The Honorable Aida Waserstein L’73, who came to the United States as a Jewish Cuban refugee and is also a children’s book author, was recently inducted into the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame.
Former Delaware Family Court judge, the Honorable Aida Waserstein L’73 was 13 years old when she landed in Miami from her homeland of Cuba – alone.
This was in 1961, two months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to oust Fidel Castro.
Last fall, 61 years later, Judge Waserstein stood in the spotlight for her induction into the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame, joining a class of six other extraordinary women. Established in 1981, the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame recognizes “the achievements of outstanding Delaware women and their contributions to communities across the state.”
With the refugee experience never far from her heart, Judge Waserstein seized the moment to counsel the younger generation to embrace the other.
“I challenge young people to take advantage of diversity by learning new languages, meeting new people from different parts of the world,” Judge Waserstein said at the ceremony where she was honored for her 21 years of service on the Delaware Family Court.
How she got there reads like a novella.
Judge Waserstein’s Early Years
She endured the death of her mother at 11 years of age; fled her home to escape potential danger and hardship, just like her parents had done; spent her teenage years cut off from her surviving parent; and grew up to become a respected lawyer and judge.
Cuba is but 103 nautical miles from the United States, but Judge Waserstein has traveled much farther than that in her life and career.
Judge Waserstein grew up in a middle-class family in Cuba. She attended a Jewish Day School and took piano lessons – just another well-adjusted child with excellent grades.
Beneath the surface, though, there were life lessons in her family history. Her parents met in Cuba after experiencing epochal events in world history. Judge Waserstein’s father fled Poland two years before the Nazi blitzkrieg; her mother left Russia with her family a few years after the Bolshevik revolution.
That’s why, when communism swept Cuba, her father was concerned. Amid talk of a civil war, rumors swirled about a mysterious plan to relocate children, according to Judge Waserstein. Her father was forbidden to leave at the time, but, worried about his daughter’s welfare, put her on a plane to the United States. She migrated without much warning, carrying a small suitcase with a piece of costume jewelry, her school diploma, and some clothes.
“I was traumatized by the whole thing,” Judge Waserstein said, alluding to separation anxiety and the adjustment to a different culture.
At that time, she did not speak English and did not have access to relatives in New York. She was by herself until her brother came to the United States two months later. (Her father emigrated in 1965 and settled in Florida.) Within a couple of weeks in the United States, she was sent to a foster home in Pennsylvania – the second of three over six years.
The Law School’s Influence
Despite a raft of challenges, Judge Waserstein counted her blessings during her Hall of Fame remarks.
“I was blessed by many opportunities, by the helping hands that so many people extended to me over the years.”
Among those opportunities, Judge Waserstein attended the Law School at Penn after graduating, on a scholarship, from Bryn Mawr College. She initially wanted to be a social worker but changed her mind after an internship, when she decided that the law would be a better vehicle to help people.
In law school, Judge Waserstein said she was immediately drawn to Professor Edward Sparer, a pioneer in the use of the law to create social change and alleviate poverty. After his passing, the Law School established the annual Edward V. Sparer Symposium which addresses current social justice issues.
Judge Waserstein said she took classes with Sparer, including one in which students wrote papers describing what their lives would be like on welfare. He later became a mentor to her, she said.
“Ed Sparer was instrumental in shaping the kind of lawyer that I wanted to be,” Judge Waserstein said. “He showed me that it was possible to use the law to help those who are disenfranchised in our society. He was a creative thinker who developed a whole new area of law, and yet was down to earth as a person. I really liked and respected him.”
Building a Public Service Legacy
After law school, Judge Waserstein joined the Community Legal Aid Society in Wilmington, Delaware, where she negotiated the state’s first bilingual program in the public school system and argued the remedy stage of a New Castle County desegregation case. She moved on to the Education Law Center in Philadelphia and later founded her own law firm, Waserstein and Demsey.
In the mid-1990s, after passing up applying for job openings on the bench, she was appointed to the Delaware Family Court. She had a particular interest in custody cases.
“I had to understand what the people were telling me, how they viewed the situation and what they thought was a fair outcome,” Judge Waserstein said. “A lot of the time I took what both sides were telling me, and I came out somewhere in the middle.”
It also helped, she said, that she spoke Spanish as well as English, which gave her the tools to understand immigrants and how they viewed the world.
The Honorable Barbara Crowell L’80 was a judge on the Delaware Family Court for 23 years, mostly concurrent with Judge Waserstein’s service. Their chambers were next to each other, and Judge Crowell got to know Judge Waserstein.
“She was very concerned about the families,” Judge Crowell said. “She would write very detailed custody decisions to really encourage the parents to amicably handle their relationship with the children.”
Transition to Children’s Book Author
Judge Waserstein’s concern for children has remained a constant in her life. Since retiring from the bench in 2017, she has published three children’s books: My Name is Aida (translated into Spanish), Amelia Finds Her Voice: A Custody Story, and Joey’s Buddy: A Foster Care Story.
What started as a tribute to her granddaughters turned into a new vocation. Judge Waserstein took creative writing classes and formed her own publishing company, Escritora, which means female writer in English. She also hired illustrators.
All of her books draw on her experiences both as a judge and as a girl cast into a new country and into a succession of different families.
She is now working on a new book that she hopes to release in six to eight months. Titled Motema’s Feast, the story revolves around three children, two of whom are refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who learn about gratitude from their teacher, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
As Judge Waserstein told Delaware Governor John Carney and assembled guests at the Hall of Fame gathering: “We are all stronger when we welcome people of other backgrounds with distinct languages, skills, talents, and worldviews. The result is fresh outlooks and innovative ideas that nourish our society and makes us better people with deeper fountains of caring and understanding.”
Learn more about the Law School’s community dedicated to public service.