The Memories Are Still Green

Of all my graduating classes — 8th grade, high school, college, and law school — the one that I have fondest memories of is the 1960 elementary school graduating class of the Hebrew Institute of Long Island. There were 90 of us in that coed class, the largest one by far in HILI’s existence. (The school existed from 1937, when it was founded as the first Jewish day school in Queens and Long Island, until 1978, when demographic changes caused it to merge with the Hillel School to form HAFTR.)

I always wondered why the class was so large — was it because we were among the first of the baby boomers, or was there something in the water our parents drank in 1946? I never found a satisfactory answer.

But I think I did find some answers to why I feel so very close to this class. First, we spent eight years together, not the three or four years of high school, college, or graduate school. And since it was a local school, our relationships went far beyond the classroom. Many of us were not only school friends but pals from the neighborhood, spending Shabbat together going to shul and oneg groups, Sundays watching double features at one of the three local movie houses (with only one screen each!), and summers not in sleepaway camp or Israel, but playing sandlot baseball, biking around town, hanging out in finished basements watching TV, and enjoying the run-down beach clubs our parents belonged to. We not only went to class together but also went together to birthday parties, bar mitzvahs (there were no bat mitzvahs back then), school and shul trips, and sleepovers.

We also had other, broader ties. Our parents often were friends, and we knew those parents and frequently grandparents too, as well as our contemporaries’ siblings. I may struggle to remember the name of the fellow I sat behind in shul last week, but I probably still can tell you the names of most of the brothers and sisters of my close friends from elementary school.

There is, however, something more. There was something special, magical perhaps, about this class that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s resulted in more of our friendships staying strong through the years than in other HILI classes; in there being unofficial “Class of 1960” tables at various smachot I attended over the decades.

But, I wondered, what happened to the majority of my classmates with whom I lost contact? And so, a few years ago, when the 50th anniversary of our graduation loomed just over the horizon, a good friend and I jumped at the opportunity to organize a reunion. We formed a small committee, dug through boxes in our attics and garages to find pictures and other memorabilia of those days, and began to search for classmates.

Helped by others, I took the laboring oar in that search. And with the assistance of networking, search engines, and internet White Pages, we were able to locate 93 percent of our living classmates. When I found a heavy metal music producer in L.A. with the same name as the cool kid with the DA haircut (Google it!), I knew it had to be him — and it was. When I told the secretary of the lawyer in Maryland why I was calling (“I’m looking for a [name inserted] with whom I went to school on Long Island in the 1950s”), it took her a minute to stop laughing before she put her boss on the phone. I located a once-quiet boy in Jerusalem who became a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement, and although he couldn’t come we had a lovely telephone chat. But others did come — from Israel and California and Florida and Atlanta (a New York Times best-selling author). And although the nasi of the decidedly non-coed Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak couldn’t make it, he did send his good wishes and a picture.

I discovered that the kid whose weird baseball swing was forever embedded in my memory became a high school history teacher and author who retired to devote much of his time to another one of his loves — he now teaches a motorcycle maintenance course in a community college. I learned, thank God in time, that the classmate who lost his first wife to cancer then married the ex-wife of another classmate. So when more than half of the class said they would come — and half of those came with spouses — I could hardly wait to see how everyone looked.

But where to hold the reunion? HILI is no longer. The four large white stucco vacation cottages of the Roche estate, in which wealthy New Yorkers summered in Far Rockaway and in which we studied, no longer graced Seagirt Boulevard, directly across from the sparkling sands of Rockaway Beach and the roaring Atlantic Ocean waves. After the merger, the grounds were acquired by Yeshiva Darchei Torah, an all-boys school, which replaced the HILI buildings with large modern ones filled with seforim and textbooks (which HILI had) and computers (which pre-digital age HILI did not).

Luckily, one building on the HILI campus remained standing — its auditorium. And so, 50 years (less 20 days) after we graduated, and Thomas Wolfe notwithstanding, the Class of 1960 was able to go home again. Forty-seven of the bright-eyed, curious, nervous, excited, and naïve youngsters who walked up to the stage to accept their diplomas in the HILI auditorium in June 1960 gathered in that same auditorium in June 2010 to remember that day, reacquaint themselves with their classmates, share memories of the time they spent at HILI, and try to fill in some of the details of the ensuing 50 years.

During those years, we had, needless to say, changed drastically: we experienced high school, college, graduate school, and professional school; acquired degrees, titles, and all the paraphernalia of adult personal, professional, emotional, and intellectual lives; became leaders in our professions, communities, and the greater Jewish world; found love and survived heartbreak; lived through marriage, divorce, and times of celebration and of despair; had children and grandchildren and lost grandparents, parents, spouses, siblings, children, and three of our classmates; became more sophisticated, educated, knowledgeable, jaded, and tired, and learned a great deal — perhaps too much — about our world and ourselves.

But with all these changes and developments, there remained inside each of us something of that smiling 13-year-old, the one walking up the stairs to the stage, with no idea what the future had in store but eager to find out. And as we chatted and laughed with and lied to (“you haven’t changed a bit!!”) each other, deep inside we were able to feel just a bit of what we once were, and what, in some small way, we will always be.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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