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Upstairs Downstairs

A Manhattan couple repairs the world—five kids at a time

Allison Hoffman
August 21, 2009
The extended Rosen-Gruss family(Martine Fougeron)

The extended Rosen-Gruss family(Martine Fougeron)

It never occurred to Michael Rosen or his wife, Leslie Gruss, to say no on the 1998 afternoon when their seven-year-old son, Ripton, asked if his new friends from the park could come over after a game of pickup baseball. After all, Rosen and Gruss had moved from the Upper East Side to Manhattan’s East Village a decade earlier, long before it was the chic thing for upper-middle-class Jews to do, long before the area’s reputation as a magnet for drug addicts and the homeless had been gentrified away. Who were they to say that their son’s new friends, unruly kids from the nearby housing projects, couldn’t come upstairs for some Gatorade and nuked mac-and-cheese?

But their “yes” was the first step toward something even those most in touch with their liberal guilt would never dream of: taking in the five boys and virtually raising them alongside their two adopted sons, Ripton and Morgan. The new additions to their penthouse apartment—Kindu Jones, Phil Medina, Carlos Suarez, Juan Robinson, and Will Torres, all toughs on the cusp of 13—didn’t know their fathers, and their mothers seemed happy to have someone else taking an interest in their children’s lives. Once they’d invited the kids in, Rosen said, he and Gruss couldn’t stomach the idea of turning them loose, with the risk that they would grow into hardened young men their own sons wouldn’t want to associate with. “Look, the Talmud talks about mipnei tikkun ha’olam, for the sake of saving, or healing, the world,” said Rosen, now 53, an academic-turned-real estate developer whose memoir about the experience, What Else But Home, has just been published by PublicAffairs. “So we wanted to try to allow these boys to escape, and not just them, but their children and grandchildren, in perpetuity—it’s not just saving one kid who ends up middle class, it’s saving all of them, forever.”

By day, the boys would play ball on the blacktop diamond downstairs, after shopping trips to for new gloves, bats, and balls; by night, they would come up to get their fill of milk and discipline, with lessons in manners and, eventually, mandatory time set aside for reading and schoolwork. “In the beginning it was Nintendo after baseball games, and a while later it became an occasional sleepover, and then it became an entire weekend, and then an entire summer,” said Gruss, an obstetrician. When she and Rosen discovered Suarez was, at 17, about to start ninth grade for the third time because of truancy, they insisted he move in and supervised his GED studies. Rosen bailed Jones out of jail after the boy was picked up for walking between subway cars—authorities claimed he had an outstanding warrant for disorderly conduct, issued on a night when he’d actually been at Gruss’s parents’ house for Shabbat dinner—and helped Torres, who had been born in the Dominican Republic, obtain citizenship.

From the start, friends worried that the boys were taking advantage of the couple’s generosity; their parents worried about the potential bad influence on their grandsons, who started dressing in baggy clothes and imitating street slang. “They and other people were saying, this is lovely, but it’s really too noisy, and they’re just here to play the games and eat the food,” Rosen said. Rosen himself writes in his book that he was anxious about the amount of money Gruss lavished on the boys, from baseball equipment and endless Chinese food deliveries to school clothes and cell phones. “Leslie buys new,” Rosen wrote in the book. “She’s not worried about money.”

Gruss, after all, grew up surrounded by maids on New York’s Upper East Side, where her grandparents were major donors to the Jewish Museum, while her parents were major benefactors of the Heschel School, a progressive Jewish day school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rosen was raised in Rutland, Vermont, where his father was an accountant; in 1968, just before his bar mitzvah, he rebelled against the turmoil of the era by turning to Orthodoxy, which included rejecting his parents’ non-kosher kitchen and becoming a synagogue youth group organizer. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he and Gruss met, Rosen eventually traded religion for ethnography, but left his job as an assistant professor at New York University in the late 1980s to develop Red Square, an apartment complex on Houston Street whose most distinctive feature is a Soviet statue of Lenin that salutes the Lower East Side from the roof.

Over the years, the boys were introduced to a world they barely knew existed—one in which education was more important than looking “splivy,” or fashionable. “It was really hard for them to be here,” Gruss said. She provided them with sex ed and bowls of condoms; Rosen would badger them about homework and drag them on trips to art museums while dispensing frequent history lessons, usually focused on slavery and bigotry. He explained that Catholics died alongside Jews in “the Halacast,” as the boys pronounced it, and that Kennedy and Roosevelt had been powerful white men but were not, in fact, Jews. Meanwhile, he and Gruss strung up Christmas lights and let them cook vegetarian rice and beans for barbecues; the boys took part in Jewish rituals and wound up fluent enough to light Hanukkah candles and accurately predict when Gruss would bake hamentaschen. Several of the boys now refer to themselves as half-Jewish, and Rosen said Jones is likelier to come with him to Saturday morning services at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue around the corner from the apartment than either of his legally adopted sons.

Both Rosen and Gruss say that by the time they realized the scale of the commitment they’d made, it was too late to turn back. “It was a very long, gradual process that really happened in the first 20 minutes,” Rosen said. Now, with most of the kids out of the house—yesterday’s preteens are now in their early 20s and all working toward college degrees, while Ripton is headed to Elon University in North Carolina in the fall—Rosen and Gruss are free to reflect. Rosen turns philosophical; for him, the accidental experiment is now a study in social dynamics, like the ones he did as a grad student, but in his own home. “I’m fascinated by love—you can hate in large numbers, like in the Holocaust, but love seems to have to exist in small numbers,” Rosen said. He equated the parental role he grew into with the older boys to the immediate sense of responsibility and love he felt the instant he first held Ripton, at a lawyer’s office, and Morgan, at a hospital in Dallas. “It’s just intimacy.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

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