Spotlight On: Jewish American Leaders

In May, we celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month by honoring the many Jewish leaders whose names grace our public places. Please click the Add/Edit button to help us complete these entries by adding photographs and memories of these honored individuals.

1
Max Wernik Triangle

Max Wernik (1923-1980) was born in Germany. A survivor of the Holocaust, he arrived in the United States in 1949, settling in Kew Gardens. Wernik was active in community affairs, serving as a board member of the John F. Kennedy Regular Democratic Club and with the Kew Gardens Improvement Association. He was elected to the Democratic State Committee of New York in 1970 and was a delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

In his later years, Wernik lectured on his experiences in the Holocaust to high school students and helped to resettle immigrants in the community. He died in 1980, and in 1982 a marker commemorating his dedication to the community was installed in the park.

Sources:

"Eight Oaks Triangle," New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, accessed September 30, 2022, https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/eight-oaks-triangle/monuments/1696

2
Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library

Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal (1923-1983) represented northeast Queens in the U.S. Congress from 1962 until his death in January 1983. Born in Manhattan, Rosenthal attended New York City public schools, Long Island University and City College before serving in the U.S. Army during WWII. He received his law degree from Brooklyn Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1949. In 1962, Rosenthal won a special election to the Eighty-Seventh Congress to fill the vacancy caused when Rep. Lester Holtzman won a seat on the state Supreme Court; Rosenthal was then reelected to the 11 succeeding Congresses.

During his congressional tenure, Rosenthal was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and a champion of consumer protection causes. He was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee for Commerce, Consumer, and Monetary Affairs.

The Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library is the main library on the Queens College campus and was named upon its opening in 1988 to honor Rep. Rosenthal. The 350,000-sq.-ft., six-story building also houses the school’s Art Library and Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. Its hilltop location provides striking views of the Manhattan skyline to the west. Rep. Rosenthal’s papers are housed in the library’s Department of Special Collections and Archives.

Sources:

Benjamin Rosenthal Collection, Queens College Special Collections and Archives, https://archives.qc.cuny.edu/queenscollege/collections/show/1

Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, Benjamin S. Rosenthal, https://www.congress.gov/member/benjamin-rosenthal/R000442

3
Rabbi Avraham Schechter Way

Rabbi Avraham Schechter ( 1936 - 2006)  was born in East New York, Brooklyn and moved to Kew Gardens Hills in 1961. He became a member of Community Board 8, where he served for 26 years, and was chairman of the zoning committee. He was the founder and chairman of the Jewish Action Committee and United Yeshiva, and was a member of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, the Queens General Assembly and the JFK Democratic Club. He also served as a liaison to the 107th Police Precinct and worked on a community patrol, and was a member of the board of directors of the Queens Valley Homeowners Association. He was also president of the Clergy Council of Queens and editor of the Voice of Mid-Queens newspaper. Schechter also informally served his neighbors as a marriage counselor, a financial advisor, a parenting mentor and a listening ear for anyone who needed the advice of an elder.

Sources:

“Street Renamed For Rabbi Avraham Schechter,” Queens Gazette, February 25, 2009, https://www.qgazette.com/articles/street-renamed-for-rabbi-avraham-schechter/

4
Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser Square

Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser (1907 - 1984) was a leading figure in Conservative Judaism, a scholar, and the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens for 50 years.

Rabbi Bokser was born in Liuboml, which was then a part of Poland, and emigrated to the United States at the age of 13 in 1920. He attended City College of New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and received his PhD in 1935 from Columbia University. He taught for many years as an adjunct professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York. Bokser served as the rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center starting in 1933 and remained in that position for more than fifty years. He served for a two-year period as a United States Army chaplain during World War II and organized aid for Jewish soldiers.

Bokser was an advocate for social justice and took a position in favor of the construction of a housing project for the poor during the Forest Hills housing controversy of 1966-1972. He fought against the death penalty in New York state.

He served as a program editor for the Eternal Light, the Jewish Theological Seminary's radio program, was a professor of homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and  participated in the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion and the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, both seminary-run programs. He was chair of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly from 1959–1960, 1963–1965, and 1980-1984. Among the books he wrote were ''Judaism and the Christian Predicament,'' a study of Jewish-Christian relations; ''Judaism: Profile of a Faith'' and ''Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel.''

Sources:

“Ben Zion Bokser, 76; A Rabbi and Professor,” New York Times, February 2, 1984, https://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/02/obituaries/ben-zion-bokser-76-a-rabbi-and-professor.html

"Bokser, ben Zion, " Encyclopedia.com, May 4, 2023, https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bokser-ben-zion

Wikidata contributors, “Q4886756”, Wikidata, accessed December 7, 2023, https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q4886756

5
Rabbi Dr. Asher Murciano Way

Rabbi Dr. Asher Murciano (1924-2020) was the Rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Center for 67 years, making him the country’s longest serving Sephardic rabbi of the same congregation. He was also a noted rabbinical scholar. As a youth, he was sent to Menkes, Morocco, to the home of the Chief Rabbi, where he studied and sang with the famous Sephardic singer, Joe Amar. Ordained by Rabbi Baruch Toledano, he achieved the highest degree of Yore Yore Yadin Yadin, an ordination that permits a rabbi to make decisions on Jewish law. In 1948, arrangements were made by the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, to bring the top eighteen students from Morocco to study at the world-renowned graduate school for Talmudic scholars. Shortly after arriving, he officiated at both Sephardic and Syrian synagogues in Brooklyn. While attending the Mirrer Yeshiva and Yeshiva University (YU) on weekdays, he commuted to Philadelphia to officiate at Mikve Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, as Assistant Rabbi and Hazan for three years. In 1953, he became the rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Center of the Bronx. He earned his Ph.D. at NYU. He taught at York College and YU. He became a respected member of the Rabbinical Council of America and the New York Board of Rabbis. He was Chaplain to the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America and the Sephardic Home for the Aged, and for 35 years was a chaplain at Jacobi Hospital.

Sources:

Gil Tauber, "NYC Honorary Street Names," accessed June 15, 2022, http://www.nycstreets.info/

"Rabbi Dr. Prosper M. Asher Obituary," New York Times, May 12, 2020, via Legacy.com, https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/nytimes/name/prosper-murciano-obituary?id=14189698

6
Rabbi Dr. I. Usher Kirshblum Memorial

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7
Rabbi Joseph Weiss Avenue

Rabbi Joseph Weiss (1913-2001) led the Congregation of West End Temple for 52 years. Rabbi Weiss was co-founder of the Rockaway Catholic-Jewish Committee, a member of the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts, the Jewish War Veterans, the Belle Harbor Property Owners Association, the 100 Police Precinct Council and a member of the Advisory Council of Peninsula Hospital.

Sources:

Gil Tauber, "NYC Honorary Street Names," accessed January 12, 2024, http://www.nycstreets.info/

8
Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz Way

Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz (1914-1992) was the spiritual leader of Hillcrest Jewish Center in Jamaica for nearly 40 years. He was born in Poland and came to the U.S. in 1929. The son of a rabbi, he studied at Yeshiva University, where he met his wife, the daughter of a rabbi; he later received his doctorate in psychology from Duke University. An active Zionist, Mowshowitz was a delegate to the 22nd World Zionist Congress in Switzerland, its first meeting after WWII. He was also active in the American civil rights movement and joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. Mowshowitz helped establish Crossroads Africa, a pilot project that was a forerunner of the Peace Corps, and in 1956 was one of first delegations of rabbis to visit the Soviet Union to study conditions of Soviet Jewry. In the 1960s he was president of the New York Board of Rabbis. He also served for many years as a special assistant for community affairs to New York Governor Mario Cuomo.

Sources:

Gil Tauber, "NYC Honorary Street Names," accessed June 15, 2022, http://www.nycstreets.info/

Ari L. Goldman, "Israel Mowshowitz, 77, a Spokesman for Rabbis," The New York Times, July 1, 1992, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1992/07/01/170992.html?pageNumber=20

"A Look Back: ADL's Role in Selma and the Voting Rights Act," February 24, 2015, ADL.org, https://www.adl.org/resources/news/look-back-adls-role-selma-and-voting-rights-act

9
Rabbi Raphael “Ralph” Pelcovitz Way

Rabbi Raphael “Ralph” Pelcovitz (1921-2018) moved to Far Rockaway in 1951 and took up the pulpit at the White Shul while teaching at Torah Vodaath and writing scholarly books. He was Rabbi and Rabbi Emeritus of his congregation, the largest in the Rockaways, for 65 years. Rabbi Pelcovitz was one of the first American born, college-educated, Orthodox rabbis.

Pelcovitz had a unique ability to speak and teach rivetingly in both Yiddish and English. In that regard, he was a “spokesperson” for Jews living in 20th century America, and was often a guest speaker on local radio shows, providing commentary on issues of the day. He helped build an infrastructure of Jewish day schools, yeshivas, summer camps and other religious and social services. He published numerous scholarly articles and books in easy, accessible English, including the first and most definitive English translation of the biblical commentary of Rabbi Obadiah Seforno, a 15th century Italian scholar.

Rabbi Pelcovitz was instrumental in building numerous schools providing Jewish education. He was devoted to the welfare and growth of the Rockaways, even during economic downturns, and was even involved in helping bring the “A train” to Far Rockaway. He was well respected by local public officials and was honored by many schools and charitable organizations for his leadership. He was board member of the Orthodox Union, one of the largest American-Jewish organizations, and was a former president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

Sources:

Gil Tauber, "NYC Honorary Street Names," accessed June 15, 2022, http://www.nycstreets.info/

"Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz Obituary," dignitymemorial.com, Accessed September 30, 2022, https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/hewlett-ny/rabbi-ralph-pelcovitz-7790239

10
Rabbi Sholem B. Kowalsky Way

Rabbi Sholem B. Kowalsky (d. 2010) served a number of Jewish communities in the United States and Israel beginning in 1942. In 1959 he became rabbi at the Young Israel of Hillcrest which, under his leadership, became the largest Young Israel in New York City.

Sources:

Gil Tauber, "NYC Honorary Street Names," accessed January 12, 2024, http://www.nycstreets.info/

11
Rabbi Solomon Goldman Way

Rabbi Solomon Goldman was the spiritual leader of Utopia Jewish Center for many years.

Sources:

Nathan Duke, "Utopia Pkwy block named for late rabbi," QNS, April 1, 2009, https://qns.com/2009/04/utopia-pkwy-block-named-for-late-rabbi/

12
Dr. Rabbi H. Joel Laks Way

Dr. Rabbi H. Joel Laks served as Rabbi of the First Orthodox Congregation, the Jewish Center Torath Emeth for over 50 years and was also the Jewish Chaplain at Booth Memorial Hospital for 30 years.

Sources:

Kevarim of Tzadikim in North America, https://kevarim.com/rabbi-chaim-yoel-laks/

Chanita Teitz, "News From The Hills" http://www.5tjt.com/news-from-the-hills-47/

13
Bernard L. Shapiro Boulevard

Bernard L. Shapiro (d. 2009) was a community leader and attorney who gave much of his time to the Garden Jewish Center of Flushing. Born in Ellenville, N.Y., he moved to Flushing in 1960, and for over 30 years, he gave legal advice to the Center’s board of directors and clergy on a pro bono basis and helped to obtain additional funding for the temple. He also established a community youth program at the Center, which named its sanctuary after Shapiro six months after his death. Shapiro offered the synagogue’s space to members of a Korean church after their place of worship was destroyed in a fire. As an attorney, he represented 213 co-ops throughout the city.

Sources:

Koplowitz, Howard, “Street renamed for activist,” QNS, July 7, 2010, https://qns.com/2010/07/street-renamed-for-activist/