Dr. Judith Yanowitz Singer, Ph.D., Educator and Activist (1943–2021)

The candle lighting ceremony at the MLE Learning center

Judith Yanowitz was born in Brooklyn, a “Red Diaper Baby.” After World War II, her father and mother, Ed and Mae, relocated the family to South Jersey where they became chicken farmers and helped organize a farmers’ union. They were joined by Ed’s brother Hy and his French-Tunisian wife Mathilde. Being raised in a “Red Family” and with her French relatives helps to explain both Judi’s lifetime commitment to social justice and how she came to love visiting France. Throughout her youth, Ed and Mae exposed Judi and her two brothers, Richard and David, to a progressive world view, instilling values associated with socialism and support for racial integration.

During her career, Judi wore many “hats,” though she always hated hats. After marrying, graduating from Douglas College at Rutgers University, and having two daughters, Heidi and Rachel, she moved back to Brooklyn where her first husband, Joseph Kling, became a youth worker at the United Community Centers in East New York.

During the summers, Judi and the girls joined him at the Center’s summer sleep away camp where Judi volunteered and eventually became assistant director. That’s where she fell in love with Civil Rights and labor songs and we first met me.

After completing her teacher certification at Brooklyn College, Judi became an elementary school teacher and continued to work at the Center. She headed a parent committee to set up a pre-school day care program in East New York and became the assistant director of the Children’s Learning Center when it opened in 1973.

Judi and I were married in 1976 and added Solomon to the family in 1978. Six months after giving birth, Judi went back to work as director of the entire pre-school and after-school programs. Her responsibilities now focused on staff and curriculum development and organizing parents at the renamed MLE Learning Center. During this period she and the staff developed a multicultural pre-school after-school curriculum that also involved entire families in social action. At the same time Judi earned administrative certification at Brooklyn College.

Rachel, Heidi, Judi ad Solomon singing together.

Judi loved learning and after twenty years at the day care center decided to go to school full-time at New York University to earn a Ph.D. This meant turning the leadership of the day care and after-school program over to a new generation of young teachers. While at NYU Judi continued to work at the day care center part-time developing curriculum, helping with staff development, and supporting parents. This work became the basis for her doctoral dissertation “Fighting for a Better World: Teaching in an Inner-City Day Care Center.”

Celebrating her PHD with faculty and Judi’s mother, Mae.

In 1996, early childhood programs and social services for poorer families were facing sharp federal cuts. Parents and staff at the day care center and community center decided to launch a campaign in the neighborhood and join with national groups to battle against the budget cuts. A main focus was participating in a “Stand for Children” rally in Washington DC. Judi’s dissertation documented parent, children, and staff participation in the campaign.

In the acknowledgements Judi wrote: “This dissertation represents a large chunk of my life’s work, and acknowledgements belong to uncounted individuals whose lives have intersected with mine over the past thirty years. They include teachers, children, and parents in Banza [the fictional name she called the day care center], colleagues, and friends, all of whom have contributed to my understanding of the work we did together in the day care and after-school program and in the community. “

The Banza, based on a Haitian fairy tale, was one of Judi’s favorite children’s books. It is the story of Teegra, a little tiger, and Cabree, a young goat. They became friends despite their differences. Teegra gave Cabree a small banjo, a banza, to carry with him so if ever in trouble he could summon him. But in the end Cabree did not need protection from Teegra. The banza gave her the strength to stand up for herself.

While at NYU, Judi supervised student teachers. After completing her doctoral work she decided to pursue this avenue and became a faculty member in the education program at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. Her major responsibilities were in the field working in classrooms with teachers and teachers-in-training. She also became professionally active, speaking at conferences, and writing a regular column on children’s literature for Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Because of these contributions the New York Council awarded her its 2008–2009 distinguished service award. At the same time her daughter Heidi had twins, Sadia and Gideon, so Judi became a very active grandmother.

As Scottish poet Robert Burns reminded us, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. In 2006, Judi was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She continued to work for two more years but on a reduced schedule. She also became involved in the Brooklyn Parkinson Group programs at LIU and the Mark Morris Dance Center. At first she helped others, gradually she needed more help herself. While at BPG, Judi continued her social activism, marching, and sitting in a wheelchair when necessary, for increased funding for research and support.

In 2002, after the attack on the World Trade Center, Judi published an article that has tremendous meaning for today, “Talking with Children about War, Peace and Hope.” She opened with a reference to The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein. In the book, Frodo laments about impending war, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” His friend Gandolf replies, “So do I and all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

A fighter her entire life, Judi always insisted she would get better. However, in 2010 Judi entered a period of decline and was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia. She still refused to surrender to the illness and maintained an active life at BPG and as a grandmother.

Heidi, Rachel, Solomon, Martin, Richard, Pete, Sadia, Gideon, and I want to thank everyone who helped us during the last number of years including staff and volunteers at BPG, Cherita, Sandra, Sherrill, Sally, Iris, Anita, Mel, Seco, Felicia, Cecilia, Drs. Alport, Gudi, Colah, Salgado, and Carroll of Brooklyn’s Methodist Hospital, and Marsha, Atarah, and Kimberly of Hospice of New York.

Judi’s remains will be placed in a niche at Brooklyn’s Greenwood cemetery. We are also adopting a bench in Prospect Park, which she loved to visit.

Judi would want people to continue to support the Brooklyn Parkinson Group through donations to its sponsor, the Mark Morris Dance Company, and the United Community Centers.