A sense of community is vital to us all, and even more so to those in need. Much can be said about the Henry Street settlement and its historical impact on its neighbors. Today, America is still a melting pot comprised of those searching for opportunities, community, and a sense of security. Institutions such as the Henry Street settlement have profoundly impacted generations of immigrants by promoting access to tools that can be used to create a better, more self-sufficient life.
My family emigrated from Greece in 1916 in search of opportunity. My grandfather came from Janina, a Turkish town that is now part of Greece. His background was Palestinian, so he was not considered a Sephardic. He was also fluent in seven different languages. My grandmother was a Sephardic Jew whose family settled in Volos, Greece after the Spanish Inquisition around 1492. When they arrived in America, they settled on Broome and Allen Street in the lower east side. I’m sure anyone would agree that starting a new life in a new country is challenging, especially with no familial connections. The Kehila Kenosha Janina Synagogue was an important place of worship and social activity for them. It is still active today, and the synagogue also includes a museum that illustrates the history of my family and their community in a very beautiful way. As with many other immigrants, they thought the streets of America were paved in gold.
My grandmother, Esther Belil, and grandfather, Nissim David Attas, were married on the boat by the captain himself. “Nona” and “Papoo” eventually had four baby girls and worked very hard to support their daughters, the first American citizens of my family’s legacy. My grandfather was university educated, but he had to make a living selling fruits and vegetables out of a pushcart in Harlem to make ends meet. Even with domestic programs such as The New Deal that were enacted in the 1930s, times were hard for many immigrants. Along with the inevitable financial struggle of raising four children, my grandmother was stricken with four unsuccessful births. Many complications arose during this difficult period of her life, which added even more strain to her and her family. It was during this time that the Henry Street settlement provided a positive environment for her daughters while she was in the hospital.
During her time with us, my mother Mary remembered the Henry Street settlement fondly. To mom, her sisters, and their friends, it was the “go to” place for all types of social events. She reminisced about the friends she made and the many socials and dance parties she attended there. Also, she said it was a great place to meet boys! As my grandmother recovered, she could rest easy knowing that my young mother and her three sisters could go to a safe, nearby space to have fun and experience a sense of community. In July of 1948, my mother married my father, Alexander Lebenstein. He was the only holocaust survivor of the German town Haltern Am See. They met in Florida while on vacation at an American Jewish Congress picnic. My father later became a docent for the Virginia Holocaust museum. My brother David and I come from a diverse family lineage that has roots in several tribes of Israel.
Today, it warms my heart to know that the Henry Street settlement continues to assist immigrants and underprivileged families with open arms. I hope their commitment to enriching generations of families in Manhattan’s lower east side will always continue and never be forgotten. I know it played a very big part in ensuring my family’s access to education and a better life. Thank you to the Henry Street settlement and other institutions like it for keeping the American dream alive for families like mine.