Two graduates of Weequahic High School who forged a link between Jewish alumni and needy African-American students were honored May 19 with a testimonial dinner at Newark’s Robert Treat Hotel.
The Weequahic High School Alumni Association honored cofounders Hal Braff, a 1952 graduate, and Sheldon Bross, class of 1955.
Since 1977, the association has been raising funds to finance college scholarships and other academic programs for Weequahic students. The scholarship program has served as an important link between Weequahic’s Jewish past and its transformations since the 1960s into a largely African-American neighborhood.
Paying tribute to his father, actor Zach Braff told the audience of about 250 that Hal Braff “is the only person I know in my life who sees no color. He truly does not see the difference between black people and white people. It has always boggled his mind that people weren’t giving to Weequahic because all the Jews had moved to the suburbs. He just couldn’t get his head around it.”
The younger Braff grew up in Maplewood and starred in the long-running series Scrubs.
He said his father “loves nothing in the world more than Weequahic High School. His commitment for the rest of his life is that any child who goes to Weequahic will be able to go to college.”
After accepting his award, Hal Braff told the interracial audience that “as a Jew born in 1934 in America I was as blessed as anybody could be.”
He said there was now a need to provide “opportunity for kids who are going there now for a chance at the good life which we had.”
Speaking for the association, Braff said alumni can tell current students: “If you work hard in school between the ages of 14 and 18, we will not allow a lack of funds to keep you from getting the education you need,” Braff said. “People in poverty are going to be stuck in poverty unless they get educated.”
Braff, who lives in South Orange, also urged graduates of other urban high schools to emulate the work of the Weequahic Alumni Association.
“If we can have the people in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, the suburbs of Milwaukee, the suburbs of Philadelphia, go adopt your school as we did at Weequahic High School, we can continue to enrich the culture without costing municipal government a penny,” he said.
Bross accepted his award from his sons Kevin and Michael.
“My father would definitely give you the shirt off his back if you asked him for it — but it would be a $3 polyester shirt,” joked Kevin.
Addressing his father, Michael said, “Weequahic High School and its alumni have always been a true passion for you. The people here cherish that the way Kevin and I cherish the passion you have always shown us in being a father.”
Sheldon Bross, who lives in Bloomingdale, recalled an alumni association gift that enabled Weequahic students in a French class to visit Paris. A participant, now in college, told him how visiting France “‘really made me want to do something with my life.’ We did something that really turned his life around,” said Bross. “If we can do that, we can do wonderful things.”
The evening’s keynote speaker was Alvin Attles, a 1955 graduate who played professional basketball with the San Francisco Warriors and became one of the first African-American coaches in the National Basketball Association.
“When I graduated we had seven black people in the class,” recalled Attles. “People like Hal and Sheldon and all of you here made a commitment to help our young people, and that is tremendous. I’ve traveled in and out of this country and I see the importance of education, and if you don’t give that chance to young people, it is not going to happen.”