The Oldest Living Day School Alumna, Flatbush Yeshivah , 1936

Dr. Deborah Berlinger Eiferman is a spry 101-year-old, retired psychologist, student services college administrator, and occasional professor at Brooklyn College, who is blessed with an uncommon memory for the details of her remarkable life. Just nine years ago, when she was already in her nineties, Eiferman penned a published memoir entitled My Extraordinarily Ordinary Life which was followed three years later by a volume of poetry and essays. And in 2022, she wrote an account of her medical stroke, a setback from which she thankfully has recovered. When I interviewed her in her apartment in Riverdale in March, 2024, where she lives independently with the help of a part-time aide, she modestly suggested that she was not keen “accessing data” when it comes to “numbers and dates.” But when I gently probed her, she provided me with useful answers to questions about her Jewish education that helped me understand both the early history of day schools in her home borough of Brooklyn and the commonalities between modern Orthodox and Conservative leaders -in- training during the inter-war period. After all, she is none other than the oldest living alumna of the Flatbush Yeshivah, one of the first modern day schools in America. And she went on to earn a degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary. What she had to say about her past was buttressed by some unique documents from her personal archive which she called her “nostalgia file.”

Here are the historian’s issues where Eiferman’s memories and documents are so useful. The Flatbush Yeshivah opened its doors in 1927 at a time where in New York City- and for that matter – every other place in America – almost all second-generation Jewish children of immigrants attended the city’s public schools. Flatbush offered its students the best of public education at a time where the most yeshivas in their city and borough reluctantly taught their students about America. It was a Religious Zionist school at a time where most American Jews were not interested in the culture of Jewish life in Palestine. And it was a co-ed institution at a time where all but one yeshiva in New York enrolled only boys The Shulamith School of Boro Park was the girls-only yeshiva. What is not known about Flatbush in its early years was what motivated families to send their youngsters to this unique institution. Unfortunately, the school has neither records nor yearbooks dating back in the 1930s, save for a couple of photographs of the graduating class of 1936 that it graciously shared with me. Deborah Eiferman’s recollections and documents begin to illuminate the backgrounds and interests of students at her alma mater in the 1930s.

Deborah’s family was “way ahead of its times” and Frieda Moser Berlinger was the prime mover in the family’s decision to provide Deborah and her two younger sisters with “the best Jewish education possible.” The due-diligent Frieda “hunted” around Flatbush and Borough Park for a modern day school for her girls. Her husband, Jack, who had been doing quite well as a “gifted jeweler” until the Depression hit, supported the struggle to pay the $30 a month tuition bill. An Orthodox family, they had a scrupulous kosher kitchen. However, Jack, like so many breadwinners of that difficult era, was obliged to sometimes work on the Sabbath.

During Frieda’s search, she determined that the Shulamith School was not for them since “classes for grades 1 -6 met in one room with one teacher.” More important, she wanted her three daughters-starting with six-year-old Deborah – treated just like the boys in a co-educational environment. So disposed, and again so avant-garde, when Deborah was of bat-mitzvah age, Frieda, without seeking approval from the school administration, organized a classroom bat mitzvah for Deborah. The young woman read a Torah portion with the cantillations that she had learned at Flatbush from a Bible -not the Torah scroll. Frieda provided the classmates with cookies and muffins for the occasion. Frieda was “oblivious” to Dr. Mordecai M. Kaplan’s initiative for his own daughter a decade or so earlier at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. There was no push-back against the uncommon event. But then again, the school proffered co-ed Talmud classes taught by an Orthodox rabbi who headed up the Congregation Talmud Torah of Flatbush where the school first met.

Ultimately, as Eiferman recalled it, her alma mater, was “less focused on the religious aspects than spiritual, cultural and Zionist aspects” which may have been attractive to families even less observant than hers. One indication of where the school stood was that “they did not have a daily morning tefillah,” a basic in a yeshiva and even in other modern day schools. Curriculum-wise, Flatbush offered a “full public school “education, including a French language course to students who could become somewhat tri-lingual. On the Jewish side, in keeping with Religious Zionist protocols, a full half day – beginning in the morning- was devoted to the Pentateuch, the Prophets, modern Hebrew language and literature and history all taught in Hebrew, the so-called “ivrith b’ivrith” natural method.

Among her classmates, whom Eiferman remembered so well, the tall Shulamith Scharfstein stood out. Her road to Flatbush was paved by her distinguished father. Zevi Scharfstein, who arrived in America just before World War I. He was destined to become a renowned author and publisher of Hebrew books and magazines for children. His Hebrew primers, and his monthly for youngsters, must have found their way into the Flatbush library and into the homes of Hebrew-reading families. It is no surprise that Shulamith would attend a school that practiced what her father published. In June 1936, Deborah and Shulamith were part of a graduating class of 29; 20 boys and 9 girls.

High school education was then a challenge for day school graduates and their parents- since in 1936 – there was no modern Jewish secondary school in their borough. Only in 1950 did Flatbush start a high school. So, Deborah – like most of her classmates – attended public high school, in her case Erasmus Hall in her neighborhood. There were plenty of Jews in her classes but no formal Jewishness since her school did not offer Hebrew as an accredited Regents foreign language course, like some other Brooklyn and Bronx schools did at the time. And Erasmus Hall had no extracurricular Jewish culture club.

Determined to still learn more about her faith and traditions, the deeply committed Berlinger enrolled in Flatbush’s after-school Jewish studies program where she was the only young woman studying with eight young men. She was fulfilling her mother’s fondest wish. In her limited spare time, Deborah belonged to two Zionist groups in Flatbush and rallied with others in the streets of Brooklyn.

Upon graduation from Erasmus Hall, while she matriculated at Brooklyn College, the “multi-tasking” Berlinger continued her Jewish education, first at the strongly Zionist Herzliah Institute on the Lower East Side and then on an even more advanced level at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America [JTSA] in Upper Manhattan. Her experiences at the JTSA contribute yet another vista into Jewish life in New York during the inter-war period.

It would be four decades later before that school would admit women to train for the rabbinate. However, there were two programs at the school that welcomed females – The Teachers Institute and the Seminary School of Jewish Studies. Both were headed up by Dr. Mordecai Kaplan. Indicative of her long-standing commitment to her Jewish studies, Berlinger was very proud to recollect how when classes concluded at 10 o’clock at night, she walked from the Seminary on Morningside Heights down to and across Morningside Park to catch a subway train back to Flatbush.

Arriving on the 122nd Street campus, Berlinger was among some students and a faculty member from her erstwhile modern Orthodox and Zionist high school present at the JTSA that trained young men and young women destined to head up both Conservative and Orthodox congregations and schools. Shulamith Scharfstein enrolled in the Teachers Institute where she earned a degree in Religious Education. Zevi Scharfstein taught Hebrew in the Teachers Institute. One of her favorite teachers at Flatbush, Professor J.N. Epstein also served on the JTSA faculty.  These realities evidence how close the two traditional denominations were in inter-war days before the movements split away from each other after World War II.

Meanwhile, while Berlinger pledged to herself that she “never wanted to be a rebbitzin,” there were at least two eligible bachelors in the Rabbinical School, outstanding students destined for distinguished careers in Jewish scholarship.  Abraham J. Karp, who upon graduating in 1945 was awarded a prize for excellence in Talmud, became one of the leaders in the professionalization of American Jewish studies. In 1972 Gerson D. Cohen who was ordained at JTSA in 1948, with multiple honors, was elected Chancellor of that institution. Berlinger, who studied with the “amazing and dynamic” Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, earned a B.H.L degree in 1945 with recognition for her proficiency in the study of the prophets.

Berlinger was not interested in dating Karp or Cohen or any other Seminary fellow. Her heart belonged to Jerome Robbins, a Yeshiva College student, and a Flatbush alumnus. They were engaged in 1944. Had the wedding taken place, they would have been the first Flatbush alumni marriage. However, the patriotic Robbins volunteered to serve in the US Army and on December 25, 1944, he was killed crossing the English Channel.

After finishing up at the Seminary – notwithstanding her uncommon Jewish studies erudition and unlike so many of her classmates – Berlinger opted to pursue a career outside of Jewish education. Her friend, Blanche Tischler, for example, would teach for decades, with her JTSA credentials, at the Orthodox Downtown Talmud Torah. Deborah, on the other hand, felt that rather than interacting and influencing groups of transient children in classrooms, she would focus on helping individual young people with problems as a psychologist. That determination led her to a M.A. program at Western Reserve University and her long-term post at Brooklyn College. Decades later she would earn her doctorate from Fordham University. While a graduate student, she married attorney Irving Eiferman, beginning a “64 year wonderful and inspirational marriage.” Eiferman resumed her official connection with the Yeshivah of Flatbush in the 1950s when she sent the first of her three children to its elementary school.

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About the Author
I am the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and former chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society. From 1982 to 2002, I served as associate editor of American Jewish History, the leading academic journal in that field. I am the author or editor of 22 books, including my most recent work, Parkchester: A Bronx Tale of Race and Ethnicity (NYU Press).
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