As the final day to complete the United States census looms, the count in our area is really nothing to celebrate. The neighborhoods surrounding and including Forest Hills and Kew Gardens Hills have barely cracked the sixty-percent marker, and many still have only just crossed the halfway point. There are local portions past the three-quarters indicator, but much work remains. A major push was coordinated this past Sunday morning, September 13, to alert locals of the need to be counted.

COVID-19 has robbed our community of planned outdoor interactive outreach census events and door-to-door canvassing strategies. Ten years ago, the expanses of Forest Hills and Rego Park were notated to have been from the most undercounted in New York State. To this end, Queens Jewish Community Council executive director Cynthia Zalisky undertook Sunday’s effort, dubbed “The Neighborhood Census Caravan.” The route was staged at Assembly Member Daniel Rosenthal’s 71st Avenue’s headquarters and travelled through Kew Gardens Hills across the Jewel Avenue bridge into Forest Hills. For roughly two hours, the caravan spiraled throughout the roadways crossing into Rego Park and concluding at its neighborhood library at 63rd Drive and Austin Street. The public library has gained its own mini-fame after Council Member Karen Koslowitz announced a $38-million project to replace the existing structure, making this one of her final gestures prior to retirement. The plan is for a two-story 18,000 square foot facility to be erected in the same location, concluding in 2024.

Rosenthal took a moment to explain his involvement with the drive. “The NYC Census is crucial and the most important measure available to allocate necessary funding to our neighborhoods. Billions of dollars are at stake and local legislators’ voices are heard best when the constituents respond and fill out the census. Lots of political power is based on the census count in Congress, and at the state and local level, so it is imperative to have your voice in government; make sure you are counted. I commend the Chazaq Organization for their 2020 Census outreach and thank the QJCC for organizing this vital project.”

This, the twenty-fourth census conducted in the US, was filled with a few firsts. Residents were able to respond over the phone, online, or with the conventional paper mailed-in forms, as with previous censuses. Since the first US census conducted in 1790, census workers would canvas every street in America to verify addresses. This time around, satellite and GPS imagery were used to authenticate this data. Technology took a front and center role for census-takers as the use of smartphones and special software was developed to optimize and streamline the tasks. Next, this was the first time that government and third-party data was used to locate the best time for home visits. Finally, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic had extended Census Day from April 1 to September 30.

David Aronov, a resident of the undercounted area, is running for the City Council seat being vacated by Koslowitz. Aronov, the son of Jewish refugees, also led is the Queens Lead Organizer for the 2020 census. “As someone who has spent the last year educating individuals and families throughout Queens about what is at stake with the 2020 Census, it is important that in the home stretch we make sure Queens and the rest of NYC gets its fair share and can thrive post COVID-19,” remarked the community activist.

Many from the community joined the Sunday driving event hoping to ensure our communities get counted. Vehicles displayed signage and messaging, some reminding parents that babies can be counted too. “Kiss them, then count them,” read the posters depicting images of toddlers. Other advertisements blared the word “Count!” with an empty space allotted for caravan participants to fill in their neighborhood tagline. Some chose to list their hometown, while others proudly wrote “Dreamer,” referencing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DREAM) Act, aimed at granting legal status to young immigrants living on American soil after being brought over unlawfully by their parents.

As cars of all shapes and sizes revved up their engines along the route inviting neighbors to take notice and be counted in the census, stations were set up for neighborhood residents to inquiry further and fill out the required paperwork. One station was at the steps of Rosenthal’s office and another popped up at the YMCA facility on 108th Street in Forest Hills. At these sites, census takers made an effort to convey to residents that their immigration status bares no significance and the questions asked only seek to request how many people reside in their homes.

In recent months, Jewish organizations held raffle contests encouraging Americans to fill out the census. Met Council of Jewish Poverty spent much time and energy on this front, as well as Agudath Israel of America. These establishments also assigned teams to field queries from concerned Jews. Agudah released a series of eleven videos from leading Jewish influencers. Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of NY government relations, spearheaded this program, which included the Queens voices of Chazaq CEO Rabbi Yaniv Meirov and Amudim CEO Zvi Gluck. Others included Yad L’achim’s Rabbi Nesanel Ganz, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, and JCC of Marine Park CEO Shea Rubenstein, among others.

One interesting question that repeatedly popped up was how to fill out the question on race. Jewish families were inquiring if they could write-in their race as Jewish, or would Ashkanazi or Sephardi suffice. This notation turns out to be a matter of personal preference, as the response will not impact the funds directed towards our communities. One may answer as specific or general as preferred. Some in the area simply wrote that they are of Russian or Hungarian descent, while others opted to list Eastern European as their preferred choice. The option to pass over the question also exists. On the website questionnaire, if you select a box, but leave the origin fields blank, a message will appear at the top of the screen and the blank field will be highlighted in red; one should then click next once again to advance.

“If we’re not counted now, we will be undercounted for 10 years,” explained Zalisky. “This means that our neighborhoods will lack funding for vital resources effecting our roads, schools and healthcare systems.”

“COVID-safe in-person community outreach was of paramount importance in the planning of the event,” noted Zalisky. Throughout the procession, coordinated with the offices of the Queens Borough President and the New York Police Department’s auxiliary unit, there were no issues of lapses in social distancing guidelines.

In the days ahead of the caravan, a Facebook message was circulated stemming from Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) of their planned involvement. The group is notorious for their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic stances. Concerned residents worried that the census was being politicized in our area and that an allegiance within our community was being fostered. The QJCC acted swiftly with their partners to have this unsolicited and unauthorized posting be removed from social media.

The end of September deadline was pushed up from an October 31 completion date to ensure the totals reach President Trump by April 30, 2021, and redistricting data to be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021. By census law, refusal to answer all or part of the census carries a $100 fine and the penalty rises to $500 for falsifying responses. In 1976, Congress eliminated both the possibility of a sixty-day prison sentence for noncompliance and a one-year prison term for untruthful replies.

 By Shabsie Saphirstein

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