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The turning point for Rothenberg was producing John Herbert’s play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” a brutally frank account of prison life. The show and especially its talk-back sessions brought many former prisoners into the theater, where Rothenberg encountered them for the first time. In short order, his Times Square office became the makeshift headquarters for ex-cons in need of a host of services that were unavailable anywhere else. Rothenberg forged the Fortune Society to help fill the chasm.
“I knew nothing about crime or prisoners,” he said. “I met them through the play I produced. It was the ’60s, and everyone was nice to everyone, and I found that people couldn’t get jobs, licenses or housing because they were prisoners, and that just seemed unfair.”
Rothenberg became such a well-known advocate for prisoners that he was called in to negotiate during the Attica riots. “I was the only negotiator introduced with theater credits,” he said.
On a cold Thursday night in spring, Rothenberg was greeting current residents and successful alumni who routinely visit The Castle, the Gothic structure on 140th Street on Riverside Drive that at one time housed a yeshiva. Pleasantries were exchanged, and bear hugs administered.
The Castle is the only operation of its kind in the country: clean, cheerful and largely run by former convicts who serve as administrators and counselors. An array of services is provided, including education, job training and therapy.
“Two-thirds of former prisoners return to prison,” Rothenberg said. “Among those who come through The Castle, it’s 10%. We have 62 beds, and hundreds wanting to get in. We need thousands of Castles.”
Chairs scraped across the floor as the 40-plus participants seated themselves around a long conference table for their weekly meeting. The majority are African-American men, though a few Caucasians, Latinos and women were scattered throughout. New members ritualistically introduce themselves.
“I recently came out of prison, and I’m here because I want a better life,” one man proclaimed.
“Welcome home!” It’s a collective greeting, followed by a round of applause.
Rothenberg insists he never felt like an outsider with his Fortune Society friends and that he has encountered virtually no anti-Semitism. He is devoid of self-consciousness as a Jew in this setting. Case in point: He felt no personal shame, need to disassociate and or fear of anti-Semitic backlash when Joel Steinberg, an attorney who was convicted of manslaughter in the 1987 death of a 6-year-old girl whom he had adopted illegally, took up residence at The Castle.
“He had to live somewhere, and no one else would take him,” Rothenberg noted. “People were hanging up signs in their windows that said, ‘We don’t want baby-killers here,’ and it was a media circus, with TV crews outside the door and helicopters flying overhead. That’s what I was thinking about — the attention he received because it was a murder that had taken place south of 96th Street. His crime was monstrous, and I could not find anything about him that I liked. But I never thought of him as a Jew.”
Almost every encounter is a learning curve, Rothenberg said. He was not prepared for the emotional, physical and, in some instances, sexual abuse that most of the residents had endured over a lifetime. A major challenge is that many of these people have given up on themselves.
“How do you overcome a lifetime of being demonized and ridiculed?” Rothenberg asked. “One guy told me his father called him ‘s–t for brains.’ He thought that was his name. Another kid was sodomized by his stepfather from the time he was 4 until he was 13. I can’t imagine a childhood with anything more abusive than ‘Finish your peas.’”
Looking back, Rothenberg says his major regret is not having come of age in a more open-minded era. As a young gay man, he could not have been a parent. “I would have loved to have adopted a son and daughter,” he said.
Asked what he’d like as his epitaph, Rothenberg quipped: “I’m not going to have one. I’ll be cremated, and I want my ashes scattered from the roof of The Castle. I’d like someone to say ‘Enough is enough.’ I’ve had a fortunate life, though the world is not pretty and there’s a lot of sadness.
“I don’t know why religion thinks heaven is heaven on earth and that when you get to heaven you’ll see Mommy and Daddy and you’ll be a child again. Maybe they want to be children again with their parents. And they, too, would want to be children again with their parents. It would be very crowded.” He paused, and wondered aloud: “What would you do all day?”
Simi Horwitz frequently covers the cultural scene for the Forward and recently won a New York Press Club Award for Journalism in entertainment news for her 2012 Backstage story on buskers.