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Bernice Gross Altarac, a Long Beach fixture, dies at 99

Bernice Gross Altarac was a 1937 graduate of

Bernice Gross Altarac was a 1937 graduate of Long Beach High School. Credit: Family photo

Rochelle Altarac Pachman recalled how she'd go shopping with her mother, Bernice Gross Altarac, on Park Avenue in Long Beach and how her mom would see a familiar face and say, “‘See her? I taught the mother, I taught the daughter.’ Some families, she'd taught three generations,” she said.

If you went to elementary school in Long Beach anytime from the 1940s into the ’70s, chances are you had Bernice Gross Altarac as your teacher in the fourth or fifth grade.

Actor Billy Crystal did, back at the old East Elementary School; so did his brother, Richard “Rip” Crystal. Brother Joel Crystal, who went on to become the Long Beach City Council president, never was one of her mother's students, Altarac Pachman, of Commack, said this week. But hundreds of other schoolkids were.

"She was a very, very big figure in the school district, where she taught for over 40 years," Long Beach school district Board of Education president Dennis Ryan, a longtime friend of Gross Altarac, said Wednesday, adding: "She easily could have been a principal in the 1950s, but she just loved the classroom. . . . 

"She had an infectious giggle. She really enjoyed the kids. She was very commanding, but she always had a certain charm about her, a certain wisdom. The ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s were the height of experimentation in schools; new math, new reading. … She was a constant, a very steady ship," Ryan said.

Bernice Gross Altarac, a 1937 graduate of Long Beach High School, died Oct. 16 at age 99. Her daughter called her “a first lady of Long Beach.” And certainly, friends and family said this week, she had Long Beach in her blood in a way you would if you'd had a life there.

Gross Altarac was born in the Bronx on Oct. 1, 1920, one of two daughters to Jack and Bessie Gross. But her family moved to Pine Street in Long Beach when she was about 12, and from then on, hers was a love affair with the city by the sea, even after she'd married Solomon “Sol” Altarac in the early ’50s  and moved to neighboring Island Park.

In fact, during a 2001 gathering where she was honored by the Long Beach Historical Society, the Long Island Herald quoted society president Roberta Fiore saying of Gross Altarac: "Bernice is the consummate Long Beacher, even though she lives in Island Park."

Ryan said Bernice is one of the longest-lived Long Beach High School graduates, the school district having formed in 1911.

After high school, Bernice was in the first graduating class at Queens College, where she majored in French, then got her master's degree at New York University before coming home to teach at the East Elementary School in Long Beach and later at Lindell Elementary School.

But it wasn't just teaching schoolkids where Gross Altarac left her mark on Long Beach. She was a volunteer at the old Long Beach Memorial Hospital, where she was Volunteer of the Year, and was an active member of Temple Israel, where she served as Sisterhood president and became the first woman named to the temple board. She received the "Unsung Heroine" award from the League of Women Voters and also is honored on the Long Beach High School Wall of Fame.

Altarac Pachman said her mother met her father, Sol, under the guise of him needing an English tutor in 1948. Sol Altarac had fled Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia during World War II and made his way to Bari, Italy, where he lived in a displacement camp before emigrating to Long Beach. Sol and Bernice got married in 1953, and Altarac Pachman said she was an only child, born in 1962, following many miscarriages by her mother, who by then was almost 42 while Sol was 54.

By that time, Sol had set up a typesetting / printing business in Island Park. Rochelle Altarac Pachman said that after she'd married her husband, Matt Pachman, her mom would always introduce them as "my son and my daughter-in-law" — even though she was the daughter.

Sol Altarac died in 1984 at age 75, the night before he and his wife were to head out on an extended vacation, Rochelle Altarac Pachman said. Soon afterward, she said, her mother became an adjunct professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

"She was always there for everybody else," Altarac Pachman said, adding: "If someone was sick, she was the first one to bring them food. If they needed a ride, she took them where they needed to go. She was gracious and accepting. She was very accepting. She had a beautiful smile, just had a really beautiful spirit."

Following a service at Temple Israel, Gross Altarac was buried in Washington Cemetery in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, grandsons Seth and Brandon Pachman, nephew Marc Brown, niece Dodee Crossland and their children.

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