HILLSIDE, NJ — It is a story of enduring friendship.
The Cheerful Sub-Juniors club, now known as the “Pauline Levin Memorial Club,” gathered last week to celebrate 80 years of friendship and memories.
The members, together since they were just 7 years old, celebrated at a special luncheon at a restaurant in South Orange, where they were joined by their families as they shared memories of eight decades of friendship.
Pauline Levin was a young Jewish mother raising her daughter, Naomi, in Hillside of the 1930s and wanted to create a safe haven for her young daughter and her daughter’s friends in 1936. Although there was a Jewish community in Hillside — one that eventually would grow to be about half of the town’s population in the ’50s and ’60s — it was still relatively small in the 1930s, with no Jewish schools and just one synagogue.
Levin wanted to create a place where Jewish girls could congregate and, according to Levin’s daughter, Naomi Levin Jacoby Cohn, her mother did not feel that the local Girl Scout Brownie troop, which met at a local church, was necessarily welcoming to Jewish members.
Levin decided to invite a group of neighborhood girls to her home and suggested to the group that a club be formed to help children being cared for at the Cardiac Home in nearby Caldwell. And thus, the “Cheerful Sub-Juniors” club was born.
The club was made up of about a dozen second-graders who attended Hillside Avenue School, were soon meeting at one another’s homes every Friday. Dues were just 5 cents per week, and once fundraising activities began, the group presented a check for $25 to the Cardiac Home in April 1937 at a meeting of the Fidelity Lodge.
Soon the group began focusing its charitable efforts on the Save the Children organization, through which the girls supported and corresponded with families abroad. They also raised funds for the United Cerebral Palsy League, the JFK Library, The Lighthouse for the Blind and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
The girls continued to meet throughout high school, college and adulthood, attending one another’s weddings, sharing the joy of babies born, b’nai mitzvahs celebrated and, eventually, the births of grandchildren. They became wives and mothers, teachers and small business owners, lawyers and school counselors.
A visit to the club’s website chronicles an astonishingly long history, with pictures that celebrate their friendship through eight decades. In one picture, circa 1940, a group of preteen girls dressed in their Friday best stands on the front steps of a member’s home, smiling. Another picture, dated 1956 and taken at the group’s 20th anniversary celebration at Hahne Department Store, shows a group of women, all in their 20s and dressed smartly in the fashions of the time.
Later pictures show b’nai mitzvah celebrations, a weekend in the mountains, backyard and dinner parties and a vacation in Florida.
Janet Thieberger, a lifelong member of the club, spoke fondly of its roots and the friendships she has enjoyed with her fellow club members throughout the years.
“It all started when we were 7 or 8 years old,” Thieberger told LocalSource in a phone interview. “Pauline invited a group of Jewish girls over to play with her daughter. We went there to play every Friday for years.”
Thieberger said that Levin served as a role model for the girls. “She inculcated the feeling of charity in us,” Thieberger said. “We were the Jewish version of the Girl Scouts.”
According to Thieberger, the club raised money for charities by putting on shows. “At one show, we sang, ‘Little Old Lady Passing By,’” she said, citing a popular song from the ’30s. “We kept meeting and we’ve been meeting since that day for 80 years.”
Club member Bette Hammer London recalled the early days of the club with fondness, saying, “It was a very enriching time of my life.”
London said that when she moved from Hillside to Newark, she began taking the bus to the club’s weekly meetings. “Mrs. Levin was a very good teacher and a very good friend.”
Thieberger reminisced about the early days and the many conversations the group had during the years it met. “We all wore Shirley Temple bows — they were big taffeta bows — in our hair,” she said. “When we were teenagers, we talked about boys and dating and boyfriends, and I remember how we discussed whether we wanted a black boyfriend,” Thieberger said, remembering a time when interracial relationships were taboo. “Then we talked about college, then marriage and children, and what we should have for dinner and what we should give our kids for lunch. Then we talked about grandchildren.”
In a phone interview, Jacoby Cohn recalled some of the many memories from the early days, saying, “We grew up in Hillside, and there were very few Jewish kids and families. There was a synagogue, but the Brownie Troop was held at a Presbyterian church, and my mother felt that we would not be welcome.”
Jacoby Cohn said her mother was very active in charity work, including her work with children suffering from rheumatic fever, and the group would regularly visit a home for children in West Orange suffering from the illness.
According to Jacoby Cohn, her mother kept the group together for many years. “My mother really kept us together through high school,” she said.
And throughout college and beyond, the group got together regularly, she said, attending “each other’s weddings, holiday celebrations, and (children’s) bar and bat mitzvahs.”
She said her mother nurtured the group and helped grow their characters. “This has changed us,” said Jacoby Cohn. “It has made us very confident ladies. That was an important part of our young married lives for each of us in one way or the other. We were very active in organizations, and we are still very active in our synagogues.”
According to Thieberger, all the club’s members went on to enjoy satisfying careers. “One became a lawyer, one owned a stamp-collecting business, so we’ve all done interesting things.”
Members of the club, which was renamed the Pauline Levin Memorial Club after Levin’s death, have been there for one another through good times and bad, according to Jacoby Cohn.
“Some have lost children and spouses, and we lost four members to death,” said Jacoby Cohn. “We’ve been there for each other. It is a very special relationship. It’s very unusual.”
London said the club still meets regularly: “We do our own individual charity giving now. We meet about once a month and discuss things like books, theater and, of course, our families.”
The special relationship the group members share has impacted the next generation and beyond. According to Laurie Jacoby, Jacoby Cohn’s daughter and Levin’s granddaughter, the example set by the group has inspired her in her own life.
“That was my model of friendship growing up,” Jacoby told LocalSource in a phone call.
The club has been like a second family. “We were like sisters and we are like sisters,” Thieberger said, adding, “We share our hopes and our joys and our sorrows. We talk about grandchildren and books that we’ve read. It’s a very caring group. We know if something happens, we’re there for each other.”