Fittingly, 90 people attended Shirley Horblit’s 90th birthday party. She was delighted that family and lifelong friends joined in the celebration. What was most remarkable were the numbers of attendees who were significantly younger than Shirley.
“It was the most wonderful event. So many of my kids were there!”
Shirley uses the words “my kids” loosely. While none would actually appear on her family tree, these are people who met Shirley decades ago when they were teenagers, and they continue to include her in their lives ever since. Their deep-rooted devotion to Shirley is the relationship that any mother would crave from her own offspring.
And while Shirley has known them when they were in their teens, the men and women she identifies as “kids” are today in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
Shirley met her kids decades ago when these young people participated in one of two prominent youth organizations for Jewish teens – Bnai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) and Young Judaea (YJ). When Shirley was their age, she had been a member of BBYO. She recalls thriving as part of a dynamic community with other Jewish young people. It was such a high point in her life that when she was in her 20s, she jumped at the chance to work for the group to offer others a similarly life-shaping opportunity.
In her position in Young Judaea in Boston, she was known lovingly as “Shirley in the office.” Yet, her position extended well beyond maintaining the books and sending out the mailings. Shirley offered the kids compassion and attention that have kept them in Shirley’s universe for decades.
“I was a social worker without a degree.”
After 21 years at BBYO, Shirley decided to try a different career path. She explored the world of business but quickly felt bored and restless. She was missing having young people in her everyday life. Fortunately, one of her former BBYO “boys” was now, in his 40s, the director of New England’s Young Judaea. He called Shirley to ask if she was ready to come back to where she belonged – in a job where she interacted with kids. She was indeed. She worked for this Zionist youth movement for the next 25 years.
The kids who attended Shirley’s celebration traveled from Georgia, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and locations throughout Massachusetts. They brought their spouses, their children and their grandchildren to give her a birthday hug.
“It wasn’t a party. It was a reunion!”
Many of these special friends routinely take Shirley out for dinner, bring her food, and host her for holiday celebrations. She always spends High Holiday dinner with one special family. While her initial connection to the family took place 20 years ago when a sister and brother were YJ participants. Today, these siblings are in their 40s and their parents and children warmly welcome Shirley to their holiday table.
“Last year, when they invited me for Rosh Hashanah dinner, I told them I couldn’t attend because my legs can no longer do the stairs up to their place. They refused to take “no” for an answer. They went and got a ramp for the back stairs. With my “cadillac” (aka Shirley’s sturdy walker), I was able to do it!”
In today’s era of social media, it doesn’t require much effort to remain in touch with folks from one’s past. With a mere Facebook post or Tweet, scads of relationships can be maintained. Shirley, however, has no interest in computers and has no incentive to learn. She keeps in touch with her wide circle with her landline, her cellphone and the postal service.
These relationships have provided happiness for Shirley in a life that has also known much sadness.
Shirley suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and that requires her to use a breathing tube and lug an oxygen tank wherever she goes. She also has other health problems.
Her physical pain is compounded by several harrowing events earlier in her life. For years, her Zayde (grandfather) and her parents ran a deli. They opened their first restaurant in Fields Corner, Dorchester, and then moved it to Newton Corner. When her Zayde retired and moved to Needham, her family relocated the deli in the town on Great Plain Avenue. Unlike the previous restaurants, the Needham site never had more than a handful of customers. The Horblit’s had not known that, at that time, there were strong anti-Semitic sentiments in the community. Shirley was taunted in school and her family’s business fizzled. Within 11 months, they once again resettled, this time in the Beachmont section of Revere. The deli flourished.
These difficult memories were overshadowed during World War II. Shirley’s older brother George – her only sibling – joined the Coast Guard. Their mother had determined that this was a safer option than being drafted into the army. The family was relieved when he was stationed on the U.S. eastern seaboard, far from the war activity. Sadly, this didn’t keep George out of danger.
Shirley was just 16 when the family received the telegram with the chilling line “we regret to inform you…” George had been killed. She was the only one home when this tragic news was relayed and she had the grim task of informing her parents.
Inexplicably, the details about how George died were never revealed and his body was never recovered.
Shirley’s family was profoundly shaken.
“Burying a child is the worse thing to happen to parents. It was even worse for my mom and dad… they didn’t have a body to bury.”
The passage of time has not fully quelled the pain.
“I am still to this day haunted by the mysteries surrounding his death.”
Did the Coast Guard experience a serious equipment malfunction or a fire? Did many men die as a consequence or was George the only casualty? All that Shirley knows with certainty is that George was unhappy at this post.
Shirley refuses to let the sadness of the past override all that she has today. She has a busy social schedule in the months ahead. One of her “kids” is getting married in November, while another’s son will have his Bar Mitzvah in two years. Shirley is on the invitation list for both, and she is determined to be in attendance.
“Overall, I’m so grateful for everything that I have had in my life. I begin each morning with a prayer. ‘If You give me today, I’ll take it. If You give me tomorrow, I’ll accept that too.’”