The West Side community lost one of its truly inspirational members last month with the passing of Dr. Sheila Carol Gordon. Gordon was the founding president of Interfaith Community, a small nonprofit that provides education and counseling to interfaith Jewish/Christian families. Gordon, who was Jewish and married to an Episcopalian, devoted her life to bridging the divide that often confronts interfaith families. She held a B.A. from Barnard, an M.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. in American History from Columbia.
At a celebration of her life at the Interchurch Center on Claremont Avenue, where hundreds of friends and family gathered (many more participated virtually), Gordon was lauded for her ground-breaking work in creating a cooperative education program at LaGuardia Community College at the City University of New York (one of the first of its kind in the country), her leadership at Interfaith Community and, perhaps most significantly, her ability to bring people together to create a more caring world.
Lee Gruzen was Gordon’s friend since the 1980s and became her collaborator in creating a nationally recognized education program for interfaith children on the Upper West Side. Gruzen described how Gordon had decided to leave her position at the Ford Foundation and dedicate herself full time to the program.
“I picked Sheila up at the Ford Foundation one day and we took a long walk,” Gruzen recounted. “On that walk she told me she was thinking of leaving the foundation. A colleague told her that she had such wisdom and leadership qualities – she inspired others – that what she was doing was not enough for her and she should use these qualities to follow her passion. Sheila decided to change her life’s direction and dedicate herself full-time to the interfaith community. She poured her heart and soul into it and changed all of us in the process.”
In a moving video of her life, Gordon distilled the importance of her interfaith work. “Interfaith Community forces people to come to terms with what they understand to be their faith and how they want to pass this on to their children,” she commented. “Our children knew that we, as parents, were working on something that would help them understand both faiths. Families don’t have to choose one of the other but can celebrate and embrace both religions and traditions.”
“Bringing People Together”
Council Member Gale Brewer moved to West 95th Street in 1994 yet had known Sheila since the 1970s when Brewer was working for then Council Member Ruth Messinger.
“Everyone on the West Side knew Sheila Gordon. She was known as the Mayor of West 95th Street,” Brewer said. “She and her husband Robin were a force in the neighborhood. The quality of life on the block was so important to her. She had a real knack for bringing people together and creating a safe space on the block for children and families. I remembered she took care of a homeless neighbor, Frank. She had compassion even for those who were the most troubled. She was kind to a fault. There is a real void on the block since Sheila died,” Brewer concluded.
Gordon’s daughter, Janna, remembered her mother as being “an educator” first and foremost. “She was intensely interested in what others were thinking, “ she recalled. “She was an incredibly generous person. She was also an expert guidance-giver – whether, formally, to interfaith couples or counseling others about career and personal relationships. To her, it was all about connecting with you and connecting you with other people.”
I later asked Janna what it was like growing up on West 95th Street. “It is interesting to think about this even more now that my mom is gone,” she said. “We were very aware that we had this home to live in – other friends had apartments – and we lived in a home where we walked and played in the street. Our block was really a community. We were friends with other kids on street. I had distinct memories of being five or six and being loose on the street, running and playing,” Janna recalled.
“Sense of Community”
If you walk the park block between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue on West 95th Street, with its array of old world brownstones, there is a palpable sense of a provincial neighborhood amidst the grandeur of Central Park and its high-rise co-ops.
Karen Young is vice-president of the West 95th Street Block Association. She knew Gordon since she moved onto the block in 1997. “The most extraordinary thing about Sheila was her sense of community. Whenever we would discuss an issue – could be how to keep the block clean and safe or how to keep the trees watered – she was always putting herself in the others’ shoes making sure the issue was considered in the broadest way before making a decision,” Young said. “And, she did this with a warmth, humbleness and sense of humility which is rare in our fast paced city.”
The Ivan Pharmacy on Columbus Avenue between 94-95th Streets is a community hub of activity and conversation. Ivan Jourdain, a community icon in his own right, has been the owner and hands-on pharmacist for over 30 years and knew Sheila well. She would frequent the pharmacy and encouraged others to support his store. “This is a tremendous loss to the community, not just the block,” Jourdain said when I visited the store. “She always took the time to talk to you and it was never a monologue.”
“Sheila always had time for the other person no matter what was going on for her. There was not a single person in the neighborhood that didn’t know her. Just mentioning her name to other customers would bring a smile to their faces.”
It was a beautiful spring day that morning that I strolled down West 95th Street. There was a woman planting flowers in front of her house. I took the liberty to stop and ask her if she knew Sheila Gordon. “Yes, of course I know Sheila,” Soyoung Lee told me. “ She lives right across the street.” I realized from her response that she was unaware that Sheila had passed away. When I told her, Soyoung began to tear up. She related how welcoming Sheila was to her and her family.
“I have such fond memories of her,” she said. “When we moved onto the block ten years ago, we didn’t know anybody ... She came over to our house and told the story of how long she had lived here and how her children had grown up with the neighborhood kids. She even wrote a letter to a neighboring landlord when we had an issue with the construction that was being done in another nearby building. I am so sad. I owed her so much.”
We all owe Sheila Gordon a debt of gratitude. We are all better off for the way she lived her life and for her unwavering belief in the power of community.
To make donations in Sheila Gordon’s name:
Gordon collaborated with the Barnard College Development Office to found the Sheila C. Gordon Scholarship Fund to support tuition for students at Barnard. Go to giving.barnard.edu to designate a gift to the Sheila C. Gordon Scholarship Fund.
Interfaith Community: Gordon co-founded the Interfaith Community, which developed into a program committed to the continuity of religion and to strong families. Go to interfaithcommunity.org/donate to give in her name.
Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor.
“Everyone on the West Side knew Sheila Gordon. She was known as the Mayor of West 95th Street.” Council Member Gale Brewer