Woodward Middle School
Molded by the Settlement
Molded by the Settlement:
My Great Uncleís Life With the Henry Street Settlement
March 21, 2002
My great uncle, Sam Schneeweiss, is a truly remarkable man who has lived through many historic events. Sam grew up in an Orthodox Jewish part of New York City, lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and was involved at the Henry Street Settlement, a community center in New York, for over fifty years. At the age of eighty-two, he is still a practicing lawyer with an active life.
Sam was born on June 27, 1919, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. In his familyís four-room tenement apartment, there were three generations living together with him and his two sisters. When Sam was a child, he spent many hours roller-skating and playing on the streets with kids in his neighborhood, amusing himself while his parents were at work. He remembers first going to Coney Island with his parents when he was two or three and he liked to swim there. The thing that he did the most during his childhood, however, was to go to the Henry Street Settlement.
The Henry Street Settlement was a community center which had clubs, activities, health services, and citizenship classes. It was founded by Lillian Wald in 1893 and the first clubs opened in the late 1890ís. By 1913, there were over three thousand club members and twenty-five thousand active program participants at the Settlement. Sam convinced his mother to let him go to a camp sponsored by the Settlement for two weeks and it was a turning point for him. After that, Sam spent all of his free time at the Settlement keeping busy and doing many fun activities, including basketball, metalwork, and ceramics. Sam also received music lessons there and they took him to the opera.
In addition, the Henry Street Settlement also influenced politics. People from the Settlement visited congressmen and Sam was in a group that helped to get Social Security and unemployment insurance programs started.
Sam was also an active part of the Jewish community during this time. Sam Schneeweiss grew up in a traditional Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. From the age of six until his Bar Mitzvah age of thirteen, he went to a Yiddish and Hebrew school in addition to public schooling. He loathed Hebrew school because he wanted to have more time at the Henry Street Settlement. A Bar Mitzvah is a coming of age ceremony that every Jewish boy (or Bat Mitzvah for a girl) are expected to have when they reach thirteen. For this, he had to memorize twelve minutes of the Torah, the Jewish holy scroll, and recite it in front of his community. All the Jewish holidays in Samís neighborhood were celebrated in a traditional orthodox way.
After sundown on Friday, all the stores were closed until sundown on Saturday for the Sabbath. Each household owned two sets of dishes, one for meat and the other for dairy products. In addition, there were two more sets that were only used during Passover. At the Henry Street Settlement, Lillian Wald put menorahs in the windows during Chanukah. It took Sam many years after he left that community before he ate pork. He is still observant of most of the Jewish high holy days. During those forty years he was thoroughly educated, went to law school, and worked for the U.S. Army in the engineering corps.
From a young age Sam believed school and education were very important. He attended kindergarten through ninth grade at public schools while attending Hebrew school separately. The thing he remembers most about grade school is learning Robertís Rules of Order at the school council meetings because he was a student representative.
Samís first job was working in a cousinís clothes factory for five dollars a week during high school. He hated the job and quit after four weeks. The next job Sam acquired was working as secretary at the Henry Street Settlement. There he made eighteen dollars a week and liked it, so he kept it for a long time to put himself through college, which he finished before World War II.
Sam was not sure that he wanted to be a lawyer after college, but he thought it was the best thing he could do and went to law school. It was a struggle to finish his education but Sam graduated from law school in 1948. He has been a lawyer ever since. He likes his job because he gets to work with people (in his words, "different people"). He stresses, "there are no bad things the way I practice", and is quick to assert that, "ninety percent of all lawyers are good people".
Besides the Henry Street Settlement, Sam was also influenced by growing up during the great depression. The Great Depression was one of the worst times of Samís life. Even though he was lucky and had a job for the entire time at the Henry Street Settlement, he was still hit hard, just like everyone else. Sam still remembers people on Wall Street selling apples, waiting in soup lines, kids unable to go to school, and without shoes. Samís father, Morris Schneeweiss (or, "Papa"), owned a grocery store and would extend credit to other families until they could pay him back. He kept all of the notes on money in a little red book and would always give other people more time to pay him back. During the Depression, wages fell over sixty percent and hundreds of thousands of people were unemployed, including over fifty-thousand teachers. Roosevelt helped a lot by administering the alphabet soup programs to get people back to work, of which the CCC was one.
What really pulled the nation out of the Depression, unfortunately, was the start of World War II. Not only did World War II improve the economy, but it also inspired people to go fight what they knew was evil. Sam worked in the engineering corps building airfields instead of fighting directly. He built airfields in many different places, including near the Panama canal and in Greenland. His work and that of the people with him was invaluable to the war effort. Sam hated dictatorships and Communism and still hates them today. Also, today, after all these years, Sam still bears a fiery loathing towards Germany for its atrocities against humanity, especially the Jews.
In 1947, Sam married a woman named Anita. After five years, they separated and were divorced in 1957. Anita hurt Sam deeply and whenever he would get close to a woman in the future, he would eventually break the relationship, for fear of the same thing happening again. But, in 1962, he met a woman named Pauline on a Christmas ski bus. Their feelings for each other grew strong, but Sam broke off the relationship, remembering what had happened in his last marriage. Nine months later, in 1963, he decided he really did love her and came back and asked for her forgiveness. She forgave him and that year they were wed. Sam loved her deeply and their marriage was a good one. However, in 1996, Pauline died of Parkinsonís disease and Samís sorrow was great. He has lived alone for the last six years.
Sam Schneeweiss has lived a long time and has had enjoyable and unfortunate events in his life, including the September 11th attacks, falling into the latter category. In addition, in 1939, Sam was elected as a Member of the Board at the Settlement, a post he held until 1979, when he was made an honorary Member of the Board. He enjoys being coherent and still enjoys new experiences after eighty-two years of age. Samís one regret in life is that he left Pauline for nine months and he wishes he would have spent that time with her. He continues to have fun, be active, and is a great great uncle.
Coss, Claire (Editor). Lillian D. Wald: Progressive Activist. New York: The Feminist Press, 1989.
Our Century: 1930-1940. Milwaukee Wisconsin: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1993.
Schneeweiss, Sam. Phone interview. 23 December 2001.
Siegel, Beatrice. Lillian Wald of Henry Street. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1983.