Why All Jews Should Care About New York’s Subway System
As Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls.”
Soon after opening in 1904, New York City’s subway system was carrying millions of passengers daily — more than all the nation’s railroads combined. After World War II, New York’s subways were “a United Nations on wheels,” carrying the global diversity of passengers to every corner of the city — including to UN Plaza.
During the worst parts of 2020, subway ridership was down 75%. At certain times, and for the first time in a half century, bus traffic (also down) exceeded subway turnstile spins. New York Times stories about the New York subways recently have featured piles of trash and other ominous signs.
The subway system is in crisis. Whether it — or New York City — will recover fully is in doubt. Why should suburbanized New Yorkers and others, many of whom have abandoned subways for other means of commuting, care?
One reason is the human triumphs and tragedies involved.
A recent op-ed by Sujatha Gidla, a subway conductor herself, offers rays of hope. She does not minimize the problems. One New York transit worker died on the tracks; another died sitting on a bench in front of a supervisor’s office. The MTA gave contradictory messages about wearing masks, and then provided insufficient, poorly made PPE gear. It lectured conductors about hand washing, despite the frequent absence of working rest rooms.
Gidla was infected with the virus, but recovered and after recovery went back to work.
Benjamin Schaeffer — one of only a reported two Orthodox Jews employed as New York subway conductors — was not so lucky. He died of coronavirus. During his 20 years on the job, he was as reliable as clockwork except for taking off Jewish holidays.
Over 130 New York transit workers have died from coronavirus.
It was proper that New Yorkers shouted out praise from the rooftops for the anonymous heroes among fire and police, and doctors and nurses, during COVID-19. But underground transit workers should not be overlooked.
We live in historically amnesiac times, in which few Jewish New Yorkers have a memory of what a lifeline subways were for their forebearers. Subways allowed East Side Jews to spread to Uptown (including to Harlem), and then to the Bronx and Brooklyn. The subways provided not only physical mobility, but upward social mobility, as immigrant Jews or their children moved into less crowded neighborhoods with larger apartments, each with its own bathroom, and amenities such as neighborhood parks.
The New York City subway system was a ticket to a better life for all the city’s riders, including Jews.
Today, we should mourn Benjamin Schaeffer and applaud Sujatha Gidla. We should also do what we can so that the subway system survives to serve newer minorities striving for a better life.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).