What did you do during the pandemic?
Tzali Reicher, who is 24 and lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, met his future wife, got married, traveled among three continents and embarked on a project to track every Jew who died of the coronavirus.
He counted colleagues, neighbors, people he admired, including the rabbi he hoped to pray with at his wedding. Another rabbi, who worked one floor below Mr. Reicher on Eastern Parkway in the headquarters of the global Chabad-Lubavitch movement, died after nearly 10 months in the hospital.
All went onto the list that Mr. Reicher has compiled for Chabad.org, which, at more than 1,800 names and growing, is still just a fraction of the total lost. Some get short obituaries, others just a bare account of a life:
“Nechama Hass, 46, Lakewood, N.J.; Mother of 10, raised money for couples getting married.”
“Harold Hoffman, St. Louis, Mo.; Everyone’s ‘Uncle Harold,’ owned women’s coat stores.”
“Lee Konitz, 92.”
They were Holocaust survivors and family patriarchs, educators and mothers and butchers. One, Alan Hurwitz of Detroit, left teaching after 30 years and became a prolific bank robber known as the Zombie Bandit, later succumbing to Covid-19 while on compassionate leave from federal prison in Butner, N.C.
For Mr. Reicher, all became part of a year-plus project he did not ask for, and did not expect to continue for more than a month or so. “I thought, it’s so impossible,” he said the other day, seated outside a bakery in Crown Heights. “Also, I was scared of dealing with death, scared of confronting this loss.”
Before Covid hit, Mr. Reicher, who grew up in Australia, was just finding his path in life. He was 23, newly ordained as a rabbi, working as a researcher at Chabad.org and living with friends in a basement apartment in Crown Heights.
“It was really the life,” he said.
On March 8, 2020, as the neighborhood was preparing to celebrate Purim, Mayor Bill de Blasio advised that it was safe to gather, as long as no one had symptoms of the new virus. New York had recorded its first confirmed case a week before.
“We didn’t know that it was already rampant in the community,” Mr. Reicher said. Within a few weeks after Purim, infection rates among Orthodox Jews soared.
Mr. Reicher, worried about possible restrictions on travel, soon flew to Australia to be with his family for Passover, expecting to return in a few weeks. (He ended up staying five months.) Back in New York, the virus was sweeping through Orthodox communities, even as many members continued to hold large gatherings, without masks or social distancing. Mr. Reicher called the Chabad office in Brooklyn late that March and learned that three of his immediate colleagues were ill — young, sturdy men with children, laid low. They recovered.
Amid this turmoil, Mr. Reicher’s employer set him to work on the list, not just to mark each death, but to encourage the living to learn from each person’s life, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, the executive director of Chabad.org, a far-reaching Jewish website.
“The conventional demarcation line between life and death, that the demise of the body represents an absolute end to life — we prefer to focus on the soul’s next stage,” Rabbi Shmotkin said. “What’s the person’s continuing impact on this world? What can we learn from their lives to apply to our own?”
It was early enough in the pandemic that each death made the news. The first confirmed Jewish death Mr. Reicher could find was on March 15. He made note: “Daniel Scully, 69, Las Vegas, Nev.; Chicago Cubs fan and all-around happy person.” In early April, during Passover, he opened his computer and saw that at least 30 people from the Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had died over a period of two days.
His head filled with names and numbers of the dead. From a wedding in Morocco, 20 people dead. On some days last year in April, he would get 70 new names. He worked alone in the middle of the night from his parents’ house in Melbourne, away from his nine siblings, so he could maintain contact with New York. The names came from Israel, Argentina, England, Russia, Iran, but especially from Brooklyn, the source of 266 names so far. Their families, often denied the normal rituals of mourning, were grateful to talk, he found. The dead were becoming people to him, not statistics.
“These stories I was hearing from all over the world, they stuck with me: the names, the Holocaust survivors,” he said.
As the numbers rose, he watched a livestream of 2,500 Orthodox Jewish men in Williamsburg mourning the death of a revered Brooklyn rabbi, despite restrictions on large gatherings. Other large funerals followed. His work made him keenly aware of the likely consequences, but also of the human need to come together in loss.
“I remember thinking, ‘Please be smart,’” he said. “With each one, I thought: This is the last of the great rebbes from before the Holocaust; this is the rabbi who rebuilt his community and his family’s traditions from the war, when he started with no one in New York. He rebuilt the community and the infrastructure.
“And they were expected not to mourn. I remember sympathizing a lot. I was counting the death toll and seeing these people who just wanted to mourn. It was very hard to reconcile. I don’t think I’ve reconciled it. It looks like there’s one right answer. You say, No mourning. But we’re only people.”
Melbourne went into lockdown, came out, went back in for 100 days. When friends introduced Mr. Reicher to a South African woman who was studying in Australia that May, he thought immediately of marriage. But how? He couldn’t meet her family. Maybe no one could get to South Africa for a wedding.
His work, focused on death, permeated his courtship as well. On dates with his future wife, he said, he would say things like: “Tonight I wrote about 11 people who passed away, and talked to this father who was crying on the phone. How was your day?”
“It was just dominating my life,” he said. “We got engaged on Aug. 10. She came to my house. I proposed at 4. We invited people to my house at 6. At 7:55 the house cleared out — 8 p.m. curfew. She went back to her apartment. That’s not what a l’chaim is,” he said, meaning an engagement party. By 10:30 that night, he was back to working on the list.
He returned to Brooklyn later that month, to a community that had lost hundreds of members. Before the couple could marry, the bride’s great-grandmother was on his list.
Their wedding was held in Johannesburg on Nov. 30, the wedding anniversary on the Hebrew calendar of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known simply as the Rebbe, a towering figure in 20th-century Judaism and builder of the modern global Chabad-Lubavitch movement. This Sunday, June 13, adherents around the world will commemorate the anniversary of the Rebbe’s death in 1994.
Mr. Reicher and his wife, Tali, both came down with the virus in February after a visit to a cousin in New Haven, Conn. They are waiting before getting vaccinated, because people who recently had the virus may be more likely to experience vaccine side effects.
He is eager to get on with the next chapter of his life. The names have slowed to a trickle of two or three a day, he said.
“I’m looking forward to it being over because there shouldn’t be people dying,” he said. “We’ve had a year to get better at Covid, to adjust. It’s still here. It’s still a reality. People are still going to be passing away.”
Major Moments From the Final Democratic Mayoral Debate
Weather: Sunny again, with a high close to 80.
Alternate-side parking: In effect through tomorrow. Suspended on Saturday for Juneteenth.
Five days of campaigning left.
With Tuesday’s primary fast approaching, Democratic candidates for mayor of New York City sparred over matters of public safety, schooling and homelessness last night as they shared their closing arguments in the final debate before the vote closes.
The early voting period lasts through Sunday, and the ranked-choice system has injected a large degree of unpredictability into the race. Still, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, remains a consistent front-runner in the sparse available polling.
Here are a few of the standout moments:
Attacks flew over an endorsement
This week, Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate, received the endorsement of the Captains Endowment Association, the union that represents police captains. When asked at the debate to explain why he was the candidate best equipped to tackle a rise in shootings, Mr. Yang pointed to the endorsement.
“The people you should ask about this are Eric’s former colleagues in the police captains’ union,” Mr. Yang said.
Mr. Adams tried to dismiss the endorsement, suggesting that he had not even asked for it. Mr. Yang accused him of lying.
The discussion about homelessness became heated
Mr. Yang sounded alarms around matters of mental health and homelessness, saying that the issues were impeding the city’s recovery and that homeless people needed to be introduced to a “better environment.” He said he would rebuild “the stock of psych beds in our city.”
Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, shot back: “That is the greatest non-answer I’ve ever heard,” he said, discussing a need to create tens of thousands of units of “truly affordable housing.”
‘The worst idea you’ve heard from another candidate?’
The question encouraged contenders to sling a little mud, and Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams again targeted each other. Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, ripped the “defund the police” movement. Maya Wiley challenged Mr. Adams on policing.
“The worst idea I’ve ever heard is bringing back stop and frisk and the anti-crime unit from Eric Adams,” said Ms. Wiley, a civil rights lawyer. “Which, one, is racist; two, is unconstitutional; and, three, didn’t stop any crime; and, four, it will not happen in a Maya Wiley administration.”
Mr. Adams responded that, if he was elected, the abuses of stop and frisk would not return.
From The Times
And finally: Renaming 16 parks for Black history
A Black feminist writer from Harlem. The first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. An actress and singer who lived in Manhattan and broke ground for Black performers.
New York City officials announced on Wednesday that 16 parks across the five boroughs would be named for those figures and other Black leaders who made significant contributions in areas from education and entertainment to civil rights and community relations.
“Our goal is to represent the culture and diversity of New York City,” the city’s parks commissioner, Mitchell J. Silver, said at a news conference at Mullaly Park in the Bronx. The roughly 15-acre park in the Concourse neighborhood of the borough was a focus of local activism as protests arose to push for officials to change its title, citing concerns about the record of its namesake, who published attacks on the Emancipation Proclamation.
“For years, the community has expressed discontent and a desire to rename this beloved green space,” Mr. Silver said. A new name that honors the Rev. Wendell Foster, the first Black elected city official in the Bronx, will be adopted in September 2022, he said.
The move comes amid a larger push to change some names of monuments and landmarks in New York and elsewhere, sometimes to leave behind references to figures with racist pasts and at other times to honor Black New Yorkers. Several top Democratic mayoral candidates have suggested they would support renaming sites including streets named for slaveholders.
As for park spaces, those that will take on new names include the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn (changing to Lena Horne Bandshell); Hell’s Kitchen Park in Manhattan (to become Lorraine Hansberry Park); and St. Albans Oval in Queens (to be renamed Musicians Oval in honor of influential Black jazz musicians).
It’s Thursday — get outside.
Metropolitan Diary: Waiting for Denzel
My mother loves Denzel Washington. So it was only natural that we would go see him in the “The Iceman Cometh” when she visited a few years ago.
My legs were stiff and my mouth was dry after the four-hour production ended, and I was ready to go home. But my mother loves Denzel Washington. So we waited outside the stage door for the cast to emerge.
My mother was easily the oldest person there, but she was grinning like a teenager about to meet her hero.
“Do you have a pen?” she asked me nervously.
“These actors always carry pens,” I said with confidence. “Don’t worry.”
Soon, though, I was frantically asking everyone around us for a pen while my mother continued to wait for the star to emerge.
When I got back to where she was standing, I overheard her chatting with other members of the cast.
Denzel Washington never came out that night, but my mother still proudly tells everyone back home how she invited half the cast of a Broadway show to visit her in Colorado.
I’m glad I didn’t have a pen.
— Sid Gopinath
It’s Not Too Late to Discover Louise Meriwether
“My uncle and father were always politically involved,” she said. “And I was with them, so I became politically involved, too.”
In 1965, Meriwether earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Los Angeles. After three years at The Sentinel, she left the paper to become the first African American story analyst at Universal Studios, a job that entails reading and providing feedback on scripts. Around this time, she also joined the Watts Writers Workshop, a collective by the screenwriter Budd Schulberg, where she began writing “Daddy Was a Number Runner.” “I remember asking myself: This woman is a great writer. What is she doing in a workshop?” the poet Quincy Troupe said in an interview. “She was way above everybody else.”
When Troupe reminisces on their friendship, he recalls a moment in which he is convinced she saved his life. Driving home from a poetry reading, he was stopped and searched by police officers. Meriwether happened to be on the road with a friend who was a lawyer. When she saw Troupe, she stopped her car and went to question the officers, asking for their badge numbers.
“I said, ‘I’ve got your numbers, and that’s my attorney over there,’ in case they tried to shoot me,” Meriwether said. “That sort of defused the situation, you know?”
In 1969, Meriwether, who had divorced, returned to New York to care for her ailing mother. As she did in Los Angeles, she dove into New York’s artistic and political scenes, starting Committee of Concerned Blacks, an anti-Apartheid group, in 1972, and joining the Harlem Writers Guild, a group whose founders included the writers John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy and John Oliver Killens. Her circle of friends encompassed still more writers, including Maya Angelou and Sonia Sanchez.
“I think one thing you can get from Louise is loyalty, support, and undying love for her people,” Hill, her friend and caretaker, said.
Why This Overlooked Residential Island in N.Y.C. Wants Tourists
When Med Abrous, a restaurateur behind trendy establishments in Los Angeles, Nashville and Seattle, got the call about opening a restaurant on Roosevelt Island in New York, he almost hung up the phone.
“The last time I was at Roosevelt Island was probably in the third grade for a class trip, where we took the tram, ” said Mr. Abrous, who grew up in New York City. “All I remember is we learned something about smallpox, and then I never went back.” (In the 1800s the island, now a quiet residential neighborhood, was the repository for several city asylums and hospitals, including one for smallpox, as well as a prison).
The restaurant would be part of Graduate, Roosevelt Island’s first hotel, which opened this month. The property is on the campus of Cornell Tech, a hub for cutting-edge graduate students in tech, design, law and business, which opened four years ago. Although the university has been a boon to the community — which was redeveloped starting in the mid-20th century and has plenty of dated architecture to prove it — would a stylish hotel and restaurant really work out here?
“People who have lived in New York City for 20 or 30 years have never been to Roosevelt Island,” said Ben Weprin, the founder and chief executive of Graduate Hotels. “That is the biggest challenge, to educate people on how close and easy and fun Roosevelt Island is.”
Mr. Abrous and his business partner agreed to at least visit the site, and he was immediately impressed. “I was taken aback just being in the middle of the East River,” he said. New high-rises were plentiful, and the rooftop of the hotel offered views of several New York City landmarks, from the United Nations building across the river to One World Trade Center farther south.
He signed on to create the Panorama Room, a bar and lounge with the very same rooftop views that seduced him, and he is aiming for a splashy midsummer opening. The idea is to make the restaurant a destination unto itself. “I’ll go into deep Brooklyn or Queens for a great meal,” he said, adding that he wants Roosevelt Island to be a destination, too. “We want this place to have the same weightiness as the Rainbow Room or Windows of the World,” he said.
In a way, the combination of Cornell Tech’s opening and the pandemic’s hitting the city has given Roosevelt Island a new chance at the spotlight. In addition to the hundreds of graduate students who have moved there, other New Yorkers in search of green space and affordable rents have gobbled up real estate. Several longtime residents are recommitting to the area, opening yoga studios and restaurants. And then there is Graduate, with its rooftop bar.
“It’s funny, having lived here so long, to see something so artsy and modern and hip coming to the neighborhood,” said Amanda Baehr Fuller, 48, an illustrator who has lived on the island for 15 years. “In the past we used to hear about things possibly opening, and years would go by and it would never happen,” she continued. “Now it’s getting better.”
Although many locals are thrilled about the attention the island is getting, the population of around 14,000 is still not enough to keep these new businesses thriving, said Shelton J. Haynes, the president and chief operating officer of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, which functions like a local government.
“These small businesses definitely need tourists to come in,” he said. “Many were hit very hard during the pandemic. Especially now, they need a hybrid of residents as well as tourism to stay alive.” The corporation is considering a series of free tours, both on foot and by bus, to bring in more people, Mr. Haynes said.
So it all hinges on foot traffic. The island battles an unfair reputation as being hard to reach despite access from the F train, the ferry, the Queensboro Bridge and of course the island’s unique tram. “We are still in the middle of the East River, and I am reminded of it all the time,” Mr. Abrous said. “This may have been a completely crazy idea,” he said of his decision to commit to Roosevelt Island.
In these late-pandemic days, the appeal of the area is obvious. It’s possible to walk through its parks and not see another human. Families, especially, appreciate the open fields, tree-lined promenades and playgrounds. Later this summer, Southpoint Park will open on the southern tip of the island. “It will be similar to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where you can walk right up to the water,” Mr. Haynes said.
For people interested in living here, there is currently a wait list for three-bedroom apartments, which is unprecedented, according to Chris Schmidt, a senior vice president at the real estate firm Related Companies, which owns eight (and soon to be nine) buildings on the island.
Last summer, Paul Krikler, 60, who owns a consulting and business coaching business, moved to Roosevelt Island from the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his three teenage children. “It’s so calm and peaceful and quiet,” he said. “There is green everywhere and water everywhere and public benches everywhere. During the pandemic having that space was just lovely.” He likes how people bring hammocks and hang them between the trees.
An adjustment for him, however, was the lack of amenities. “There’s very limited shopping here, so you have to use Amazon and make the most use of your time when you’re on the mainland,” he said. “For example, there is no bike shop.” Mr. Krikler is working to change this by getting a mobile bike shop to visit the island regularly.
Before the pandemic there was one of everything, said David Kramer, who oversees Related’s retail spaces for Roosevelt Island. “There was a pizzeria, a Japanese restaurant, a Greek diner, a Chinese restaurant and a supermarket,” he said.
In the past year, however, more specialty offerings have arrived. Wholesome Macelleria, a high-end butcher shop, opened over the winter. Last September came Granny Annie’s, a restaurant that became a go-to spot for cocktails. And this summer, Graduate will introduce two new restaurants overseen by Mr. Abrous.
Jax Schott, who has lived on the island for over 12 years and is a yoga and barre instructor, is opening the island’s first dedicated yoga and barre studio, Island Om, this summer. She’s transforming a 2,000-square-foot space on Main Street that used to be a makeshift batting cage. “We have a lot of wellness people on the island, and I am trying to figure out how to bring them together and make this a sort of hub for the community,” she said.
The hope is that the 224-room Graduate Hotel will lift up the other businesses. The property has gone out of its way to be bold. In the lobby is a 12-foot statue by Hebru Brantley, an artist known for his Afrofuturist style, as well as 5,000 square feet of shelved vintage textbooks. There is a meeting room inspired by the Tom Hanks movie “Big,” with a giant piano mat and a Zoltar machine.
“We need people to come and be, like, ‘Holy shoot, I can’t wait to bring my friends here,’ ” Mr. Weprin said. “We have to make this a landmark of the city.”