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Family Discovery Club Visits Ellis Island

In 1913, a Chassidic couple from Warsaw came with five of their children on a ship to America. At least one of their older children had already come to America. The couple had been wealthy back in Warsaw: they had employed maids there, and when they immigrated the father — who was a Levi —- brought with him a small Sefer Torah, and the mother hid a large sum of money in her skirt. The mother was pregnant on the ship, and ended up giving birth to her eleventh and final child on the ship in international waters—later causing the child citizenship problems. The family ended up settling in the Bronx, and the descendants of their eleven children are now scattered throughout the New York area and beyond.

The original couple, Zanville and Esther Oppenberg, are my great-great-grandparents — my mother’s father’s father’s parents — and until last year I knew almost nothing about them or the rest of my family a few generations back. Thanks to the new Family Discovery Club of YU, founded by senior Binyamin Lewis, I was given the tools and the abilities to explore the roots and shoots of my family tree, and the stories that come along with it. Last year I was able to take full advantage of Lewis’ genealogical knowledge and his almost obsessive desire to share it, and this year I was able to benefit from a trip he organized to Ellis and Liberty Islands.

On a beautiful Sunday morning at the beginning of the semester, around thirty YU students from both undergraduate campuses went on a day trip to Ellis Island, under the auspices of the Family Discovery Club. The trip was organized in conjunction with five other clubs, including the Historical Society and the Polish-Jewish Club. At first I didn’t want to come, as I had already gone to Ellis Island in elementary school on a school trip. Then I found out that Yitzchak Schwartz was going to be the tour guide, and it became harder not to go. Schwartz is loud, energetic, and always entertaining. A recent graduate of YU, and current doctoral student of Modern Jewish History at NYU, Mr. Schwartz brought his knowledge of history to bear on everything.

After the busses departed with the boys from Wilf Campus at 9:45 — only slightly later than planned —  the busses proceeded to pick up the girls at Stern and then made their way to South Ferry, where we were to catch our ferry to Ellis Island. There, we enjoyed a bagel-and-cream cheese breakfast. (Was there a deeper meaning to the bagels-and-cream cheese breakfast? Maybe because we were visiting the origin point of the great mass of immigrants who brought bagels to America?) It was unclear what the exact job description of many other people on the “board” of the Family Discovery Club was, but on the trip everyone of the board pitched in.

Schwartz was supposed to give us a tour of Castle Clinton in Battery Park, but he was running late, and we were only able to catch the noon ferry. While waiting in line for the ferry to take us to Ellis Island, it felt like we were reliving the experience of being processed as immigrants. I doubt this was intentional, but it was somewhat uncanny. Of course, we didn’t feel the same kind of fear and anxiety that those waiting on line to be allowed into America doubtless felt. Instead, it was a kind of impatience and resignation at the kind of airport security that is unfortunately necessary at these landmarks.

Surprisingly, even some Sefardic students of YU came, despite the fact that their ancestors obviously hadn’t come through Ellis Island. Most notable were the Sasson brothers from Panama, Marcos and Jacky, who added good Sefardi cheer to the trip. An interesting fact pointed out by our tour-guide Schwartz was that there were a number of Greek Jews (known as “Romanis”) who came through Ellis Island, who were true Sefardim. They can sometimes be seen in old pictures from the Lower East Side smoking hookahs, something that was quite foreign to the Yiddish-speaking Eastern-European Jews.

After touring the immigration facilities on Ellis Island, we davened mincha on the expansive lawn. At this point Schwartz departed, and we boarded a second ferry to take us to Liberty Island. At the entrance to the statue, everyone from the group scrambled into pairs to share lockers and dollar bills needed to feed them. Unfortunately, we were only allowed to walk up to the top of the base of Lady Liberty — to walk up higher required a reservation months in  advance — but there was an ample amount of stairs to tire out even the most athletic of the group.

The bus rides from YU to Stern to the ferry launch at South Ferry, as well as the leisurely pace of the ferries to Ellis Island and Liberty Island, allowed ample time for socializing. For me this was one of the nicest things about it. Throughout the trip, amazing views of the Manhattan skyline were available. I had the opportunity to casually meet many new people, without the feeling that an event was about to start or a shuttle had to be caught.

Just a week later, Lewis and the Family Discovery Club were at it again with another event, on how to go about researching Ellis Island manifests. The event was held this time in Stern. I missed this event, which I now regret. But the memory of this full-day trip to Ellis Island and Liberty Island, with the new knowledge gained and the new friendships made, are sure to last forever.