Queens lost two giants last week, with the passing of Borough President Claire Shulman and Assemblymember Nettie Mayersohn. I had the privilege of working closely with both remarkable women. I had an especially close working relationship with Claire Shulman during the eight years I worked in the Queens Borough President’s office.
Claire Shulman defied the simple labels of liberal and conservative, and looked at issues not in the abstract but in terms of their impact on real people. Though a Democrat, she put the people of Queens first and worked across party lines to get what Queens needed. When the Borough President’s office was largely stripped of its power with the abolition of the Board of Estimate, she literally reinvented the job, fighting for Queens and never taking no for an answer. Whether it was with her motherly personality or her iron will, she could get mayors and commissioners to see things her way and to deliver for the people of Queens. Her integrity was rock solid. I would sometimes point out that a certain position might offend a campaign contributor or powerful individual. I can still hear her saying, “It’s wrong and you know it’s wrong.”
She was someone people could relate to. People approached her with all kinds of problems, including one mother who asked for help in arranging shidduchim for her children. A keen judge of talent, she surrounded herself with capable people, put them in situations where they could succeed, and challenged them to be the best they could be and to discover talents they did not know they had. Her commitment to the Jewish people was unshakable, as she paved the way for the construction of shuls, yeshivos, mikvaos, and eruvim throughout the Borough of Queens, funded Jewish institutions at record levels, sponsored Jewish cultural events, and organized the largest celebrations of Jerusalem Reunification Day ever held in America.
Claire Kantoff was born in Brooklyn on February 23, 1926. She spent many of her formative years on what she described as a kibbutz in New Jersey; Yiddish was her first language. After graduating from Adelphi University with a degree in nursing, she worked at Queens General Hospital. Her work with babies suffering from cancer and having to tell their parents the grim truth helped to shape her personality, giving her the compassion to care for people’s needs and the strength to persevere in adversity. Years later, she would say to Gabe Pressman, the television newsman, “Do you think I felt great holding dying babies? It broke my heart, but I never stopped functioning.”
But hospital work had its enjoyable side, as well, as she got to know Dr. Melvin Shulman, a psychiatrist. They married and would have three children, Dr. Lawrence Shulman, an oncologist; Dr. Ellen Shulman Baker, a physician astronaut, who was the first Jewish mother to travel to space; and Kim Shulman, who worked in the motion picture production industry before his untimely passing.
Claire got her start in public affairs almost by accident. Interested in making sure her children got a solid education, she became president of the Mothers Club, a forerunner of the PTA, at PS 48 in Bayside in 1955. As she met the movers and shakers in Queens, one thing led to another. She went on to become a member of Community Board 11 and eventually its chair. Borough President Donald Manes later appointed her as Director of Community Boards and Deputy Borough President.
I began working at the Queens Borough President’s office in the spring of 1982, first as the liaison to Community Boards 4 and 9 and later to the Jewish community. One of my most important responsibilities was facilitating the construction of eruvim, a role pioneered by my predecessor, Steve Orlow. The process involved getting the approval of the local Community Board, securing permits from the various utilities and city agencies to use their poles and other infrastructure, and issuing a proclamation in which the Borough President rented the public areas to the Jewish community. As Director of Community Boards and Deputy Borough President, Claire helped to steer the applications through the Community Boards.
In the Belle Harbor community, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern balked at issuing a permit that would allow the community to raise a few of the beach walls to the required ten tefachim, claiming that eruvim might violate the separation of religion and state. I brought the problem to Claire’s attention. She called Henry Stern and told him in no uncertain terms that he had better issue the permit. The dispute over the Belle Harbor eruv would lead to a court battle that resulted in Judge Aaron Goldstein’s historic decision upholding the validity of eruvim under American law.
On January 9, 1986, I organized a reception at Queens Borough Hall, at which Borough President Manes would introduce Moshe Yegar, the new Israeli Consul General in New York, to the Queens community. Manes left the reception early. A few hours later, police stopped him on the highway driving erratically and bleeding from the wrist. He claimed he had been attacked, but the truth was he had tried to kill himself. It would soon be revealed that he was one of the masterminds of a bribery scandal in the Parking Violations Bureau.
On January 28, Manes took a leave of absence as Borough President while he recuperated from his injuries and designated Claire Shulman as Acting Borough President. Later that day, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. Like all of us at Borough Hall, Claire had to deal with the reality that a man we respected and admired and who had done much good for Queens and its Jewish community was at the center of the worst political corruption scandal of our lifetime. Now, as the mother of an astronaut, she also was confronted with how dangerous her only daughter’s chosen profession really was. But as was so often the case, adversity and challenge brought out the best in Claire. She met with the press and handled it like a pro.
On February 12, Donald Manes resigned. One month later, the Queens City Council delegation selected Claire Shulman as Interim Borough President until a Special Election in November. On her return to Borough Hall a few hours later, she had one word for me: “Pray.” Later that same afternoon, I handed her a memo outlining the get-out-the-vote effort in the Jewish community for what we expected to be a close special election. As the primary approached, only one opponent, Lois Marbach, emerged. Leaders of the Queens Democratic Party told Claire that they could challenge Marbach’s petitions in court and knock her off the ballot, giving us a free ride in the primary. When Claire asked for my advice, I said, “If you are really serious about restoring people’s confidence in government, the Borough President should be chosen by the voters in a primary, not by party leaders or the courts.” She agreed. Many party leaders thought we were crazy for not taking the easy road to victory; but doing the right thing and restoring public trust, even if it meant risking defeat, was more important.
For the next few months, Claire and I would often spend evenings and Sundays together, traveling to shuls, civic associations, and other events. Each appearance was followed up by thank you letters to the organizers. It became obvious to people that Claire knew each of the neighborhoods in Queens like her own backyard, and that, as one Jewish leader put it, “Claire Shulman is a real person,” who could relate to people and understand their problems. She would go on to win both the primary and the special election by wide margins. A few days later, she called me into her office to appoint me as Director of Speeches and Publications and to take on other responsibilities.
Claire was deeply committed to Israel and described her position on Israel’s security as “To the right of Genghis Khan.” Celebration 40, honoring the 40th anniversary of Israel’s independence, was kicked off with a program at Colden Auditorium in Queens College, featuring Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir. It featured a festival at Flushing Meadow Park, the site of the historic United Nations vote to support the establishment of Israel, with a full day of entertainment and the groundbreaking for an America-Israel Friendship Grove. The grove would eventually be dedicated by Vice President Al Gore. Her annual concerts were the largest celebration of Jerusalem Reunification Day in America, at which she would regularly proclaim, “Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Jewish people and it will never be divided again.” Jewish Music Under the Stars started as an annual concert in Cunningham Park featuring Sol Zim. It would expand to parks throughout the borough, featuring Yoel Sharabi and other entertainers. The annual celebration of Jewish Heritage Week went through several permutations, including receptions for community leaders at Borough Hall, inviting yeshivah and public school students to Borough Hall to meet historical figures from the recent past, and encouraging public schools to have Jewish heritage programs that the Borough President would attend. People could plan out the year with our annual Jewish Cultural Calendar of Events.
The early years of the Shulman era were a time of unprecedented growth for the Queens Jewish community. Claire made sure that the shuls and other facilities received their building permits and tax exemptions. In one case, she literally paved the way for the expansion of a mikvah. The Buildings Department said that the road was in poor condition and could not handle the traffic that the mikvah would cause, and wanted the mikvah to pay for repaving the road. That problem was easily solved. Claire arranged for the Department of Transportation to pave the road and the permit was issued.
Building permits for shuls could sometimes be problematic, because neighbors complained. But Claire Shulman was always firm in her support for building shuls and yeshivos. At one shul in Jamaica Estates, she stood firm in her support even after receiving a phone call of complaint from the irate next-door neighbor, Fred Trump.
As Jewish immigrants from Bukhara and elsewhere in the Soviet Union arrived in Queens, Claire Shulman met with them and helped them found their institutions, earning the nickname “Ima Shulman.”
During the late 1980s, developers sought to build high-rise buildings in areas with one-family homes. Claire led the way in pushing through zoning that was consistent with the existing character of neighborhoods, providing for responsible development while preserving the character of neighborhoods with one-family homes. Recognizing the needs of large Torah-observant families, she made sure their concerns were addressed as part of the rezoning of Kew Gardens Hills.
Recognizing the everchanging face of Queens, Claire established the borough’s first Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Her top priority was education. She prodded a sometimes-reluctant school construction program into action. A school construction war room was set up in Borough Hall. Monthly meetings were held to monitor the progress of school construction, and woe to those whose projects fell behind schedule. Over 30,000 school seats were added in the borough. After the last war room meeting before she left office, some of the school construction officials thought their lives would be easier without Claire pushing them. They were quickly disillusioned at the next war room meeting, finding Claire Shulman presiding over the meeting, having been appointed by the new Borough President, Helen Marshall, to oversee school construction.
Libraries were another priority. During her administration, the Queens Library became the largest circulating city library system in America. Constance Cooke, the longtime director of the Queens Public Library, was clear about who made it possible when she said, “Without Claire Shulman, the Queens Library system as we know it would not exist.”
Ever the loyal Democrat, she put the people of Queens first. When Republican Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor, she quickly reached out and they met within days. As Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, I had the honor of introducing them at their first joint appearance at a Town Hall meeting at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. They would develop a close working relationship, and she endorsed him in his 1997 bid for re-election.
The list of projects Claire sponsored goes on and on: The new Queens Hospital Center, the USTA Tennis Center, the Museum of the Moving Image, Queens West and parks, playgrounds, schools, and libraries too numerous to mention.
After leaving office, Claire continued to be active in public affairs. Last summer, she asked me to help Donovan Richards in his campaign for Queens Borough President. It was the first time in 20 years that she asked me to campaign for someone. In retrospect, she probably realized that the end was near, and she wanted to preserve her legacy by making sure the office she had worked so hard to build would be in good hands. She had accepted an invitation to our home for S’udas Purim. Unfortunately, she called to cancel, saying her children were not allowing her to leave the house due to COVID-19. We would continue to talk on the phone, but we would never see each other in person again. During our phone conversations, her questions to me were always the same: “What are you doing for Donovan? How is Donovan doing? Do you think Donovan will win?”
One thing that made Claire Shulman different from most politicians was that she did not enjoy people singing her praises. She made clear to me that if I did not speak up and tell her what I thought when I disagreed with her, I would not be doing my job. Sol Zim would often write songs literally singing the praises of the public officials who sponsored his concerts. In most cases, the public official would literally beam and enjoy every moment of it. Sol Zim wrote a song about Claire and sang it at a concert. The next morning, she stopped in my office and said, “Tell Sol Zim I love him, but I don’t want him to ever sing that song again.”
And as I finish this piece, I can hear a voice saying, “Nice, Manny, but overdone.” It is not. Claire Shulman was the greatest public official of our lifetime, and working for her was the highlight of my professional career.
By Manny Behar