Mapping the evolution of the Queens Jewish community

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In central Queens, they are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, central Asia and Israel. In western Queens, they are rent-refugees from Manhattan seeking a like-minded community. In northeastern Queens they form a large senior population.

"The Changing Face of Queens Jews" was the title of a series of panel discussions organized by the Queens Jewish Agencies Coalition, an umbrella organization representing about two dozen members that monitor Jewish concerns throughout the borough. The panels discussed the changing Jewish demographics throughout Queens and focused on immigrants, senior citizens and groups seeking to create community despite differing degrees of faith.

Keynote speaker David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on Jewish People at the UJA-Federation of New York, said that since 2000 the number of Jews in Queens would have declined if not for three groups keeping the population strong.

"If one adds up the various groups — the Bukharians, the Israelis, the European Russians, the Orthodox, the 'new immigrants' from the rest of New York — one accounts for around 66 to 75 percent of the current community," he said. "Israelis continue to come to the United States and have kids. The Orthodox community has a higher birthrate than the community as a whole, and Bukharian Jews are continuing to come in, often from Israel, and they are also having children."

The Bukharians, whose roots are in several former Soviet republics, are among central Queens' fastest growing and most visible groups, but as new arrivals they struggle to adapt without betraying their roots.

"What makes us unique is Bukharian Jews love to live near one another, to have this community of four, five generations living together," said Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov of Congregation Kehilat Sephardim of Ahavat Achim in Kew Gardens Hills. "The challenge for us is how to keep our Bukharian identity, because we're not going back to the Soviet Union."

The struggle to keep an identity and form a community motivated Abby Drucker and Eileen Pentel to found the Jackson Heights Hevrah, a laymen's congregation. Both moved to Jackson Heights after being priced out of other parts of the city such as the Upper West Side, but the existing congregations did not feel like home for various reasons.

"Some of us missed the chance to directly and actively interact in the community as Jews. We wanted to form a service that was egalitarian. I'm a card-carrying member of the National Organization of Women, and I'm not going to take second seat to anyone," Pentel said, referring to more conservative groups where men and women worship separately.

In northeast Queens, the population of Ashkenazi European Jews is both the oldest and longest established in the borough, and the Samuel Field Y has worked to allow the seniors from this group to live independently as long as possible.

"The housing stock in northeast Queens is small, predominantly garden apartments," said Steve Goodman, the Samuel Field Y executive vice president and CEO. "So we worked with the largest garden apartments we could find, in Glen Oaks, to develop a variance so [resident seniors] could expand up if they lived on the first floor or down if they lived on the second floor, to create extra bedrooms" or handicapped accessibility.

Posted 6:40 pm, October 10, 2011
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