The invitation to Sylvia Stroger’s 95th birthday party stated “no presents,” with the suggestion that a donation to Congregation B’nai Israel would be appreciated as an alternative. What does a 95-year-old need that she doesn’t have?
A large group of friends, family and CBI congregants gathered at the home of Sharon Hudgins, Sylvia’s daughter, on June 2 to celebrate, reminisce and congratulate a woman who is still fiercely independent, politically liberal, family-oriented and beautiful and reads the paper each day. Sylvia is a compelling woman at any age.
I made plans to meet with Sylvia, born May 21, 1922, at her home the week after the party. “Shall I call you the day before?” I asked.
“Why? I got it,” she said.
When I arrived, Sylvia was dressed with matching jewelry. A little bent and walking tentatively, she seemed organized and attentive with her rescue dog at her side. Receiving my compliment on her appearance, she smiled and said, “A bit of makeup really helps.”
She has a beautiful, neat home with books and newspapers around and with homemade cakes displayed under glass. She still cooks, bakes rugelach, coffee cake and chocolate muffins, reads novels and autobiographies, shops, pays bills, and walks her dog, though she has a cleaning lady once a week.
Asked whether she does her laundry, she said: “Well, how hard is that? The machine does the work.”
Though she recently stopped driving and needs rides to the markets, she shops herself because she knows what she likes. “Everyone is different.”
She grew up with seven siblings in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the Great Depression. Her father was an iron worker and iron works designer, and her mother was a housewife.
New York City didn’t have much iron to be worked during the Depression, so money was tight. The family moved often to take advantage of the free month of rent offered to new residents.
Sylvia’s parents came from Romania. Her mom kept a kosher home and was observant, while her dad was a declared atheist.
As times improved, Sylvia spent summers in East Nassau, a small town near Albany, N.Y. Families of women and children shared a kitchen, and each family had its own bedroom. The men came up for the weekends.
During the summer of 1937, she met Ralph Stroger, who told her brother when he first noticed her, “That is the girl I will marry.”
Their marriage would last 61 years.
Ralph lived in East Nassau on a chicken farm, which his father, a new immigrant from Russia, bought with money from the Jewish Agricultural Society instead of settling in New York City. He married, and after his wife died young, he raised five children alone in a farmhouse that dated to the Revolutionary War.
Sylvia said her father-in-law was determined that all his children would graduate from high school. When it was his daughter’s turn to attend high school, which was in the next town over, he enlisted the mailman to drive her to the train in the morning and pick her up at the station in the afternoon.
Ralph and Sylvia wed Sept. 2, 1939, just at the start of World War II in Europe.
“Life was simple, and there was not a need for lots of money,” she said. “We often used barter to purchase what we needed. Sometimes Ralph and I would take $2, a lot of money in those days, go to Albany on Saturday for a movie, some dinner, and then later that night go shopping at the kosher butcher.”
They spent nine years on the East Nassau farm, then bought their own chicken farm in Farmingdale, N.J. Several Jewish families were established in Farmingdale, raising chickens and building a Jewish community. Life was good, and people were warm and involved.
Ralph tended to most of the physical demands of the farm, and Sylvia was adept at managing the business and feeding the chickens.
Thanks to their own farm and those of their neighbors, they always had plenty of chickens, eggs, fresh vegetables, sour cream and milk when company came.
The farm did well until the chickens became ill with chickenpox, and they left it in 1959. Ralph went to work at Brockway Glass and later became a supervisor. Eventually, Sylvia, dared by her husband to get a job, used the skills she had learned in high school and in the farm business to become a payroll clerk and rose to be a payroll manager for ShopRite.
The couple retired to Florida. When Ralph became ill with congestive heart failure at the start of the new century, he wanted Sylvia to be close to daughter Hudgins in Georgia. They sold their home and drove to Georgia to start a new life in Fayetteville, but Ralph suffered a fatal heart attack the day they arrived.
Left alone in a new place, Sylvia naturally got involved with B’nai Israel, a Reform congregation where Hudgins is one of the founding members. She made friends at the synagogue, became active in the senior group and played a spirited game of mah-jongg, often winning.
Sylvia said Congregation B’nai Israel reminds her of the Jewish community in Farmingdale because it is much more than a place to pray. The small building reminds her of the Jewish community center at Peskin Lane where families helped one another, celebrated holidays and socialized.
Family is most important to Sylvia, and she keeps in touch with many family members, not just those nearby. Sylvia has been an inspiration to her family and they have also inspired and brought out a determination in her that she didn’t know she had as a quiet girl growing up in Brooklyn.
Sylvia is proudest that all her children and grandchildren are good people and graduated college. Two of her great-grandchildren also have graduated. Engineering, teaching and social work are professions the family gravitates toward.
Asked about her longevity, Sylvia said: “It is a blessing from the Man Above. I haven’t done anything special. I am an optimist, though. Sometimes I have sad feelings, but I try to just focus on my blessings and enjoy each day.”
She added, “Every retired person needs a dog. My dog, Shaina, is a rescue dog, and she keeps me going.”
At the end of our discussion, Sylvia asked whether I wanted a nosh. She wandered over to her freshly baked chocolate cupcakes, beautifully placed in silver cupcake liners, and packed me a goody bag to go.