For about 25 years the Infant Toddler program at the Jewish Community Center had been named after Holocaust Survivor Ursula Block. And then, suddenly and without explanation, it wasn’t. “I was rather surprised, but it made me realize that memories don’t stay around automatically; you have to work at it,” said Larry Block.
Larry Block is the son of Ursula Block, and he learned of the name change when his brother, who is living in Florida, went to the JCC’s website and saw that his mother’s name was no longer affiliated with the Infant Toddler program. “So he emailed me and said ‘hey, what’s that all about?’” explained Larry Block.
Ursula Block, the co-founder of the Infant Toddler (IT) Program at the JCC, was the director of the program for the first 7 years until a heart condition led to her resignation in 1985. “My mother Ursula and Bea Paul started the first Infant Toddler daycare program at any JCC in the country, and really the first in the region back in 1978,” said Block. She died just a few years after she resigned at the age of 60 “when she was waiting for a heart transplant,” said Bea Paul.
Block reached out to Marty Schneer, the executive director of the JCC. “He was very receptive to what I had to tell him about the fact that this program was named after my mother, that it was certainly meant to be indefinite and how sorry I was that people didn’t remember,” said Block.
Twenty-five years ago this June, the JCC honored her memory by naming the IT program after her. “It has been called the Ursula Block Infant Toddler program forever,” recalled Block. There is a plaque on the first floor outside of the Infant Toddler rooms commemorating Ursula’s memory, but people have come and gone over the years that don’t remember her or the start of the IT program. Block explained that what was once two separate programs with two separate directors, one for early childhood and one for IT, were combined as one early childhood program with one director, and Ursula’s memory slipped through the cracks. Block and his wife went to the JCC and spoke with staff members, only to find out that they had thrown away all records. “There was literally no documentation of the history of this program and how it started,” said Block. Schneer came up with the idea to rededicate the Infant Toddler program to Ursula Block all over again. “The dedication event came together initially to rededicate the program to my mother’s memory and to hope that people will remember her for the next 25 years, and to also put in print how the IT program came to be,” said Block.
Ursula came to the U.S. in 1939 after narrowly escaping Nazi Germany with her family. Block recalled the importance Ursula placed on remembering the Holocaust as a survivor. According to Block, Ursula always wanted to foster Jewish parents raising Jewish children. “She dreamt of having an IT program to do that, and I think it was therapeutic for her with the guilt she felt being a Holocaust survivor and all the millions of children who died,” he said.
The Ursula Block IT program started when Bea Paul, the pre-school director, and Ursula Block, one of the teachers at the JCC in Lynn – before it moved to Marblehead – were being asked by mothers for longer care for their infants in 1978. The two visited the only infant daycare in the area at the time, which was in Radcliffe College. “I told Ursula that if she got her masters in infant toddler studies, I would help her start an infant toddler daycare program. She did that,” said Paul. Ursula went to Wheelock College for her M.A.
The two women walked through the Blizzard of 1978 from Ursula’s house on Atlantic Avenue and Paul’s home in downtown Marblehead to meet in Brown’s Bakery, sitting for hours working on a proposal for the JCC directors. “We presented it to the directors and there was shock on some of their faces,” described Paul. “Cribs in the JCC? No way,” she imitated.
After a vote, they provided the two women with $1,000 and a room. “We scrounged all kinds of wonderful baby things and made a beautiful room,” Paul recalled. After some publicity, they filled up immediately. “It didn’t take long before we were scrounging for more and more space,” said Paul.
“It was a time that mothers who had college degrees and promising careers still wanted to have their babies.” Paul, whose office was directly across from Ursula’s, described that she often could hear people crying, “Parents didn’t want to leave their babies, and some of them had to.” Paul vividly remembered one woman. “She worked for the airlines, she had six weeks off and she was crying but she had to go back to work. And Ursula really helped these parents through it,” she added. “She was a fabulous director. She was nurturing, she was wonderful for the mothers and the fathers too.”
There was a waiting list for the program, where mothers would sign up when they were just two weeks pregnant, according to Paul, to make sure they had a space in the program. The waiting list grew, the JCC responded, and the Infant Toddler program expanded. Since then, the IT program has been enormously successful. It still has a waiting list and, according to Block, the JCC recognizes that it brings young active adults into the community and builds lasting friendships.
Stacey Marcus was the marketing director at the JCC in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and also a mother who benefited from the Ursula Block IT program. “I was fortunate enough to both work at the JCC at a job that I love and have my infant daughter Rachel with me at the program,” said Marcus. “We really love the program,” added Marcus. “The staff was really nurturing and as you can imagine, for a new mother it is very important to find quality care. The JCC has that.” Marcus and her daughter have made lifelong friends through the program.
“Now one can’t imagine the JCC without IT and the pre-school bringing in the young families,” said Block. After the initial shock of finding that his mother’s name was dropped from the program that has laid the foundation for countless friendships, provided care for working parents, and brought the community closer together, Block’s takeaway from this event is similar to a lesson his mother instilled in her sons. Ursula believed in the profound importance of remembering the Holocaust, and she successfully taught her sons that memories can disappear without working to keep them alive. According to Block, “What we are trying to do is keeping her memory and legacy going, at least as long as we’re alive to do so.”