Monday, June 7, 2021


by Efrem Sigel

Between 2014 and 2020, U.S. drone and missile strikes and ground operations took the lives of between 910 and 2,200 civilians, including as many as 454 children. These estimates, compiled by the Bureau of Independent Journalism, are especially noteworthy given the New York Times’ outrageous decision (May 28) to print a gallery of photos of 64 children killed in the recent war in Gaza, under the headline, “They Were Only Children.” 
Yes, the Times has occasionally covered civilian deaths from American drone strikes, and no, it has never devoted 42 square inches of its front page to photos of children who perished in these actions. Unlike the American strikes, few of which occurred during ongoing hostilities, the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces were taken in the course of a raging battle initiated by Hamas, which fired 4,300 rockets aimed at killing as many children and adults in Israel as possible.

Hamas alone bears the responsibility for the tragic and utterly preventable deaths of children in Gaza, some of them victims of Hamas’ own rockets. No one disputes that Hamas deliberately embedded its command centers, tunnels, munitions, rocket launchers and fighters under civilian dwellings, while aiming its own rockets at civilians living in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and elsewhere. 
Yet rather than credit the Israeli military’s explanations for why it targeted specific buildings, the Times contents itself with the vague acknowledgement that Hamas’ tunnels run “underneath civilian neighborhoods.” And in describing the trauma of children growing up in Gaza under threat of violence, it has the gall to attribute much of that trauma to “four major Israeli offensives” without explaining that each was a defensive operation in response to Hamas attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. (As for how many children were actually killed by Hamas rockets, the Times acknowledged that two “may have been killed” in this way — ignoring a detailed accounting of deaths compiled by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center in Israel, which reveals that the deaths of at least eight children were the result of rockets fired by Hamas or other groups that landed in Gaza.)

Neither is there a mention by the Times of how Israel warns civilians in advance of a strike — is there another army in the world that does this? Nor has the paper seen fit to print similar photo galleries of dozens or hundreds of children killed in, among others, a Taliban bombing of a girls’ school in Afghanistan, killings and kidnappings of school children in Nigeria, or the aftermath of a siege in Beslan, Russia in which 250 students and parents died.

How strange, and yet strangely predictable, that only the military actions of the Jewish State of Israel, in justified self-defense, merit such an inflammatory — and yes, reprehensible — front-page display. Children’s lives are precious, and there is no excuse for using the tragic death of any child, Palestinian or Israeli, as grist for an article that reads more like Hamas propaganda than even-handed journalism. In the aftermath of the latest Gaza war, the Times’ coverage of worldwide attacks on Jews ought by rights to have included a wrenching look at the indefensible editorial decisions made in its own newsroom.
 Efrem Sigel is the author of two published novels, scores of short stories and the recently published memoir, “Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood”

Friday, January 29, 2021


To End the Violence, Act as if Their Lives Matter*

Dealing with the level of violence taking a heavy toll on New York’s minority communities requires more than slogans.

By Efrem Sigel • Jan 29, 2021   

To see the published version with photos at, click: 

When I took my seat as a juror in The People v. Abraham Cucuta, a murder trial in Manhattan several years ago, the first question on my mind was, why the delay?
Two young men were shot to death in a New York City Housing Authority project in East Harlem 10 years earlier. Why had it taken so long to bring the defendant to justice?

After hearing from the two eyewitnesses, we had our answer. For years, both had refused to testify, even though they saw the victims get shot, even though they knew the perpetrator well. As gang members, they felt constrained by an oath of silence — and by fear of retribution. Only when they were facing long sentences in other cases did they agree to testify, in exchange for reduced jail time. Their testimony was key to our jury’s vote to convict the accused, Abraham Cucuta, and to his later sentencing to life in prison.

That trial, and my account of how young men grow up in East Harlem, are the subjects of my just-published book, “Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood.”

Troubled Neighborhoods
These days, I think a lot about my jury experience as we close the books on 2020, a year of horrific violence in American cities. In New York, in addition to a near-doubling of shootings compared to 2019, from 777 to 1,531, there were 462 murders, a 45% increase. At the year’s end, about half were unsolved. Other cities have experienced similar surges in killings: Chicago, with 769 murders, the most of any city, saw an increase of 55%. Milwaukee, New Orleans, Memphis, Minneapolis and Phoenix registered increases in murders ranging from 52% to 95%.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

Whether it’s COVID-19 deaths or the victims of violent crime in our own cities, we are besieged, and ultimately numbed, by statistics. It’s all too easy to forget that behind every crime statistic is a life cut short — and often a young life at that. In the month of July 2020, in New York, Shatavia Walls, 33, was shot to death in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, three days after confronting men setting off fireworks near children. Anthony Robinson, 29, was gunned down crossing Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx while holding the hand of his young daughter. One-year-old Davell Gardner was killed by gunmen spraying bullets at an outdoor family cookout in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

In New York City, a handful of police precincts in troubled neighborhoods account for an outsized share of violent crimes. These include Precinct 75, East New York, Brooklyn; Precinct 73, Brownsville, Brooklyn; Precinct 44, Grand Concourse-Bronx Terminal Market; and Precinct 23, East Harlem. Like Shatavia Walls, Anthony Robinson and Davell Gardner, the great majority of murder victims in these and in similar neighborhoods are black and Latino.

Precinct 23 was the scene of the murders in the trial of Abraham Cucuta. In the early morning hours of June 7, 2007, five young men were playing dice in the courtyard of East River Houses when another man entered the courtyard and started firing. Two of the dice players were shot dead in a matter of minutes. A third man, the intended target, got away, but was killed five years later in a shootout with police. The two other dice players, the eyewitnesses in the trial, have been in and out of jail multiple times in other cases; one will be in prison until his mid-50s. And the sixth, Abraham Cucuta, will spend the rest of his life in a New York state prison.

The toll of that dice game, what preceded it and what followed, is stark: six young men, six ruined lives. Meanwhile, the violence in East Harlem continues. In the first 11 months of 2020, there were seven murders in Precinct 23 versus two in 2019.

More Than Slogans
In the aftermath of the trial, my search for why — why the young men caught up in the murders and the trial were cutting schools, joining gangs, selling drugs, getting arrested and spending time in jail — took me into housing projects, police precincts and schools in East Harlem.

That search, and the months of shootings and killings in New York as I was writing “Juror Number 2,” have convinced me that dealing with this level of violence requires more than slogans. The cry to “defund the police,” for example, was an understandable reaction to the horrendous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But with violence taking a heavy toll in minority communities, what is needed is a three-legged approach: safe streets, outreach to potential offenders, and true educational opportunity for today’s children.

To achieve safe streets, the first leg requires not less policing but better policing: improved recruitment and training, genuine police engagement with the communities they serve. But equally necessary is support by community residents for the legitimate role of the cops in protecting neighborhoods. When witnesses refuse to identify perpetrators of violence, in effect they are giving shelter to those who kill while denying safety to future victims.

The second leg is exemplified by the city’s Cure Violence programs, with leaders like Tara Brown-Arnell and Freddie Charles of Bronx Connect, Erica Ford of LIFE Camp in South Jamaica and Omar Jackson of SAVE in East Harlem. Their outreach workers seek out young men prone to violence, urging them to put away guns and embrace alternatives like paid internships, jobs, education.

Ford’s motto, “Peace is a lifestyle,” is an umbrella for her organization’s work in mental health counseling, feeding hungry people, education and outreach. Jackson and his small staff are “credible messengers” who draw on their own experience of criminal activity and jail time to establish rapport with those at risk of settling scores with knives and bullets. “You can’t tell these guys nothing,” he explains to me. “They have to trust us 100% because if I won’t trust you, I’m not sharing anything with you.”

I’m a big fan of these organizations, but at present, they cover only a fraction of the most dangerous neighborhoods, and it takes months to recruit and train the right violence interrupters. Expanding these programs is a no-brainer, as long as we understand that they won’t produce instant results.

The third leg offers a long-term payoff in reduced violence: targeting children in grades prek-8 and insuring they attend schools that succeed. Of the 23 regular schools in District 4, East Harlem, only at six are the majority of pupils proficient in English. Normal attendance in District 4 is poor; in the Department of Education’s haphazardly organized remote learning environment, it’s been a disaster.

Until we’re serious about fixing failing schools, too many children will grow up lacking needed skills, tempted by gangs and crime, and without knowing in their bones that a neighborhood undisturbed by violence is every person’s right. True, improving schools will be a long and arduous process. It won’t be achieved by appointing some miracle-worker chancellor from out of town to impose change from on high. This approach of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s yielded little.

Instead, success will require recruiting exceptional principals and giving them the autonomy to organize their schools and pick their teachers free of bureaucratic hamstrings. We have such principals today. In “Juror Number 2” I single out, in East Harlem alone, Dimitres Pantelidis of PS 171, Bennett Lieberman of Central Park East High School and Tara Stant of Success Academy Harlem 3. We just need a lot more of them.

Shatavia Walls was killed because she had the temerity to confront men who were endangering children. Davell Gardner, a toddler, died for no reason at all, other than to be in the wrong place when young men were brandishing guns. The wrong place? As Omar Jackson said to me after another accidental shooting death at another barbecue in another borough, “Who brings a gun to a cookout?” 

 It’s past time to act as if their lives mattered. 

Efrem Sigel
is the author of two novels, "The Kermanshah Transfer" and "The Disappearance," as well as more than 30 short stories and memoirs published in The Antioch Review, MacGuffin magazine, The Journal, Nimrod, The Jerusalem Post, Congress Monthly and Xavier Review, among others. His latest book is "Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood." Sigel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast and holds a BA from Harvard and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He is a project coordinator for the Education Committee, Harvard Business School Club of New York, and directs pro bono consulting projects to nonprofits in greater New York. Sigel also sits on the board of Futures and Option.

·        gi

·        *originally published in:


Monday, October 7, 2019

by Efrem Sigel
Note: An abbreviated version of this article appears in the New York Daily News, Oct. 7, 2019, p. 24, or at

If criminal justice reform is to succeed in New York, it’s going to require more people with the passionate commitment of Omar Jackson.
              At first glance, criminal justice reform appears to be a winner.   The jail population in the city has been declining steadily, from around 11,700 in 2013 to just under 7,200 in September 2019.  Dismissing hundreds of thousands of old marijuana possession complaints, eliminating bail for non-violent arrests, releasing prisoners early, diverting juvenile offenders to supervision as an alternative to incarceration are common-sense steps. 
              But here's the problem: When young men are sent to mandated programs instead of to jail, they remain in their communities, tempted to hang out with the same crews, subject to the same peer pressure to engage in criminal behavior.  Many have quit school early; too few have held a real job.  Which is where Omar Jackson comes in.
              Jackson, 45, is the program manager of SAVE (Stand Against Violence East Harlem), one of 22 Cure Violence programs around the city.  In a given month, Jackson and his staff of three are in touch with some 30 young people at risk of engaging in violence. Though SAVE's catchment area is two big NYCHA projects in East Harlem, Johnson and Jefferson Houses, the staff works wherever they're needed in East Harlem.  They talk to, share meals with and offer educational or job opportunities to these young men.  At times the job requires dissuading someone from using a gun to retaliate for a supposed act of disrespect, and instead, settling things with words, not bullets.  We find a way “to quash the beef,” Jackson explains.
              Jackson is uniquely qualified to do this persuading.  He grew up in Johnson Houses, as a young teen got involved in robbing people and stealing cars, later headed a crew that sold crack cocaine−and served two jail sentences totaling nearly five years.  Several years after his second release he entered the Harlem division of College of New Rochelle, earning his Bachelor's.  He joined SAVE in early 2016.
              "You have to love what you do," Jackson says. "For me, working with my community, uplifting my community, helping my community−I am definitely passionate about this."
              SAVE's contract with the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice is through its parent organization. Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO).  GOSO was started by a retired businessman, Mark Goldsmith, after serving as Principal for a Day in Horizon Academy at Rikers in 2003.  Since 2005, GOSO has been helping young men released from Rikers with an intensive two-week job readiness program, paid internships and classes that prepare them for the high school equivalency exam.  With a staff of eight career managers and Goldsmith's ability to connect with these young men, GOSO has created a sense of community and caring that is palpable to visitors to its offices on East 116th Street and Madison Ave.     
              Nearby on Third Ave., Exodus Transitional Community does similar work.  Begun by Julio Medina, who earned a Bachelor's degree from SUNY-Albany during his 12 years in prison, Exodus deals with an even more challenging population, men (and some women) who have typically served much longer prison sentences than those released from Rikers.  The same sense of community, of clients feeling at home and cared for, pervades its offices.  Ninety percent of Exodus staff have themselves been "justice-involved" and they know the first questions to ask a newcomer: "Where did you sleep last night?  Have you eaten today?"
              Both GOSO and Exodus have annual budgets approaching $5 million, half from government contracts, half from foundations and private donations.  GOSO's cost of helping one client is $7,500 in the first year, $4,000 of that to subsidize a paid internship.  In subsequent years, the cost per participant drops to $3,500.  The city's Department of Corrections budget? Around $1.4 billion, or $175,000 per prisoner per year.
              Of course, the best criminal justice reform would be to reach the young men who commit most crimes before they get arrested.  As Omar Jackson can testify, this is difficult, one-on-one work.
              "You can't tell these guys nothing," he says, "so it really has to come from within." The work is all about establishing rapport with these young men: "First of all they have to trust us 100%, because if I won't trust [you], I'm not sharing anything with you."
              Criminal justice reform? By all means, let's find more Omar Jacksons, expand the Cure Violence program and fund GOSO and Exodus to help many more ex-offenders to stay out.
              And let's do something else: Get the Department of Education to recognize that too many schools in poor areas, schools with a chronic absentee rate of 33% or higher, are not working.  Let's seek out more successful principals who can turn things around, one school at a time, one child at a time−before those children grow up to need the services of SAVE and GOSO and Exodus.

                                                            Omar Jackson with SAVE team

Mark Goldsmith, founder, GOSO

Julio Medina, Exodus founder 

_________________________________ ________________________________________________
Efrem Sigel is the author of two published novels and dozens of short stories, essays and articles.  This post is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, JUROR NUMBER 2: THE STORY OF A MURDER, THE AGONY OF A NEIGHBORHOOD

Monday, April 29, 2019



by Efrem Sigel

Nearly 330,000 young people in New York attend 600 high schools — a fascinating, often bewildering mix of learning environments. Many are borough or neighborhood schools that take all comers. Some are for youngsters with significant cognitive or emotional challenges. Several dozen specialize in the arts (dramatics, music, film/video), or STEM, or humanities, and select students based on artistic ability, grades and interviews.

And then there is Stuyvesant, along with seven others, including Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, that use the much-criticized SHSAT (Specialized High Schools Admissions Test) to determine admissions. Stuyvesant offers places to about 895 freshman a year and has total enrollment of 3,325 — barely 1% of total high school enrollment.

Yet from the recent statements of Mayor de Blasio, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, various elected officials and the hyperbole of editorial writers, the fact that only seven of next year’s Stuyvesant freshmen will be black appears to be the biggest crisis facing the New York City educational system. It is not.

The real failure of the Department of Education continues to be the unacceptable performance of many elementary and middle schools serving Latino and black children in the south Bronx, Brownsville and other poor neighborhoods. Of the city’s 32 regular school districts, three of the six worst-performing are in the Bronx, one is in Manhattan (Central Harlem), and two are in Brooklyn (Brownsville and East New York). 

In these districts, as many as 75% of elementary and middle school children are deficient in basic literacy and mathematical skills, making it hard for them to do well in any high school, let alone in Stuyvesant. Whatever the flaws of the SHSAT — and yes, it should be augmented with other admission criteria — there’s one sure way for Stuyvesant to better reflect the ethnic makeup of the DOE student population, which is currently nearly 70% Latino and black. And that is for the city to improve the quality of elementary and middle schools, from pre-K through eighth grade, class by class and school by school. 

Unlike tinkering with the Stuyvesant admission criteria, there is no way this can happen overnight.

In the meantime, the heated rhetoric of the mayor and other public officials, with their cries of racism and segregation, only fuel the perception that there is little opportunity for black and Latino students to excel in city high schools today.  Wrong again.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve talked with or visited principals of three high schools among many whose very existence and stellar record of achievement show how absurd this notion is.  The schools are East Side Community High School (ESCHS) on the Lower East Side, Manhattan Village Academy (MVA) in Chelsea and Central Park East High School (CPEHS) in East Harlem. Though all happen to be in Manhattan, their students come from all over the city.
All three have student bodies that range from 73% to 82% Latino and black, on par with the racial and ethnic breakdown of the school system as a whole. All enroll students from mostly poor families. Yet all have four-year graduation rates approaching 100%, compared to a city average of 72% (and rates in the city are significantly lower for Latino and black students). More than 90% of high school graduates at these three schools go on to two or four-year colleges. 

All three are small, 500 students or fewer, yet manage a rich offering of athletics, after-school clubs and activities. CPE’s football team (which also includes students from four other schools that make up the East Harlem Pride consortium) last year won its division with a 9-0 record.
East Side Community’s chess team has won national competitions.  In 2018, the school was one of three winners of the Library of Congress Literacy Award (including a $50,000 check) for its independent reading program, “where students read on average over 40 books each year, improve literacy skills...and fall in love with reading.”

And at Manhattan Village Academy, with an enrollment of only 456, students take nine Regents exams, rather than the required five, there are 17 AP classes on offer and students finish with 56 to 63 high school credits, compared to the standard 44.  All three schools have a cadre of loyal teachers, some there for a dozen or more years.  And all have long-serving, exceptional principals. At Central Park East, Bennett Lieberman, formerly a social studies and English teacher, became principal in 2005 when the graduation rate was in the 30s, and the school barely received 200 applications for its 125 to 130 freshman places. Today the graduation rate is 97%, ninety-five percent go on to four- or two-year colleges, and this fall, CPEHS received 5,400 applications. The student body is 52% Latino, 27% black, 14% Asian and 5% white. 
Lieberman, 50, is reflective and low-key, with a wry sense of humor.  He jokes that “I’ve actually been principal of three schools, a failing school from 2005 to 2008, a so-so school from 2009 to 2011 or 2012, and now a successful school.” CPEHS pays little attention to the standardized test scores of those applying. Instead, it looks at grades and attendance. 

Like CPEHS and East Side Community, MVA had its origins in the progressive school movement of the 1980s and 1990s. But performance had plummeted by the time Hector Geager became principal in February 1999. Since then the school’s results have climbed year after year. He’s a demanding, voluble leader, alive with energy and ideas (“A leader should be thinking five, 10 even 20 years ahead,” he tells me). 

On DOE’s Dashboard chart comparing hundreds of high schools, MVA is a standout: a 2018 graduation rate of 100%, a college readiness index of 98% and a student attendance rate of 97%. The numbers match those of Stuyvesant — except that MVA is 68% Hispanic and 14% black and most of its students come from poor families.    

Geager says the key factor in his admission decisions is attendance. He wants students who show up every day, prepared to work hard. If an entering freshman is below eighth-grade levels in reading or math, MVA offers intensive prep.  Every admitted student must spend four weeks in July, before freshman year, at MVA's Critical Thinking Academy.  Before you can learn, you better learn how to learn.
“Grit” is what Geager is looking for, and grit is what he gets.

At East Side Community High School, most of its 385 high school students come from the school’s middle school, and the 15 or 20 open spots every year draw hundreds of applicants.  East Side’s students are 52% Latino, 21% black, and 27% Asian and white. Mark Federman, 48, principal since 2001, has seen graduation rates rise steadily during his tenure to the current 97%.  And DOE data show exceptionally high levels of trust in Federman by teachers and families.

Other small (non-DOE) schools also offer significant opportunity for minority students.  Founded in 2013. Math, Engineering and Science Academy (MESA) Charter High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn (Arthur Samuels, executive director; Pagee Cheung, principal), is 79% Latino, 15% black, and boasts a 93% graduation rate. vs. 64% for district schools.  Cristo Rey Brooklyn, a Catholic school that opened in 2008, has a student body that is 70% black, 26% Latino.  Its demanding work-study model features four extra-long days of class, one full day of work a week at various business partners.   Of last year’s71 graduates, says principal Joseph Dugan, 100% were accepted to four-year colleges, and each got a least one full scholarship offer.

Leaders like Geager, Lieberman and Federman are scattered here and there in the elementary and middle schools in the city’s tough neighborhoods. But there are too few of them.
Instead of appreciating the crucial role of principals, mayors focus their attention on hiring the school chancellor, usually some heralded miracle worker from out of town who is supposed to transform the school system from above. In fact, since 1993, a period of 26 years, there have been eight school chancellors with an average tenure of just over three years. And yet it can take the right principal five years or more to turn around a failing school.

So instead of the inevitable hunt in 2021 or 2022 for the next chancellor, how about conducting an annual, nationwide search for 25 exceptional principals to serve in the city’s neediest schools? Some of them can be found right here in New York. Each would be hired for five years and given free rein to assemble the teaching staff they needed. 
Imagine the impact that 100 such principals could have.  And then, for those black and Latino kids who really prefer Stuyvesant to the superb education at Central Park East, Manhattan Village Academy or East Side Community, imagine how the student body at the city’s elite schools might actually begin to change.
Sigel is the author of two published novels and more than 35 published short stories, essays and memoirs. He lives in Manhattan and is writing a book about young people growing up in East Harlem. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

For a change, let's bet on success in education, not on failure

by Efrem Sigel

Now that New York City's Department of Education seems likely to pull the plug on its largely unsuccessful School Renewal program at the end of the current school year, the question becomes how to avoid such fiascos in the future.

The program was announced four years ago with great fanfare by Mayor de Blasio in November 2014 — and although the city has poured $773 million (even in New York, a lot of money) into about 100 struggling schools, a never-released evaluation from the RAND Corporation found little in the way of academic gains for children in those schools.

Still, advocates for more money for urban schools appear to be drawing the wrong lesson from the failures of the program. One option that DOE is considering is to kill Renewal but continue to endow those very schools with the same pots of extra money for
mental health counseling, dental clinics, and other special services. 

It’s hard to be against providing resources for kids who need help.  But i
n fact, avoiding pouring more money into failing schools is actually the right lesson of the Renewal program. 
Instead, let’s put resources to better use by investing in the leaders of successful schools and enabling them to double or triple their efforts. By successful schools, I mean not the ones in affluent Greenwich Village or Park Slope, but the handful of high-performing schools in the very neighborhoods where Renewal Schools are located.

My own research for a book on young people growing up in East Harlem identifies half a dozen successful schools in District 4 (East Harlem) out of nearly 40 DOE and charter schools operating there. In contrast to the underperforming schools, at the successful ones a majority of students are achieving proficiency in English Language Arts and math.

And the successful schools all serve students who come from predominantly poor families, many of which are headed by single moms, many living in public housing or shelters. At all of them, Hispanic and black students are 90% or more of enrollment.

One of the DOE schools, PS/IS 171 Patrick Henry, was just honored as one of the best urban schools in the country by the National Center for Urban School Transformation at San Diego State University. One of the charters, Dream Charter School, recently got authorization to expand into the Bronx with two new schools. By so doing, Dream aims to replicate its expertise and record of achievement in neighborhoods that sorely need such models of success.

Those are just two examples. There are more willing and able to blossom, if only the city would invest in their growth.

The leaders of these schools have assembled staffs of dedicated teachers working together as a team, with the kind of esprit and commitment to see every child thrive that are essential for success. Some are already expanding enrollment in their existing buildings. Others could see their schools become the hubs of small networks of neighborhood schools, in effect doubling down on good results.

This would be thinking locally and starting small, e.g., with three schools each in some of the city’s lowest-performing districts, such as East Harlem, the South Bronx and Brownsville−in contrast to the DOE's top-down, command-and-control School Renewal program that cost too much and achieved too little.

Every successful organization, whether it's a for-profit company or a nonprofit serving people in need, knows that the best investment is expansion of a program or product that is working, not failing. For too long in public education we’ve poured money into failure. It’s time, finally, to bet on success.
A version of this piece appeared on the editorial page of the New York Daily News, December 10, 2018, under the heading, Better School Reform.

Efrem Sigel is the author of two published novels and 30-odd short stories and memoirs.  He coaches volunteer teams of Harvard Business School alumni in pro bono consulting projects to assist education organizations in the greater New York area.  His forthcoming book will examine the experiences of young people in East Harlem with the schools, with public housing, with social service organizations and with the criminal justice system. He lives in Manhattan.   Efrem Sigel,

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Yom HaShoah: Remembering Shaya and Shaindl Schechet

by Efrem Sigel

Over the years I've attended my share of Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day-- commemorations, usually at our long-time synagogue in Pelham, NY. But the ceremony this past Sunday evening, in a different and novel setting, became personal for me in a way that was profoundly touching.

The commemorations are always predictable, the solemn lighting of six candles, one for each million Jews murdered by the Nazis, some recollections by a Holocaust survivor or family member, the singing of Hannah Senesch's famous poem, "Eli, Eli" (My God, My God), and at the end, the collective recitation of the kaddish.

This year instead of driving to Pelham I walked to a ceremony at the Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park, not far from where we now live. The service there was a collaborative effort by half a dozen area synagogues. Rabbis from the participating synagogues spoke briefly and a chorus composed of members of the congregations sang movingly.

I'm guessing there were about a hundred or so attendees--two or three children or teens, a few people in their 30s, but most of us in our 60s, 70s and 80s. I recognized faces from the neighborhood or from local synagogues, but most of the people were unknown to me. Thus I sat in lonely silence, listening to a survivor named Paul Brottman as he told how he, his brother, mother and sisters survived for two and a half years on the run, somehow evading the Germans and their collaborators who slaughtered tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews between 1941 and 1944.

Though Paul and his family witnessed unspeakable atrocities, their story, at least, had a happy ending; all five of them survived, saved in the end by advancing Russian troops,

At the end of the remembrance ceremony, those in attendance were invited to form a line, step to the microphone on the bima and say the name or names of relatives killed in the Shoah. Twenty or thirty men and women lined up in single file and one by one they came forward, taking their turn to say aloud the names of grandparents or great grandparents, siblings, mothers and fathers, cousins, aunts and uncles, or simply, unknown relatives with unknowable names.

And after listening for a few minutes I got to my feet and joined the procession. Another five or six people followed me; we were the end of the line. My turn came to approach the microphone. And here, out of all the unknown (to me) relatives who died, I said the names of the two family members whose identity I know: Shaya Shechet, my grandmother Sonia's brother (my great uncle), and Shaindl Shechet, Sonia's sister (my great-aunt).

I know nothing of Shaya and Shaindl's lives, I don't know what they looked like, what their personalities were, whether Shaindl crocheted or sewed like my grandmother Sonia, or played the violin like Sonia's daughter, my aunt Dora; whether Shaya was quick with numbers and a strong chess player like Sonia's son, my father Ben. I don't know if they were business people or Torah scholars or doctors, engineers or teachers, whether they had one child or many, whether their lives were comfortable or precarious. All I know is that from 1939 on they fell into the abyss of slaughter, annihilation, and suffering that took the lives of 6 million European Jews.

It's many years since the deaths of my grandmother Sonia and grandfather Harry, my parents Ben and Dorothy, my aunt Dora and uncle Sam, but with pleasure I can readily summon their faces, hear their voices, remember their laughter, see them standing, sitting, relaxing, holding a violin or an oboe, hunched over a chess board, cooking, burying their noses in newspaper pages or books, scolding or praising us, the children and grandchildren.

I wish it were possible to have such memories of Shaya and Shaindl, to have some fragment-intimate, revealing, amusing, even scandalous--of them as flesh and blood. But though I know nothing personal about them, I know this: That they were born and lived, laughed and cried. That they perished as innocents in the great catastrophe, the great shame of mankind that we call the Shoah. And I know that finally, they are remembered.

Efrem Sigel, 4/29/14

Thursday, November 21, 2013


An email to me this week from the current President of the Harvard Crimson, asking for my recollections of November 22, 1963, brought back a torrent of memories.*

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is this Friday, November 22; it happens to be the day before The Game, the Harvard-Yale classic. November 22, 1963 was also a Friday, and also the day before The Game, which that year was scheduled to be played at the Yale Bowl in New Haven. At the time I was associate managing editor of The Crimson and deeply involved in day to day coverage of events at the university and in the broader world.

With all the books that have been published about JFK--a staggering 40,000, says the New York Times--many of which have debunked or at least tarnished the notion of his brief Presidency as something unique and exceptional, it is difficult to recreate the sense of exhilaration that accompanied his election in November 1960. My classmates and I entered Harvard that fall in the midst of the campaign, many of us were for Kennedy and by the time the votes were counted on election night we felt that something transformative had occurred. All we knew was the promise; the lessons and judgment of history were far in the future, unknowable, scarcely conceivable.

The Crimson editors decided to put out an Extra that day 50 years ago. Bruce Paisner, managing editor, was in charge of Crimson coverage of the assassination. Always cool and focused under pressure, he did an amazing job. In those days we still set type on an old-fashioned hot-metal linotype machine and did the printing on an ancient flat-bed press in the basement of the Crimson on Quincy St. Nevertheless, we had the Extra off press by the end of the afternoon, delivering by hand all over campus, including to Harvard Hall and University Hall. I personally brought a copy to the office of the Dean of Faculty, Franklin Ford, and can still remember the emotion on the face of this self-contained and soft-spoken scholar, his eyes reddened from weeping.

I recall that Bruce and I and others were in the newsroom in early afternoon when the first calls about shots in Dallas came in, from students on campus who'd heard the news on the radio and wanted us to confirm. Within a half hour we were at work on the Extra. We rented a TV and set it up in the newsroom. This was decades before the Internet, so we were depending on the TV networks and our clanky AP teletype machine, our one link to the world of (almost) real-time news. Bruce quickly handed out the assignments; mine was to man the desk, edit copy and make sure everything was as concise and accurate as the immense time pressure and the many gaps in information allowed.

Beyond the obvious Harvard connection of a U.S. President who was an alumnus and an Overseer of the University, and who had brought many Cambridge luminaries (McGeorge Bundy, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others) to the White House and to Washington, there was the immediate matter of The Game, scheduled for the next day. I believe some of the Harvard House-Yale College football games were already in progress that Friday when the news was confirmed; some may have been cancelled in midgame. Within hours The Game itself was cancelled.

Without the task at hand, of reporting, editing and putting out the Extra, many of us would have dissolved into tears but we kept it together because this was by far the most important story we would ever handle on the Crimson, and one of the most important the Crimson has covered in its long history. No one alive that day will ever forget it, and especially not those of us on the Crimson who had the special responsibility of recording history.—Efrem Sigel, November 21, 2013

*By the time this appears, some of these recollections may be in the current issue of the Crimson.

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