By Judie Jacobson
On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, I was sitting in Mrs. Crystal’s sixth grade class at Yeshivah Ohel Moshe in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, chatting with my best friend Raisy Kestenbaum and a couple of other girls, who happened to sit at neighboring desks. It was almost dismissal time and, as she did every Friday, Mrs. Crystal had allowed the class to spend the last half hour of the day schmoozing…as long as we remained in our seats, kept the noise to a minimum, refrained from hurling objects across the room and, above all, didn’t bother her with anything more complicated or taxing than a request to hit the bathrooms. For her part, Mrs. Crystal sat there applying to her lips — and much of the surrounding area — a fresh coat of her trademark deep coral lipstick. Clearly, no one had ever taught Mrs. Crystal to color in the lines.
Just an ordinary Erev Shabbat at the little brick schoolhouse on Bay Parkway. Then, without warning, Neal Nissin – whom Mrs. Crystal had loaned to the office to serve as monitor for the last hour of class – burst into the room shouting “The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!”
And everything changed. In an instant, the lazy Friday afternoon calm was shattered. In its place – bedlam, confusion, a sense of disbelief and sheer horror. All at the same time. Kids were on their feet. Everyone was shouting – I can’t recall what. A shell-shocked Mrs. Crystal made no attempt to maintain calm. It was as if one moment we all knew our place in the world…and the next moment we were completely without direction.
As for me, I was perhaps the most confused of all. In the moments after Neal Nissin burst in with his news, I was stunned: Who in the world, I wondered, would want to shoot Neil Schneier – the 13-year-old president of Ohel Moshe’s student body?
What can I say? At the age of 10, the four corners of my world consisted of Bensonhurst, Brighton Beach, Coney Island and Flatbush.
By the time the dismissal bell rang, however, I was in the loop. The President was President Kennedy.
Outside the school, kids were everywhere – not atypical of a school-wide Friday dismissal. Oddly, though, there were many mothers there as well – making the scene all the more chaotic. I was searching in the crowd for my brother and sister – we road the city bus home together – when Harriet Kowalski, a fifth grader whose parents owned Carmel Bakery on 21st Avenue, came running through the crowd, shouting, “The President is dead! The President is dead!”
I wanted to shut her up. I needed to find my brother and sister. And then I spotted my mother. What was she doing here? We always took the bus. But there she was, leaning up against our light blue metallic Buick Le Sabre, parked at the curb, across from the schoolyard. And she was sobbing.
Every person old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has a different story to tell. But while the stories vary, the recollections all share one characteristic: They are remembered in vivid detail.
And so, as the country marks the 50th anniversary of the nation’s 35th president, we asked our readers to tell us what they were doing when… Here’s what they had to say.
Gail Ostrow, Bridgeport
I was 19, newly married, and working at a clothing manufacturer in Long Island City with lots of non-English speaking workers. A group of us returned from lunch to hear the words “the President is dead” in at least four or five languages. The telephones didn’t work, so I couldn’t reach my husband or anyone else to confirm what had happened. People were frightened and talking about a possible Soviet attack. Someone found a radio and turned it on just as an announcer confirmed that President Kennedy had died. I remember that everyone was crying and hugging each other and, one by one, we gathered our things to make our way home. I felt devastated. No one I knew went to work that next Monday, and Tuesday we went to a friend’s house to watch the state funeral. It was all like a movie.
Jeremy N. Weingast, West Hartford
I was in the eighth grade. I first heard about the assassination of John Kennedy as I was walking home from school with my brother.
A classmate had just heard the news. For some reason the school principal had decided not to inform the students prior to dismissal that day. We all ran home to watch the news.
I was stunned. We had a Boy Scout camping trip planned that weekend. The leaders decided to go forward with the trip. We discussed our feelings about Kennedy and the assassination. When we returned home on Sunday we learned that Jack Ruby had just shot Lee Harvey Oswald. I couldn’t understand how the police could allow this to happen.
Ron Kadden, West Hartford
The door to the lab opened suddenly. One of the graduate student lab managers burst in, tears on her cheeks, and blurted out “Kennedy’s been shot!” I was a senior in college, working as a part-time research assistant in a professor’s lab. There were three of us there that Friday afternoon. We all shouted, pretty much in unison, and disbelief, “What?!” We turned on the all-news radio station WINS, but they had little information. We shut the lab down, but no one left – we sat glued to the radio. After a while it was announced that the president was dead. I felt a pain in my chest and overwhelming sadness. Eventually, I traipsed out of the lab and headed down the streets of New York City to my dorm. Although it was only a few hours after the shooting, the Daily News and another tabloid, possibly the Mirror, already had enormous front-page headlines that Kennedy had been shot; bundles of them were thrown from trucks as they passed a newsstand without stopping. I bought both of the papers, but there was nothing about the shooting inside, just the front-page headline and a brief paragraph. That weekend the dorms were like enormous shiva houses — everyone looking a bit shell-shocked and speaking in hushed tones (totally out of character for the dorms). We crammed ourselves into the TV lounge, watching the same reports over and over, I guess as a way of trying to integrate within ourselves that this had really happened.
Cary S. Shaw, Westport
When the guy across the hall from our M.I.T. dorm room came over to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot, we wondered what the real story was. The guy was a notorious story teller, of truths, half-truths, and the totally unverifiable. The real story of the shooting was not good. President Kennedy was special. … We stood about in public places, attentive to public broadcasts, feeling robbed of the personification of our ideals, not knowing what would happen next.
Jean Federman, West Hartford
On that Friday 50 years ago, I was a freshman in college in Boston looking forward to going home for the Thanksgiving break. After my last class I walked back to my dorm. The maintenance man, who was known to drink excessively, was running from room to room exclaiming that President Kennedy had been shot in Texas. My friends and I merely assumed he had one too many and ignored him. I then left the dorm and started to walk to [my future husband] Dave’s apartment. Once on the street, I realized that something was terribly wrong! It was a chilling and surreal scene. People were incredulous. Crying and screaming. Strangers were commiserating. One person with a transistor radio was repeating what he heard to a gathering crowd. Bostonians and students came together as one on the streets of his city! I remember every detail as though it were yesterday!
David Federman, West Hartford
I was a student at Northeastern University in Boston. I came out of class and crossing Huntington Ave., a tall, thin, younger man with a transistor radio next to his ear is telling me “the President has been shot.” I assumed the guy was nuts. Such a thing could not actually happen. The walk to my apartment was eerie. The streets were quiet. I turned on the black-and-white and saw it was for real. Being in Boston made the next weeks and months perhaps even more funereal than in the rest of the country. Pictures of JFK seemed to be in every window, every storefront, everywhere. It was a dark and gloomy time. Fifty years later I remember it well.
Rabbi Gary Atkins, Beth Hillel Synagogue, Bloomfield
I was in my first year of study at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. and was reading in the library. For those who have never visited that beautiful school, the campus centerpiece is the library building that “heads” the college green. Much more than today, Hanover then was a very isolated place. I remember hearing suddenly loud talking — not the norm in the library! What was going on? The news spread rapidly. Somewhere there was a small TV and we gathered around…shocked and scared by the horrible events of the day. I believe there was some kind of memorial service that night in the college chapel…and then, like the rest of America, we watched as the rest of the tragedy unfolded.
Sheila Romanowitz, UJA Greenwich, Stamford
On Jan. 20 1961, my father invited the postman in to join our family, gathered around the black and white TV. My father, a WW II veteran, was a very kind and gracious man and wanted to share the moment in history: the inauguration of JFK. It was a cold snowy day, so it seemed like a very good idea. The JFK administration and family soon became part of our lives. At home we watched the televised White House Tour with Jacqueline Kennedy. We nervously lived through the Cuban missile crisis, we listened to The First Family album. I wrote to the President about selling wheat to the Soviets.
And then, in ninth grade, on Nov. 22nd, 1963, right before dismissal, we were told over the PA system to go home and pray. But as we reached the street, the flag was already at half-mast. My family went to temple that night and I recall the sanctuary being packed, like it was during the High Holidays. I turned 13 on Sunday of that weekend.
Rabbi Vicki L. Axe, Congregation Shir Ami, Greenwich
I was sitting in psychology class, a junior at Newton High School in Newton, Mass., when the loud speaker in the front of the room crackled on and a shaky voice announced that President Kennedy had been shot. The sense of disbelief was palpable as classroom by classroom, teacher by teacher, student by student tried to process this devastating news. How could this happen to our American hero? It was shocking enough to learn in history class of the assassination of President Lincoln back in the 1860s, but that was another, less civilized era, wasn’t it? We were living in the innocent pre-assassination time of the early 1960s, when we believed we were safe from such communal life-changing acts of violence. I remember being riveted to my television screen along with my family and the rest of the world to watch the black and white images of Jackie and her two young children bravely bowed in mourning for all to see, piercing our hearts with profound sadness at the personal, as well as global, loss.
David Jacobs, Executive Director, Mandell JCC, West Hartford
I was in fifth grade at Evergreen Elementary School in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. Someone knocked on the classroom door and asked Mrs. Fisk to step out. A few seconds later she came back in, clearly upset, and told us in a weepy voice that we all had to go home. It was a “walker” school, so we all headed out. When the kids from my neighborhood got to our street, all the moms were waiting for us at the bottom of the hill. We knew something was very wrong. Many of them were crying as they walked us home and told us the news. For the next week we were glued to the television set. Two days later I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. My parents, aunts and uncles were horrified that all of us saw it and so disturbed that he was Jewish (Jacob Rubinstein). I remember watching the adults in my family as they reacted throughout the awful week. I had never seen them act this way before and struggled to understand it. Just this year I found the scrapbook of articles I cut out during that sad time and the weeks of mourning that followed. Everything had crumbled into dust.
Rabbi Julius Rabinowitz, Beth Jacob Synagogue, Norwich
I was an eighth grader, attending a yeshiva in New Jersey. We were in the afternoon English class sessions when the principal’s voice came over the loudspeakers. We were used to the loudspeakers being used to announce special school closings or other communications made to all teachers and classes simultaneously. But on this occasion the principal simply announced that the President of the United States had been shot and had passed away. I remember looking at the face of my teacher who was obviously as stunned by the news as I was. She simply said, very coolly: “Children, I don’t know what to say. But since we are so near to our dismissal for the day, why don’t all of you put your heads on your desks for the next few minutes until dismissal.” And so we did as she instructed, an exercise that none of us had done probably since first or second grade. About 10 minutes later the dismissal bells rang and we all walked very slowly out of the classroom in silence, not a word having been spoken since that terrible announcement had been made over the loudspeaker. It wasn’t until I got home about 15 minutes later and saw my mother that I next spoke or heard anybody else speak that day — not a single voice was made by any of my classmates as we filed out of the school building nor any voice heard along the three blocks to my home.
Barbara Gordon, West Hartford
I remember clearly where I was when I first heard the soul-shatering news. I was walking along Albany Avenue in Hartford with my three-month-old daughter in her carriage, enroute to picking up son – a six-year-old first grader – at the Norfeldt School. As I passed a small shopping area, people were running out of the stores, crying that the President had been shot. My mother was with us – and we were in shock. It was impossible. Things like assassinations didn’t happen in America. It couldn’t be true. My son came out of school and we all walked home in a daze. It was eight blocks to our home and it was an agonizing trip – we had to get home to see the news on tv. Of course, when we did, the President had already died.
I remained transfixed to the TV all of that weekend, heartbroken and scared.
Rabbi Dr. Richard Freund, Maurice Greenberg Professor of Jewish History, University of Hartford
I remember the moment we heard the news brought by the principal, Mr. Cuntryman, a tall, graying, compassionate man who personally came to Mrs. Davis’ third grade class at Willow Road elementary school in Franklin Square, New York (on Long Island) and delivered the news. We were in our morning daily ritual math exercises on the board when they came in and told us that President Kennedy was dead. They got us to a TV and we saw the grainy images outside the hospital. Walter Cronkite delivered the news and they kept repeating that Governor Connelly was in serious condition. It was a scary moment, since at the end of last year’s school year and the beginning of that school year we had “duck and cover” preparation for nuclear attack and this seemed like an extension of those moments. The sense of loss and collective sadness stayed with me until I had two other Kennedy experiences in 1968 and 1969. One of deep sadness; the other of great hope. On the eve of my bar mitzvah, the killing of Senator Bobby Kennedy gripped me with fear that our republic might not survive, but just over a year later I remember sitting in my bed in camp and watching the moon landing and feeling that President Kennedy had been right (he had predicted it would come in that decade but did not live to see it) – we could overcome our fears and solve a problem of immense human transcendance. Life goes on.
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel; currently interim rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Milan, and Congregation Shir Hadash in Florence, Italy
It was seventh and last period of the day during my senior year in high school. I was taking a speed-reading enrichment course with a wonderful English teacher, Frank S. Halpin. As we were working, someone handed Mr. Halpin a note. He calmly informed the class: “There is a report that the president has been shot. We cannot confirm details so, let’s continue with our work.” We did. By the time school let out people were milling about and crying. None of us had ever experienced anything like the shock and sense of loss we felt. Years later a girl upon whom I had a tremendous crush at the time told me that I was a source of great comfort to her that day. I have no idea what I said or how it was helpful. I was in a daze. For the rest of the afternoon and for the next — seemingly endless — number of days we were glued to our TV sets. Walter Cronkite became the nation’s mourner in chief and comforter. It was a finer hour than I have ever witnessed by a broadcaster! The assassination plunged us into an era of discontent and protest. All of the values with which we were raised came into question, and many of my generation threw them out the window. The boots turned backwards in the horse’s stirrups in the funeral procession symbolized for me – then and now – a nation turned around. Fifty years later we are still recovering from the trauma.
Nancy Salk, East Haven
I was in the fourth grade at Chester Barrows School in Cranston, R.I., when the news came. We were dismissed early that day and I walked home. My mother had worked at the Statler in Boston, and had met John Kennedy. She had discussed this many times, and I wondered how my mom would be affected by this event. I remember that there were people walking along the same route who were talking about the news. It was both scary and confusing. There was extensive news coverage of both the funeral and preparations for the funeral. We also had all of the stories about Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. Secretly, I was hoping that Jack Ruby was not Jewish. I watched television for what seemed like days. Jackie appeared to be so brave. The picture that I will always remember most is of John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father.
Joyce Cohen, Bloomfield
I was in the bathroom in my apartment at Boston University futzing with my hair when I heard on the radio about Kennedy being shot. My boyfriend (husband to be) was going to UConn at the time and gave rides on the weekends to gals who were coming up to Boston to visit their boyfriends. He had three or four with him that Friday. They stopped by my apartment on Beacon Street so I could go with them over to Cambridge to drop off some of the gals. They, of course, had heard the news on the Mass Pike. All the girls were crying and one was so upset she was hyperventilating. I remember people standing in the streets and handing out leaflets that the President had been shot. Kennedy was so well loved; it was hard being in Boston that weekend.
Howard Meyerowitz, West Hartford
I was on the UConn campus in the rec room of a college dorm when we learned of the assassination, and many of us witnessed, live, Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. Without words being spoken, you could easily feel there was a sudden loss of innocence. Most of us were in our late teens and had never experienced death, and Kennedy’s death became a very personal happening.