JULY 5, 2018, BOSTON – Nearly 400 people who grew up during the “Golden Age” of Boston’s Jewish community in the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan neighborhoods gathered at the Boston Marriott Quincy on June 23 for the 44th Anniversary Reunion of the YMHA-Hecht House Alumni Association.
Most attendees spent their childhoods and teen years along a 5-mile stretch of Blue Hill Avenue and scores of side streets with familiar names like Norfolk, Hazleton, Morton, and Woodrow. In its heyday, there were some 75,000 Jews in the area, mostly children of Eastern European immigrants. By the late 1970s, the area’s Jewish population dropped to under 1,000.
Jim Slovin of Foxborough, reunion ad book chair who attended the first event in 1973, beamed as old friends filled the ballroom. “This might be the only group of its kind that’s held together by memories and friendships formed 60 years ago,” he said. According to Slovin, reunions are held every four or five years, and this year guests came from at least six states, including Florida and California.
The Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) building was on Seaver Street (corner of Humboldt Avenue) in Roxbury and the Hecht House was on American Legion Highway in Dorchester. Located on opposite sides of Franklin Park, they served as social hubs for the Jewish community of the 1950s and ’60s. They were the Jewish Community Centers of that era.
Families mostly lived in wooden triple-deckers and aging Victorians clustered around Franklin Park, where thousands regularly took walks, visited the zoo, enjoyed the rose garden, or just schmoozed on the long green benches near the main entrance. Another popular gathering place for this crowd was a few miles up Blue Hill Avenue along “the wall” at Franklin Field, especially during the High Holidays.
Retired lawyer Sumner Gillette, attending his first reunion, said, “If I just see one person I haven’t seen in many years, it’s worth coming. I love the nostalgia.”
Brothers Peter and Paul Waitze, who as kids delivered produce from their father’s fruit store, The Fruit Bowl, on Blue Hill Avenue, were excited to attend. Peter, a meat broker, traveled from Philadelphia. He first met his wife Lois when they were teenagers at a party on Norfolk Street. They married in 1962. “We’re still married and in love,” they said together.
Marty Garber, who flew in from Manhattan Beach, Calif., came “this close” to being recruited by the Chicago Cubs after seven years in the minor leagues. A shoulder injury derailed that plan around 1959. But he holds the all-time record of 47 points in 1953 for the Roxbury Memorial High basketball team.
Irwin Frankel, of Chestnut Hill, was a Marine captain during the Vietnam War, and later worked as a Procter & Gamble salesman. He grew up on Columbia Road and attended Boston Tech. “Your roots are who you grew up with,” he observed. “It’s great to relive your life by seeing faces of people you grew up with.”
Jack Bennett lived near Egleston Square, attending Roosevelt Junior High and English High. “There weren’t many Jewish kids in my neighborhood so I looked forward to going to three Jewish hangouts: the YMHA, Hecht House, and the G & G Deli,” he recalled. At one of those, he met his wife, Sheila. The couple has been married for 54 years.
“This event represents the bond I shared for 60 years with these friends,” Bennett said. “It was our own shtetl. We had nothing; we had everything.”