Dr. Steven Huberman’s early life, as he recalls it, was a Dickensian nightmare — abandoned by his father, a felon, as was his uncle, young Steven lived with his mother, aunt, grandfather, and grandmother — all but his grandmother disabled — in a poverty-stricken household in a desperately poor, overwhelmingly non-Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Dr. Huberman now lives a very different life. The happily married father of three, now a grandfather, lives in Teaneck. As the culmination of a career in the Jewish world, he is founding dean of the school of social work at Touro College.
His experiences as he grew up shaped not only the man he became but also the school he created.
The lack of money and resources, and the pressing needs of the adults with whom he grew up, overshadowed his childhood, Dr. Huberman said. He was born in 1950; his mother, Shirley, “was disabled physically and had a mental health disability, although she was very smart,” and his aunt was similarly disadvantaged. His grandfather had been hurt in an industrial accident in the chemical plant where he worked. And his father, Marvin Huberman, “had virtually no contact with me,” Dr. Huberman said. “I would see him from the time I was 1 until I was 10 in family court in Philadelphia. He refused to pay child support, and my mother would go to court and say, ‘He is not paying his $25 a week.’
“Then he seemed to disappear off the face of the earth — and then I heard that he was in Lewisburg Penitentiary,” Dr. Huberman said.
In fact, he added, years later, “My doctoral adviser told me, ‘Huberman, I think you should have been in the New York Times neediest case list.’”
But even during this grim childhood, Dr. Huberman found help. His guidance counselor, Judith Schusterman, often found ways to give the boy the quarter he needed for lunch each day. “And I think that where we lived was the reason why I’ve been into fighting racism,” he added. “We were so poor that we were the only white family still in the neighborhood. I was the only white child in my elementary school. And they elected me president of the student body!
“It was a very interesting childhood.”
Although at first he said that “I had no Jewish connection, no nothing Jewish,” Dr. Huberman recalled that “I went with my blind grandfather to shul every Shabbes. And although we were living in extreme poverty, we all kept strictly kosher. I remember going with my zayde to the fishmonger on Friday afternoons; I remember that the carp was alive when we bought it, and then he clubbed it.”
Dr. Huberman also remembers his grandfather “slugging kapporos,” holding a live chicken up over his head and waving it in a circle, as some observant Jews do before Yom Kippur as they symbolically move their sins to the chicken before they literally kill the chicken and their metaphorically transferred sins. “There had been nothing but coal in the basement, as far as I knew,” he said. “It was a distinct shock.”
Nurtured by his teachers, loved by his family, Dr. Huberman was encouraged to go to college. He went to the local school, Temple University, and sort of lived at home, but “I had no home to live in at that point,” he said. “My grandparents had passed away, and my mother and my aunt were in Jewish community assisted living. So I would go from relative to relative.”
And although his father and his uncle were felons, their sibling, his aunt, Mildred Kravitz, was entirely different. “Her two children are both rabbis. One is my cousin Harold, who is also my closest friend, and who is not the international president of Mazon,” Dr. Huberman said.
It was during his senior year at Temple that his understanding of the Jewish world, and of his own place in it, changed, Dr. Huberman said. “I was in the honors program, and I just wandered into a course on the philosophy of Judaism taught by Rabbi Robert Gordis,” the influential Conservative rabbi and teacher.
“Dr. Gordis changed my life,” he said. “I never saw Judaism as a serious intellectual activity until that point. But Dr. Gordis had us read dozens of primary and secondary texts. We read the Bible from start to finish. We read Heschel. We read Jewish history.
“I loved the course. He was the most inspirational professor I ever had.”
Rabbi Gordis’s influence on Dr. Huberman’s life went far beyond the class.
“At the end of the course, Dr. Gordis came to me and asked, ‘Steven, what are you doing after you graduate?’ I said I had been admitted to a program in Scandinavia. I wanted to study urban planning and then come back to America. He said, ‘Have you ever been to Israel?’ I said that I couldn’t afford it. He said, ‘I want you to go to Israel. I will assume all expenses for you, for a summer. I want you to study from morning to night, six days a week. I want you to study Hebrew.’
“I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t a joke.”
Dr. Huberman accepted the offer, and studied at Tel Aviv University.
Rabbi Gordis called Dr. Huberman frequently that summer; as it neared its end, he said, “‘I’ll make you a deal. Stay for a year, and I’ll pay all expenses. I want you to study from morning to night, six days a week. I want you to study Talmud.’
“He paid for everything,” Dr. Huberman marveled. His mentor would call the younger man often, and they would talk. “It was intellectually exhilarating,” Dr. Huberman said.
It was during that time that Dr. Huberman became religious observant. It was also during that time, still in Israel, that he met Frieda Hirshman, who also came from Philadelphia but whom he had not known back home. In 1973, they married, and soon they moved back to the United States.
When they returned, the Hubermans lived with Frieda’s parents, and Steven had to decide what to do next. He considered rabbinical school but decided that it was not for him. Social work, on the other hand — well, considering his background, considering how well the Jewish mandate to help others, to heal the community and the world, to leave the world better than you found it — it just made sense for him. His life experiences, his education, his values — they all called him.
Once he decided his direction. Dr. Huberman worked for a Philadelphia Jewish organization, helping to provide veterans with support services; from there, he went to Brandeis, where he earned a doctorate in a program that combined general management and administration with Jewish studies. It was a small program; “only about five of us went through it,” he said.
There was some opposition to his wearing a kippah; it was a time and place where men were not encouraged to cover their heads in public, and he wore his all the time, Dr. Huberman said. It was considered embarrassing, somehow un-American, he added. But his mentor-cum-guardian angel, Rabbi Gordis, intervened yet again. Steven Huberman was allowed to keep his kippah on at all times, and Rabbi Gordis somehow managed to secure him the scholarship he needed.
After he earned his doctorate, Dr. Huberman worked in the Jewish world. He began at the Boston federation; moved to the Los Angeles federation, where he worked for Howard Charish, who retired from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey just a few years ago; spent a few years with the Philadelphia federation; went to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; moved to the national United Jewish Appeal in New York, and then left the federation world to become director of regions for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
While he was at United Synagogue, Dr. Huberman was recruited to create what he thinks of as his crowning achievement, Touro’s social work school.
Dr. Huberman has stories from the different stops on his journey to Touro. He has a photograph of himself standing with “my friend, Tom Bradley, who was Los Angeles’s first African American mayor. We built all kinds of social services and worked closely together.” He was in Romania, working for the Joint Distribution Committee, “during the fall of communism. There were tanks in the streets.” And at UJA, “I started Partnership 2000, which links Jewish communities in North America to communities in Israel.”
While he was at UJA, Dr. Huberman said, he was responsible for honoring President Bill Clinton with the Isaiah Award — an award for distinguished world leadership that he created. But Yitzhak Rabin was recruited to present it, so it was brought into being.
It was at that ceremony, Dr. Huberman added, that Mr. Rabin, who had come, as instructed, wearing a black tie — as in a tie that was black — had to borrow an actual black tie, the one that goes with a tuxedo, from a security guard. It was Dr. Huberman who actually did the borrowing, and Mr. Clinton ended up writing about it in his memoirs.
In 1992, when he worked at UJA, the Hubermans — Steven, Frieda, and their three children, Daniel, Shira, and Jonathan — moved to Teaneck. “We wanted to be in walking distance to a number of synagogues, and in close commuting distance to New York,” Dr. Huberman said. “Teaneck fit the bill.”
The family joined Congregation Beth Sholom. “We wanted a place that was shomer Shabbes but had an option for women,” he said. The Conservative Beth Sholom is egalitarian and its membership is very observant. But Dr. Huberman does not confine himself to one shul, or even one movement. “I also daven at Bnai Yeshurun,” which is Orthodox, he said. “I have become friendly with Rabbi Pruzansky,” who leads Bnai Yeshurun. “And I also go to Rinat,” another local Orthodox shul, “from time to time.” In fact, he spoke about aging at Rinat last week.
Dr. Huberman is proud of his place on the Jewish spectrum, but “I think that Frieda and I increasingly are oddities, because we are strictly shomer Shabbat but believe in maximizing the role of women. That puts us in a minority in the general Jewish community, and particularly within the observant Jewish community.
“My friend Jack Wertheimer” — that would be Dr. Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary — “says, ‘Huberman, you are a dying breed.’”
His son Daniel, 36, is an endocrinologist in Highland Park; he and his wife, Becky, are the parents of the Hubermans’ grandchild, 3-year-old Eitan. Shira, 31, lives in Manhattan, teaches in the early childhood program at Ramaz, and is finishing a master’s degree in special education at Touro. Jonathan, 24, soon will begin his second year of law school at the University of Michigan.
All of this — all of Dr. Huberman’s life experience — has gone into Touro’s social work school.
The school does not have a central campus; instead, it rents space around the city. That makes it flexible, outward- rather than inward-centered, Dr. Huberman said. And it caters to members of all ethnic groups but focuses on three — “black folks, Hispanics, and Jews.
“We usually live in silos,” he continued. “Black folks interact with black folks, Hispanics with Hispanics, Jews don’t have contact with either. We wanted to create a model where blacks, Latinos, and Jews work together and interact. We have created that here.
“I was a child of divorce, and I felt abandoned as a kid. There are children living on the streets — and some are from the Jewish community. We hope to form a model for dealing with at-risk kids in New York.”
The school forms partnerships with other organizations, other schools, and government officials, Dr. Huberman said; effective social work and effective social organizing demand and depend upon good relationships.
In the nine years since it opened, Touro has educated students who have gone on to help make change, he said.
“We want to create troublemakers at the school. Good troublemakers. Troublemakers for social justice. Troublemakers for change.”