Bios of LESJC Tour Guides and Others
Laurie Tobias Cohen, Executive Director
Laurie Tobias Cohen is a 25-year veteran in the field of Jewish Communal Service, and was appointed Executive Director of the LESJ Conservancy in 2002. She has studied and worked in the United States, as well as in Jerusalem and Edinburgh, Scotland.
Ms. Tobias Cohen recently completed the intensive Institute of Not-for-Profit Management, sponsored by New York UJA-Federation and the Columbia University School of Business. She loves the immigrant history of the Lower East Side, (and Jewish New York generally), and is grateful to be able to work with staff and Conservancy tour leaders who feel the same way, and who delight in sharing this precious history with their many visitors.
Shulamith (Shuli) Z. Berger
Shuli presently serves as Curator of Special Collections at Yeshiva University's Mendel Gottesman Library. She holds an M.S. from Columbia University's School of Library Science and an M.S. in Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University. She does freelance writing and lecturing on a variety of topics in American Jewish history. Many of her articles and lectures are based on her collection of Yiddish advertisements.
Shuli has a keen interest in the history and architecture of the Lower East Side and spent many years exploring the neighborhood before becoming a tour guide.
Barry Feldman's experiences as an educator, urban historian and museum educator have provided him with the professional skills to serve as a licensed New York City tour guide. He retired from a successful career as a school district administrator, having served as Deputy Superintendent of Schools in Brooklyn.
Barry created two Conservancy tours, O! Multitudes I and II, which trace the social history of housing on the Lower East Side from the late 18th century to the present.
His broad knowledge of immigrant and housing history and the history of the Lower East Side, his rich tour narrative and sense of humor make his tours informative and entertaining. His areas of specialization include the social history of housing, immigration, and Ellis Island, and the social history and ethnography of American Jews beginning with the colonial period. Mr. Feldman views cultural, social and religious institutions as interpretive texts of neighborhoods. He lives on the Upper East Side but is frequently downtown, walking the streets, keeping current on the many changes of the dynamic Lower East Side.
Sarah Gurwitz is a native New Yorker who grew up on Long Island and The Bronx. She worked for most of her life in Manhattan, and has always been fascinated by the Lower East Side. In her youth, it was the place to buy clothes, eat dairy, and learn about her "roots.” Through high school and college, she enjoyed returning to the Lower East Side after being away from “the city.”
Sarah chose to learn more about the Lower East Side and became a tour leader after leaving the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she served as in-house Human Resource Consultant for the Under Secretary of Health. She also founded a consulting firm that provides Human Resource services including organizational assessment, staff development, training, and individual performance coaching. Sarah serves as a volunteer for the STAR Synagogue Consultation project.
On every tour she leads, she is proud to share her interest in the culture and history of New York with visitors who want to learn more about the architectural treasures of the Lower East Side.
Joyce Mendelsohn, educator, historian and writer, is widely known for her walking tours and lectures on topics related to New York City’s history. She developed the tour leader training program for the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, created curricula for the guides, and does regular in-service training. She also served as the first Director of Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. As the Education Consultant for the Historic House Trust of New York City, she was the Trust liaison for several Teaching American History grants from the United States Department of Education to the New York City Department of Education and Gotham Center for New York City History/CUNY Graduate Center.
Among Ms. Mendelsohn’s publications are: The Lower East Side, Remembered & Revisited—History and Guide to a Legendary New York Neighborhood (Lower East Side Press, 2001, second edition to be published in 2009 by Columbia University Press); Touring the Flatiron: Walks in Four Historic Neighborhoods (New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1998); 1973-1998: 25 Years of Preserving New York (New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1998). She has also contributed to The Encyclopedia of New York City, Kenneth Jackson, editor (Yale University Press, 1993); and A Biographical Dictionary of African-American Architects, 1865-1945. Ed. D. Wilson. (Rutledge Press, 2004).
Elissa Sampson has extensive knowledge of the history of the Lower East Side’s synagogues. She is a long-time resident of the Lower East Side and tour leader, with close relationships to many synagogues. Like her parents who worked or grew up on the Lower East Side, Elissa has always had a special attraction to this neighborhood. With her husband, Professor Jonathan Boyarin, a well-known Jewish anthropologist and ethnographer, they have raised their children to love the Lower East Side and its traditions.
Elissa has contributed to designing tours that the Conservancy offers and is always interested in discovering what visitors and residents would like to learn about the historic and living communities of the Lower East Side/East Village.
In 2008, Elissa was instrumental in spearheading the preservation and restoration of Stanton Street Shul's Mazalot. Download the presentation We’ve Got Mazel to see this project. Then join us on our walking tours to see the incredible results!
Benjamin Waldman, who originally hails from Teaneck, New Jersey, lives on the Upper West Side. He is a student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Jewish Law, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in American History from Columbia University. He has conducted extensive research on New York City history, including studying under New York City historian Kenneth Jackson. Mr. Waldman also has extensive knowledge of American Jewish History, with a specialty in Hollywood and its use of propaganda.
His interest in the Lower East Side stems from his general interest in American, and New York City history, and from researching his relatives who resided for a time on the Lower East Side.
Mr. Waldman utilizes the experience he gained from working in informal education, and from developing New York City walking tours to make each tour a unique experience.
Mel Wasserman has enjoyed the excitement of New York City throughout his entire life. After retiring from the position of Chief Traffic Engineer for the Port Authority in May 2007, he began sharing that excitement with visitors and tourists by leading walking tours around one of his favorite areas of the city, the Lower East Side. Mel’s parents and close relatives grew up on the Lower East Side and the vivid stories they told come to life when walking the streets of this historic neighborhood.
He was born and grew up in The Bronx, and attended The Cooper Union and Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Mel is a licensed Professional Engineer and a Certified Professional Traffic Operations Engineer.
Mel is a survivor of both the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, after which he worked on cleanup and redevelopment. He is a docent and tour guide at The Tribute Center, sharing his knowledge and experiences at the World Trade Center site.
Lori Weissman, unlike her husband Paul (a guide with the LESJC), is not from the Lower East Side, but is pleased to have married into the community and is happy to call it home.
Growing up in Huntington Station on Long Island, Lori went to The State University of New York’s College at Oswego. After graduation in 1979, she moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For 9 years, she was employed as a pharmaceutical representative by Syntex Laboratories, specializing in hospital sales. After the birth of her daughter, Alanna, in 1992, Lori became a stay-at-home mom for 13 years. Her re-introduction to the workforce occurred in 2003, when she became one of the original guides trained by historian Joyce Mendelsohn.
Thrilled with the new insight and knowledge of her adopted home, Lori loved giving tours, and was extremely proud of the rich history right at her doorstep. The Conservancy made her more than just a guide by hiring her as the Coordinator of Marketing in 2006. She currently serves as Director of Touring.
Paul Weissman is a second generation Lower East Sider. He moved with his parents to the Seward Park co-ops when they opened in 1960.
After graduating from Queens College in 1969, he returned to the Lower East Side to teach at Junior High School #56, the same junior high school that he attended. He retired after 32 years of teaching and is presently working for the Gruss Life Monument Funds, which furthers science and math education in Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivas.
An accomplished photographer whose black and white documentary work showcases the Lower East Side of the late 1970s and early 1980s, he has exhibited at the Camera Club of New York and other venues.
Paul is proud that his daughter, a third generation Lower East Sider, lives in what is now the hottest neighborhood in Manhattan. As one of the original guides trained by Joyce Mendelsohn, Paul enjoys sharing knowledge of his beloved community with visitors.
Jai R. Zion
Jai is an artist who creates paintings, sculptures, and mosaics. He is a history enthusiast who has researched the Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He and his wife Shulamith (Shuli), a tour guide with the LESJC, are writing a book about a Jewish luxury hotel that stood briefly on the Lower East Side before it succumbed to a 1920s mortgage fraud, similar to the schemes rocking the real estate market today. They created the tour, “The Jewish Community of Colonial New York” for the Conservancy. They also lead tours together.
Prior to becoming a tour guide, Jai developed a unique perspective on tenement life during the eight years he spent working for the FDNY as an Emergency Medical Technician. In that capacity, he frequently entered tenements to treat patients. Many of his patients lived in small, cramped apartments with their extended families. He heard stories from his grandmother, who lived with her extended family in a small tenement apartment nearly a century ago. He was amazed to discover immigrant families today living in similar conditions. Jai uses a story-telling style and personal anecdotes to engage his tour participants, as he paints a picture of how little life has changed for the residents of what is still a vibrant immigrant community.