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Judy Lerner, 101, Lifelong Activist

Thu, 03/16/2023 - 08:46

Jan. 12, 1922 - Feb. 28, 2023

Judy Lerner had a 30-year career in education, “but as devoted as she was to her profession and the many children she helped learn to read, it was her passion for social justice and human rights that in many ways shaped her adult life,” said her son David Lerner.

Ms. Lerner, who died at home in East Hampton on Feb. 28 at the age of 101, was part of “an extraordinary generation of women who were in many ways the forebears of the contemporary women’s movement as well as the progenitors of the modern peace movement in this country,” he wrote.

It was as an undergraduate at Hunter College that she met her mentor and lifelong friend, the late Congresswoman Bella Abzug. Ms. Abzug introduced her to Women’s Strike for Peace, a groundbreaking group formed to oppose nuclear testing that was also known, Mr. Lerner said, for its “strategy of bringing middle-class housewives to the cause of peace.”

She later played a significant role in Ms. Abzug’s campaigns for Congress and the Senate. In a 1999 article in The New York Times, Ms. Lerner recalled their early friendship: “She taught me how to lobby and how to put on eye makeup.”

In the summer of 1964, “Freedom Summer,” she and her husband, Irving, opened their home to six young civil rights activists from the Deep South, who were looking for a break and support for their cause. Hate mail and threats ensued, but it only “deepened their support for racial justice,” her son said.

In 1971, Ms. Lerner went to Vietnam to meet with local leaders as part of a peace delegation. She was a regular presence at rallies, demonstrations, and political meetings, served as a Democratic Party district leader, and hosted fund-raisers for causes ranging from poverty in Appalachia and abortion rights to environmental issues and the nuclear freeze movement. Again and again, she offered her house as a place of refuge for people whose causes she supported, including conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War who had been “prosecuted and jailed for burning their draft cards and Catholic priests whose opposition to that war brought down the institutional weight of the Church upon them,” Mr. Lerner wrote.

While she was often occupied with serious matters, Ms. Lerner was also a celebrated hostess. Her guest lists “included some of the era’s most influential figures,” among them her close friends William M. Kunstler, the radical lawyer; the economist Paul M. Sweezy, the literary critic Maxwell Geismar, Lorraine and Max Gordon, proprietors of the Village Vanguard, and Ms. Abzug. “More than the highbrow conversation and rigorous debates, it was the Broadway hits sing-along around the piano that gave her the most pleasure,” her son recalled.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Ms. Lerner to the Continuing Committee of the National Women’s Conference. She also participated in all the United Nations women’s meetings in Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing; served as president of Women of Westchester, and hosted a local cable show called “Speaking of Women.”

She became deeply involved in the nuclear freeze movement and later the nonprofit Peace Action, for many years volunteering at its U.N. affiliate and serving as chairwoman of its international committee. She also served on the board of directors of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a social justice organization co-founded by Mr. Kunstler. In 1999 she joined the group in protesting the mistaken-identity police killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, in the Bronx, and was arrested for her efforts.

In 2003 she took part in a women’s rights conferences in Kabul, Afghanistan, and in 2004, when she was 83, she traveled with a peace delegation to Israel and Palestine.

Ms. Lerner was born in the Bronx on Jan. 12, 1922, to immigrant parents. Her father, Morris Koller, was a tailor from Austria; her mother, Sarah Garber, was a seamstress from Russia. Their daughter spoke only Yiddish until she was 7. She attended public schools, graduating from Evander Childs High School in 1939 and going on to earn her bachelor’s degree at Hunter and a master’s from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

For 30 years she was a special-education teacher and reading specialist in the Hastings-on-Hudson public school system, where she led the teachers union for several years and introduced “a green curriculum, before it became vogue,” her family said.

In 1948, she married Irving Lerner, who ran a women’s clothing store on Fordham Road in the Bronx. He died in 1991. They lived for many years in Harrison, N.Y., and visited the South Fork as renters in the summers. A few years after her husband’s death, she built a house in East Hampton and moved here permanently.

She is survived by her children, Martin Lerner of Queens and Roxbury, N.Y., David Lerner of East Hampton and the Bronx, and Mary Beth Lerner of Ashton, Md., and by six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A memorial is planned in East Hampton this spring.

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