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Prizewinning Robotics Team in St. Catharine Academy

“Why do we put a round pizza in a square box?” Sheree Petrignani asked her third period robotics competition class at St. Catharine Academy in the Bronx. It was the fourth morning back in school after summer break and ten girls sat still, uniformed half in skirts, half in pants, until Petrignani rephrased the question. “Why fit something circular into something square?”

Petrignani and the young roboticists, a collection of builders, programmers, designers, mechanics, electricians, and drivers, eased into the morning with engineering fundamentals. They admired the scalene sides of one classmate’s re-designed paperclip projected with a document camera called Elmo onto a large white screen at the front of the classroom. Petrignani tossed around words like diode, voltage, magnets, circulation, and scrap metal.

Last year, Petrignani’s roboticists qualified to the quarterfinals and won the Judges Award at States for their engineering notebook at the National VEX Robotics tournament, a competition between 100,000 robotics teams. Petrignani aspires to make nationals at the upcoming tournament in April 2017, a particularly challenging goal. All-girls teams and teams with female coaches are far and few between at the VEX robotics competition, she said.


Student built robot on display in the robotics classroom at St. Catharine Academy

St. Catharine Academy originally opened in Washington Heights in 1889 but settled in Pelham Parkway in 1953, where it’s still located today. Sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community, the not-for-profit catholic school encourages STEM and science classwork for the students, the majority of whom are Hispanic. The school website lists a 100% college acceptance rate from the 2016 graduating class, and of the 550 girls enrolled, 95% of them are from the Bronx. According to Petrignani, the secret to St Catharine’s success is the leadership of principal Ann M. Welch, whom she described as “hip.” Sister Welch attributed this reputation to her background in science.

“We’re the only school around that has a designated robotics class, not just a club,” said Petrignani. The class lost their “quarterback, cornerback, and wide receiver,” to public school and a move out of the city last year, so the classroom hours are especially critical if Petrignani is to take her team all the way to nationals. Without the three heavy hitters, she’s determined to whip the team into shape. “We need deviant programs to outsmart the boys.” Leading up to the big event next spring are scrimmages in January, regionals in February, and states in March.

The robotics classroom itself is more like a college level lab with a variety of sophisticated tools, Legos, and machines, including a 3D printer. Robots, a motorized Ferris wheel, solar submarines, and a replicate Big Ben fill the space. Hydraulics and three-gear chains will be incorporated for the parent-house later this fall.

Ferris Wheel

A motorized Ferris Wheel in the robotics lab at St. Catharine Academy

“I was in book-club, but it wasn’t interesting for me,” said 16-year-old Tathy Mercedes, who Petrignani described as “addicted to building.” Mercedes dedicated herself to robotics, learning the basics first before joining the competition class. “You know when you get the right vibe?” she explained.

It’s not easy to join the competition class. Petrignani teaches three sections of robotics and also teaches physics, college algebra, calculus, and architecture. She’s been working at St Catharine’s Academy for four years, having previously taught at St. Pius V High School in the South Bronx, which closed in 2011. In the robotics program she’s built up at St. Catharine’s, Petrignani begins with a summer intensive for incoming freshman to spark interest and scout potentials. She’ll then categorize the budding roboticists as mechanics or programmers based on their natural talent. “I’ll observe and give them challenges to see where they’ll go,” she said.

“I thought it was complicated at first, but it’s really not,” said programmer Cheyenne Tobar, 16. Tobar, whose father is an engineer, plans to stick with robotics because of the bonds she’s formed with her teammates. “When we build together, it’s like building a house together,” she said. “Even if we take it down when something goes wrong, it’s worth the feeling of accomplishment when we finally get it done.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education1 Comment

Sally Schulman: One of the Last Holocaust Survivors in the Bronx

It’s more difficult than it used to be for Sally Schulman, 93, one of the few Holocaust survivors left in the Pelham Parkway area of the Northeast Bronx, to observe the Sabbath.

If it rains on Saturday, the pavement becomes too slippery for her to walk the five minutes from her apartment to the Sons of Israel Congregation down the block. Schulman recently had open-heart surgery and needs a walker and caregiver to accompany her. Hailing a cab is not an option, because driving on Shabbat is prohibited.

During the day, two caregivers cycle in and out. Still, early morning services at the orthodox synagogue often begin before help arrives. But on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and Sabbath of all Sabbaths, Schulman was allotted one caregiver to spend the full day with her in temple. “We stayed from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I prayed,” she said.

The following afternoon, Schulman rested at her kitchen table, smoothing the wrinkles in an embroidered white tablecloth. A 23-year-old home care aide checked the freshness of noodles in a plastic container from the fridge and decided they hadn’t gone bad. She mixed leftover meat sauce with the cold noodles in a saucepan, and headed for the door. Placing meat in a dairy pan breaks the rules of Kosher. Annoyed, Schulman discovered the offense 20 minutes later and rummaged through her cabinet looking for the appropriate kosher pot.

Observing Kosher and the strict rules of the Sabbath is harder than ever for Schulman, especially since she’s nearly alone. The Allerton neighborhood in Pelham was once a thriving Jewish community and destination spot for European Jews fleeing the horrors of World War II.

“A lot of survivors are mad at God,” said Schulman, who lived in the Jewish ghetto in her Polish village after the Soviet Invasion in 1939. “But I promised myself that I’d still believe, if I survived. I promised myself that I’d observe like my parents observed.”

In 1923, there were 3,000 Jews living in Pelham Parkway, according to a 1959 study by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. After the war in 1950, the number of Jews in Pelham Parkway skyrocketed to 59,000. During that time, synagogues, kosher delis and restaurants populated the blocks. Today, one kosher market and a handful of Synagogues remain in the neighborhoods bordering Schulman’s apartment. In 2011, the Jewish Community Study of New York reported that only 18,300 Jews were left in Community Board 11, which encompasses nearly the entire Northeast Bronx, including Pelham Parkway, Allerton, Morris Park, Pelham Gardens, Parkchester, Baychester, and Williamsbridge.

“The elderly moved to Florida, and the young people don’t like the Bronx anymore,” Schulman said. She has lived in the Bronx for most of her adult life, since first arriving from Europe at age 26 in 1949.

Sally Bardach was born in 1923 in a small Polish town that no longer exists called Peremyshlyay, located in what is now considered western Ukraine. Sally remembered the leather and shoe store her parents owned and the school lessons with classmates. “I had a happy life then,” she said. But in 1939, when she was 16 years old, she began to notice a shift. “I didn’t understand discrimination, but I felt the change in 1939. People began to think that the Jews controlled everything. We didn’t know what was happening.”

After Soviet troops invaded the town, Sally’s family was rounded up in a Jewish ghetto. “We worked in the ghetto,” she said. “We built roads. It was very hard work.” Her parents and her four younger siblings were all together in the ghetto until German soldiers arrived in 1941. That’s when men aged 50 to 60, including Sally’s father, were taken to a gymnasium in the middle of the town. Ukrainian police and SS soldiers gave each of the 500 men a shovel and instructed them to dig one grave. “As soon as they finished digging the grave, they shot them.”

Soon after, Sally was sent to a labor camp for women called Kurowice, but her mother and younger siblings remained in the ghetto. Most prisoners in Kurowice died from overwork, starvation, disease, and systematic murder, but a handful of women survived.

During one weekend, the camp’s Judenrat, a Jewish intermediary appointed by the camp to help govern the prisoners, escorted Sally back to Peremyshlyay, claiming that she earned a weekend visit with her family. Once she arrived, she found the ghetto completely liquidated and a state of Judenrein ‑ free of Jews ‑ had been declared. Her mother had been killed, but her three brothers — Benjamin, Shaul, and Mochele — had escaped and were hiding in the forest, while a shepherd in the countryside was hiding their sister Bella. Sally managed to flee from Kurowice’s Judenrat to find her brothers.

For the next year and a half, Sally and her brothers survived in the woods. “The winter was the worst to lay in the pits,” she said. At one point, they built a bunker underground, making a small opening in a local church garden for air.

Sally recalled how her middle brother coincidentally reunited with their sister Bella in the woods after she’d been hiding with the shepherd for about a year. Benjamin arranged a meeting time between Bella and Sally the next night. “I never expected that I would live to see her,” said Sally. The danger of sneaking into the woods at night to see Bella “was one of the worst moments and one the best.”

Schulman relived the stress and agony as she recounted these stories from her Allerton kitchen table. Veiny red splotches formed on her cheeks. Her failing greenish eyes were glassy as she wrestled through the words.

All three of Sally’s younger brothers were killed one month before the liberation in 1944. “All in one day,” she said. Schulman and her brothers were together when they heard gunshots in the woods. “They tried to run in the opposite direction, but they landed right into the hands of the SS. The youngest were twins. They were seven. My middle brother was 15 or 16.” Sally got away.

When she spoke of one elderly shepherd who led her over a creek to safety in the outskirts of Peremyshlyay, her face softened. “He saved me,” she said.

After the war ended, Sally was detained in a “Displaced Persons” camp in Bavaria called Bad Reichenhall, which housed several thousand liberated Jews between 1945 and 1951. Her sister Bella, who survived in hiding, was also sent to the same camp. While there, Sally met Joseph Schulman, a survivor from a Polish town called Podhajce in what is also now considered western Ukraine.

Sally and Joe married in an improvised ceremony in the Displaced Persons camp with 10 guests in 1946. Immediately after the service, Sally gave her blue lace wedding dress to a friend, who in turn gave it to another friend. “We all got married that same day in the same dress and white hat,” Schulman said. She said she has the photos, but was unable to find them. They are the only pictures she has from the first 26 years of her life.

“No pictures,” Schulman said, “no letters, nothing.” Briefly before she was sent to DP, Schulman saw what was left of her home. “They took everything. Even the wood from the front steps was gone.” When she boarded a boat to America with her new husband in 1949, Schulman had nothing.

Holocaust survivors Sally and Joseph Schulman as younger newlyweds living in the Bronx.

Holocaust survivors Sally and Joseph Schulman as younger newlyweds living in the Bronx.

The Schulmans fled to the Bronx because Joseph had an uncle working in real estate and offered to help arrange an apartment for them. Once they arrived, she was again reunited with her sister Bella, who caught a boat out of Europe one year earlier. A few years later in Brooklyn, Bella married Sam Stermer, also a Holocaust survivor and subject of the 2012 docudrama No Place on Earth, about a group of Jews who survived the war living in Ukrainian caves. “I was crying at my sister’s wedding because no one from my family was there,” said Schulman.

Joseph’s relatives in the Bronx counseled Schulman not to cry so much while integrating into her new Pelham Parkway community. They also advised against speaking about her past. “In the beginning, we were choking. Nobody wanted to hear,” she said.

Bella and Sam moved to Montreal, but Sally and Joseph remained in the Bronx. The couple ran a butcher shop together with Joseph’s brother Marcus from 1955 to 1990. “Schulman Brothers” on Pelham Parkway’s Lydig Avenue was closed every Shabbat. The Schulmans began to build their business, but there was lots of competition and life was not easy, Shulman said. “It was very hard. But we survivors were always looking forward.” And they relied on each other.

“Robert once said to me that we were the most devoted of couples. I loved him with all my strength,” Schulman said. Robert is Robert Leibowitz, her social worker. He works for a city contracted nonprofit agency called Selfhelp. According to its website, the organization has served Holocaust survivors in America for the last 75 years, currently operating programs and offices from 35 locations in Queens, Nassau County, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island, and the Bronx. A 15-person Board of Trustees governs the Selfhelp Community Services Foundation to promote philanthropy and collect funds to maintain programs including senior centers, affordable senior housing, home health care, and Nazi victim services.

As part of a Nazi victims services program, Leibowitz organizes a monthly Holocaust survivor support group in Pelham Parkway’s Bronx House. Hung in Schulman’s apartment is a photo of five other survivors with Schulman at an organized lunch several years ago. “They are all gone now,” said Schulman addressing at the photograph. “Except her,” she said pointing at one woman on the far left of the photo. “I think she’s still alive.” Schulman said that eight or nine survivors participate in Leibowitz’s meetings today.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany recently reported that 100,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust are alive today. To preserve a human record is why Schulman shares her memories, “until books and films are all that’s left.”

But it took 40 years of living in the Bronx before Schulman decided to speak openly. When researchers from Yale University went to Queens in 1989 to record survivor accounts, Schulman traveled to meet them and offer her testimony. Today, she has the support from Leibowitz and the survivor group meetings, but Schulman says she is still prone to nightmares. “It’s been so many years, but the pain is the same.”

After retiring and closing the butcher store, the Schulman couple volunteered together in the Jacobi Medical Center gift shop, and Sally designated time to visit and cook for sick Holocaust survivors in and out of the hospital. “All my life, I’ve tried to help,” she said.

Hung on the walls of her apartment and among framed photos on her mantel are awards and plaques from various Jewish organizations engraved with Joseph’s name. Several awards from the Educational Jewish Center, the synagogue the couple once belonged, are on display.

After Joseph died in 2010, and their synagogue closed, Schulman joined the Sons of Israel Congregation. Led by Rabbi Mosche Fuchs, the congregation consists of roughly 75 members, mostly Russian immigrants who fled communism in the 1990s. In the congregation, Schulman is the only Holocaust survivor.

Sally Schulman looks at the last photo taken of her husband, Joseph Schulman, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2010.

Sally Schulman looks at the last photo taken of her husband, Joseph Schulman, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2010.

During services, Fuchs speaks Yiddish to communicate with the attendees, though it’s unclear whether the Russians understand the language. Schulman, who speaks Yiddish, as well as Polish, Hebrew, Russian, and English, said that Fuchs offers provisions to the Russians, such as food, clothing, and money. “He helps the community,” she said. Schulman stresses the importance of community dedication. “How else can you share with people as fellow people?”

She has no family left living in the Bronx and Schulman’s closest relatives are in Connecticut and New Jersey. Her sister Bella still lives in Montreal, but she is sick with dementia. “Sometimes she talks and sometimes she is completely blacked out,” Schulman said. After 64 years of marriage, Bella’s husband Sam died this past summer. Together they have two children and six grandchildren.

“I didn’t want children because I was afraid they’d be taken from me,” Shulman said.

Today, she relies on visits from her friends’ children, two of whom recently joined Schulman for Rosh Hashanah dinner, bringing her Matzo ball soup, honey cake, and babka. She received phone calls from nieces and nephews and decorated her living room coffee table with seven New Years cards from the children of different friends.

When Joseph died, Schulman’s niece Lila Simco asked her to move to Montreal to be closer to Bella and the extended family, but Schulman wouldn’t leave the Bronx. “Not without Joe,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere. I will die in this apartment.”

On the Sunday evening before Sukkot, a celebratory holiday after the solemn Yom Kippur, a half-eaten potato kugel remained in Schulman’s kitchen. Her caregiver’s afternoon shift ended and she needed someone to light the candles because she can no longer see well enough or steady her hand to do so herself.

“I’ll say the blessing after you leave,” she said to me once the candles were lit. “Make sure you write how we survived,” she added, walking me to the door before she was left to recite the Sukkot blessings alone.

















Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured0 Comments

Women’s Film Series Draws Audiences to The Bronx Documentary Center

Outbursts from a captivated audience echoed through The Bronx Documentary Center during a film screening at the opening night Women’s Film Series in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx.

The movie was Jackson, a documentary about the only abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi and the pro-life opposition attempts to shut it down. The film premiered at the Los Angeles Film this past summer and then screened in New York at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival before it landed in the Bronx.

The Bronx Documentary Center is a non-profit gallery and exhibition space that award-winning photographer Mike Kamber opened five years ago. His mission is to spread social change through photography and film.

There are only two traditional movie theatres in the Bronx and both are megaplexes that screen Hollywood blockbusters. So when The Bronx Documentary Center, one of few alternative screening venues in the county, programmed three documentaries with director Q&As for the Women’s Film Series last month, the event was a significant one. Rarely do Bronx residents have an opportunity to see independent cinema and film festival favorites among public crowds at a local venue.

After the screening, photographer and filmmaker Maisie Crow described how she first discovered the story that would ultimately become a feature length documentary four years later. She had read a 2012 article in Jezebel, an online magazine focused on celebrities, sex, and feminism, about a state law threatening Mississippi’s only abortion clinic. Purely out of curiosity, she headed south.

After arriving in Jackson, Mississippi and successfully pitching the story to an online longform site, Atavist, Crow quickly realized a 7-minute assignment was insufficient. Competing journalists also covering the clinic in Jackson were quick to report and publish though. “News outlets would come for one day expecting to get a story, thinking they deserved to tell someone’s story,” Crow said after her screening. “But you have to spend the time to earn it.”

Crow stayed in Mississippi to follow the unfolding story between the abortion clinic, the protestors, and one 24-year-old single parent on welfare, with four children and pregnant with twins. Crow’s reporting led to the completion of a short film, The Last Clinic, in 2013, which was later nominated for an Emmy. She continued to travel to Jackson back-and-forth for four years to shoot the feature-length follow-up she titled Jackson. Today, Crow is still traveling to Mississippi to follow one subject’s story during the ongoing struggle for women’s reproductive health.

Presenting her film in a program of exclusively female films is gratifying for Crow. Until the industry begets equality, the dedicated support is welcomed. “That we have these ‘women in film’ series is the reality we’re in, and it’s just great to have groups who care about advancing women in documentary and journalism,” Crow said.

The Women’s Film Series continued at the Bronx Documentary Center with The Wolfpack by Crystal Moselle and A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers by Greta Gandbhir.

For more information on events and programs at the Bronx Documentary Center, visit

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

Legal Battle in District 10

The superintendent of District 10, Melodie Mashel, has resigned after being accused of colluding with state Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz in an effort to screen minority and low-income Kindergartners out of Riverdale, the Daily News reports.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

New Apartment Complex in Melrose

On Wednesday, September 7th, NY1 reported that Mayor Bill de Blasio and local councilman Rafael Salamanca have finally signed off on the construction of a 1,000-unit apartment building in the Melrose section of the Bronx.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

When the Bronx was Burning, the Pornos were Booming

Flashback to the 1970’s and the glory days of independent movie theatres in the Bronx. Film projectionist Bob Endres takes us back to the Globe Theatre in Pelham Parkway and remembers the theatre’s lurid lost legacy.

Posted in Culture, East Bronx, Featured, Front Page, Multimedia0 Comments