's breath. When it came to child abuse, the school usually did the discovering, and the parent, or some other adult in the home, usually had done the beating. Fein dealt with a dozen such cases each year.

A drunken mother on the same morning as a tuneful chorus -- Fein had grown accustomed to such paradoxes. They typified P.S. 7, and P.S. 7, with its dramatic upheavals in terms of race and class, and its chronic problems with underfunding and overcrowding, offered a fair microcosm of New York's public schools as a whole. When Fein arrived as principal in 1971, the school counted 400 students, 90 percent white and overwhelmingly middle-class. This year, nearly 1,000 students were crammed into the same building. Ninety-three percent of them were nonwhite, 86 percent of them poor enough to qualify for a free lunch, and 35 percent not proficient in English. A speech class met in a former closet. A bilingual counselor used the auditorium's projection booth. Boxes of photocopier paper stood in floor-to-ceiling stacks in the hallway. Even Fein's private bathroom doubled as a storage locker for plastic mail crates.

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