BOSTON — It was a chance to make history.
Twenty years ago this month, on a damp Mother’s Day – May 12, 2002 – about 200,000 people made their way to the northern end of Boston to walk for the first time across the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge – months before the bridge was set to open to cars.
Part of the Big Dig at the time – the largest highway construction project in the United States – the bridge was named after Zakim, known widely as Lenny, who grew up in Wayne, N.J., and became a civil rights attorney. He died after a five-year battle with cancer at age 46 in 1999. Over some two decades in Boston, Zakim emerged as one of the region’s most prominent and influential Jewish leaders as the longtime director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
Zakim was widely heralded for forging bonds and launching innovative educational and interfaith programs across religions, races, and ethnicities to overcome differences and combat bigotry and hatred. Among the innovative and highly acclaimed educational and interfaith programs he launched were A World of Difference Institute, Teen Harmony and the Black Jewish Passover seder, co founded in Boston with the Rev. Charles Stith.
The contemporary, cable-stayed bridge, the first of its kind in the U.S., has become an iconic identifying image of Boston. Known often as “the Zakim,” its full name also pays tribute to the historic Bunker Hill Monument in nearby Charlestown.
“It’s gorgeous. It’s wonderful and I hope and know that Lenny is looking down and seeing that this bridge has been named after him and what it’s doing to bring people together,” his wife, Joyce Zakim, told WCVB-TV at the time.
“A bridge to honor a man who was all about connecting people is symbolically perfect,” Lori Ehrlich told the Journal. The former state representative from Marblehead, who is Jewish, now serves as the regiona1 administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“In spite of the rain, I couldn’t stay away,” she said in an email about joining in the first walk across the bridge. “Lenny’s ability to unite people in understanding who might otherwise never find a reason to connect was his gift to us all.
“With hate and bigotry on the rise, building bridges has never been more essential,” she added.
Josh Zakim, the oldest of the Zakims’ three children, was a teen at the time of the Mother’s Day walk.
He remembers being there, along with his mother, his younger twin sisters, Deena and Shari; aunts, uncles, cousins, and his father’s parents, who traveled from New Jersey.
“The biggest thing was the energy and enthusiasm. It was very meaningful to the family,” Josh Zakim told the Journal in a phone conversation. “Seeing what turned out to be 200,000 other people there was really inspiring. It woke us up to how important the structure was for the city and the state, not just our family. It was pretty cool.”
Reflecting back, the younger Zakim, who served for six years as a Boston city councilor and is the executive director of Housing Forward, is moved by the fact that his father’s legacy was memorialized in such a massive public works project.
“The bridge is not just iconic. It’s an embodiment of his work. He talked about bridging communities, the Black community with the Jewish community, immigrant communities and across the board. That was central to his work.”
Today, Zakim’s legacy continues through the Lenny Zakim Fund, a nonprofit Zakim launched in 1995 shortly after he was diagnosed with a rare cancer.
In its 27 years, the Zakim fund has awarded more than 1,500 grants to grass-roots organizations in Boston and in cities and towns across the state that advance accessibility, immigrants’ rights, racial justice, education, and civil and human rights. The fund also provides organizational training, according to Eric Esteves, its executive director.
Esteves drove across the bridge when it opened, and many times since.
“I considered it an architectural marvel,” Esteves told the Journal in a conversation on Zoom. “It conveys a beacon, a symbol. Some see bridges as a beacon of hope.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization raised an additional $500,000 in emergency funds to support community groups in cities and towns with many immigrants who were essential workers.
Two decades later, people who walked across the bridge have vivid recollections of the day. Naming a significant public structure for such an impactful Jewish figure struck a chord.
Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, who at the time was living with his wife and children in the Boston area and is now a senior leader at the Electric Power Research Institute in Albany, N.Y., jumped at the opportunity of a fun family outing. “I liked naming the bridge for someone who was a community organizer and with a very Jewish name. It definitely gave me some community pride,” he said in an email.
Miriam Schwartz of Somerville and her then young son David, who is autistic, were so enthralled with the up-close preview of the cable-stayed bridge, she made a wooden puzzle from one of the photographs she took that day.
“It was long overdue to credit Lenny Zakin for his civil rights work,” she said in an email.
“It’s as if I attended the birth of the Leonard P. Zakim Bridge. Waters broke. And this amazing iconic structure issued forth, honoring someone I truly want to honor. That feels good.”