Bernice Gottlieb: Finding Homes

A good realtor can find you a house but a great realtor like Hamilton Realtors can find you a home. For hundreds of foreign-born orphaned children, there are few greater “realtors” in this world than Bernice Gottlieb, an individual who has spent years breaking down foreign and domestic obstacles in order to find children caring and loving homes in America.

In 1969, Bernice, who is now Principal Broker and founder of Hudson Shores Realtors, and her husband Ferdinand, adopted a daughter from South Korea.

Bernice in 1976 with Father Lee and seven of the eight children.

Though the process was anything but smooth, facing resistance on the county level, the Gottliebs were successful in bringing their little girl home. What may seem like a simple happy ending was only the beginning of a most unusual adventure.

The Gottliebs’ successful child adoption of Susannah caught the attention of many other Westchester families looking to adopt children from abroad. Bernice then started finding families for a number of handicapped children. Her work also caught the attention of a South Korean priest, Father Alexander Lee.

Fr. Lee, the administrator of a leprosy re-settlement village in Anyang Province, South Korea, approached Bernice and asked how she was able to successfully bring older and handicapped children into the United States for child adoption from Vietnam and South Korea. He knew that most adoptive parents preferred infants.

He told Bernice that South Korea, like many other nations at the time, had established leprosy villages where individuals with the disease were separated from the rest of the population out of fear. Even though leprosy (which is actually known as Hansen’s Disease) is the least contagious of all diseases and drugs can completely arrest the disease at any stage, the stigma is worse than the disease itself, Lee recognized. He felt that if Bernice could find adoptive parents for a small group of eight healthy children from St. Lazarus Village, and if the United States health authorities would permit their entry, the Korean Government would be more pro-active in allowing these children to enjoy their basic civil liberties such as attending public schools in their own country.

Not knowing anything about the disease, in 1973, Bernice applied for a course on leprosy that was available to Christian missionaries. A total of forty-five missionaries from all over the world were accepted annually to study at a leprosy facility in Carville, Louisiana under the auspices of the Baptist Church. Bernice was an odd applicant as a housewife and mother of three from Westchester County, but finally pled her case and was accepted.

The group of eight children from infancy to fourteen years of age waited four years and it took four separate Acts of Congress before they arrived on American soil, thanks to Senator Jacob Javits and Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr. sponsors of the bills. Bernice made 48 trips to Washington, testified before the Immigration Sub-Committees of both Houses of Congress, and this past October the eight “children” (now married and with children of their own) celebrated the 30th anniversary of their arrival together with the Gottliebs in Dobbs Ferry.

In 1998 Bernice was a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for her efforts on behalf of the children of St. Lazarus.

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About the Author: David Jacobsen Jr.