By Wally Dobelis
We have lost another cornerstone of the Gramercy Park neighborhood, Dr. Phyllis Robinove Block, wife of the late rabbi, Dr. Irving J. Block, who was the founder of the Brotherhood Synagogue. Phyllis, as she liked to be called, the mother of Herbert Block and grandmother of Joseph, Isaac and Tamar, peacefully passed away in the early morning of Tuesday, January 13, 2015 at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel hospital. The contribution of this this scholar of French literature was significant to the culture of our city life – she was the rabbi’s chief volunteer in publishing a bulletin, year after year, compiling memorial books and, particularly, helping foster his mission of the brotherhood of religions. This was acknowledged by the presence of two mayors of NYC at the services, one in the sanctuary and the other at the first shiva – David Dinkins and Bill de Blasio, respectively.
The funeral was January 14, 11 a.m., at the synagogue, with Rabbi Daniel Alder officiating, with Cantor Michael Weis, Rabbi Samuel Greenberg of Young Israel of White Plains and Rabbi Michael Miller of Jewish Community Relations Council offering readings. Son Herbert and grandson Joseph reminisced about their mother. The interment was at the Cedar Park Cemetery in Paramus, N.J.
As to the memorable life of the deceased, she was born as Phyllis Susan Robinove, on May 13, 1927 and lived in the Bronx, where her father, Herman (Chaim) Robinove, from Smorgon in Belarus, had a ladies’ coat business. He was a direct descendant of Reb Chaim of Volozhin, the founder of the modern yeshiva, reformer of education. Her mother, Belle Bersoff, was a child refugee from the pogroms and unrest in Odessa, Ukraine. As a shopkeeper daughter in the Bronx, she, nevertheless, was one of the first women graduates of the NYU School of business, and worked as secretary to Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, meanwhile managing the coat business of her husband Herman Robinove.
The Robinoves eventually moved to Manhattan and became very involved in Free Synagogue, instilling strong values of Judaism in their daughter. Young Phyllis entered Hunter College at 16, graduating and receiving a Phi Beta Kappa at 20. A Master’s and a Ph.D. in Romance languages from Columbia followed in 1955; her dissertation was in analysis of the French Revolution, as described in French newspapers, 1789-99. With her language skills well developed, she taught French at Columbia and Rutgers while a Ph.D. candidate, then was a translator in the French Embassy Press, Information Division, in NYC, then became a full-time foreign language editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, until 1964.
She met Rabbi Irving Block in late 1950s or early 1960s, after he founded Brotherhood Synagogue in 1954, and they married in 1964. The editor became the rabbi’s constant companion and volunteer assistant, writing the synagogue’s bulletin, overseeing publications, and actively participating in his work with Jewish immigrants, Holocaust survivors, refugees and religious groups that stressed ecumenical, Brotherhood-oriented activities. He had organized the synagogue to attract alienated Jews, emphasize the principles of interfaith brotherhood and community service, and, particularly, the Jewish state. During his studies in Israel, he had joined the Haganah Defense League and participated in Israel’s War of Independence and was honored for it. In all these missions, Phyllis Block was an active and enthusiastic participant, advisor and editor of his sermons.
Their son, Herbert, was brought up to participate in these activities, and Phyllis was his guide in trips to observe community actions and to meet political candidates and activists. Thus, in 1977, on a trip to Lenox Hill Hospital, he met the then City Clerk David Dinkins, then running for borough president, an event that began the lifelong friendship between the families, and the young teenager became politically active, working in campaigns and city government through and beyond Dinkins’ mayoralty, meanwhile earning a BA from Columbia, and, subsequenly, a JD from Brooklyn Law School, in 1999.
During the campaigns he became very friendly with another young politico, Bill de Blasio, who continued his political career to become a city councilman, public advocate and now mayor. Herbert never really left the public arena, as member of commissions, meanwhile addressing his main thrust to recapturing Jewish community property in Europe, working for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Mrs. Block returned to her editorial profession part-time, after Herbert was in school, from the 1970s to the late ‘80s. During this period she wrote a French language reader for Holt and edited several major language text books. After the rabbi retired in 1994, he wrote a memoir, A Rabbi and His Dream (Ktav, 1999), which she edited while also caring for his developing Parkinson’s Disease problems. After he died in 2002, she spent much time editing his sermons and other writings. In 2003, she was the leader in developing The Rabbi Irving J. Block Memorial Lecture series, an annual cultural event in the Brotherhood sanctuary presented by sages of both Jewish and other faiths.
Her greatest pleasure, however, was the family, Herbert and Judith, with Joseph, who graduated junior high school in June, 2014 and is now in the 9th grade. Isaac is in the 6th and Tamar in the 3rd, all in SAR, the Jewish Day School in Riverdale. Joseph’s Bar Mitzvah two years ago was the event of her year; the children’s accomplishments were her greatest joy, to the very end.