As Shavuos concluded, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills continued its tradition of presenting a critical discussion to the community. This year, the Dr. Simon Lopata Shavuos Forum delved into the changing demographics in Queens. A gathering of men and women spanning various ages and hashkafic backgrounds listened in as Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, CEO of Chazaq; Adam Suionov, Jewish liaison to Council Member James Gennaro; and Jennifer Martin of the Queens Civic Association each gave their assessment of Queens today. Each of the presenters is affiliated or has been a member of an array of other noteworthy credentials, making them knowledgeable of the neighborhoods we call home today.
Rabbi Meirov did not shy away from the obvious Bukharian influx that Queens is undergoing. He explained the complexities of his own decision to relocate from Forest Hills to Kew Gardens Hills and his current struggle to find affordable housing. Rabbi Meirov spoke of his time as youth director in both Beth Gavriel Community Center on 108th Street and at the Sephardic minyan at the Young Israel of Forest Hills where his family remains very involved in the operations of the flourishing Tiffereth Shalom. Upon his arrival in KGH, Rabbi Meirov established the Charm Circle Congregation and attracted 50 men on its first Shabbos, then housed on the upper floors in the temporary dwelling of Rabbi Bergman’s shul as it underwent construction. Today, Rabbi Meirov’s minyan operates in an expansive basement a short distance from its formative home. Rabbi Meirov took attendees on a tour of the changing shops of Main Street and noted the political reach of the Bukharian community, recalling a recent event that brought the Governor, Mayor, New York Attorney General, NY Senate Majority Leader, amongst others, to Main Street. Rabbi Meirov spoke of the need for continued unity in the community amongst all facets of Orthodox Jews, as we are all one unified conglomerate of Torah-abiding families.
Adam Suionov, a first-generation Bukharian, related the political culture of Queens and how many of our non-Jewish neighbors take similar viewpoints to our own. Adam reminded the audience of the seemingly uphill battle that Council Member Gennaro had, to repeatedly win his seat against an anti-Semitic force. Adam spoke of a Holocaust story that ocurred in his family's hometown in Russiam where a family housed and protected a Chassidic European survivor of the Shoah, explaining that it comes down to us all being Jews of the same faith.
Mrs. Martin holds many prominent seats on boards that sway important matters, but her occupation as a funeral director at Schwartz Brothers gave her the most hands-on means to access the changing demographics. Jennifer took the crowd on a journey throughout the years as chapels like Parkside and Sinai handled upwards of 2,000 funerals collectively each year, aside from the 1,500 or so l’vayos that Schwartz Brothers orchestrated. Today, these funeral homes have joined with Schwartz Brothers as the overall Jewish population of Queens has dwindled. Jennifer went on to explain how the various once-bustling Reform and Conservative houses of worship scattered around Queens have merged into just a handful of synagogues that serve a drastically reduced number of congregants than they once had. The statistics and the neighborhoods mentioned brought home the reality of where the Jewish community of Queens stands nowadays.
Opening remarks were delivered by Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, rav of the congregation, and introductions were given by Rabbi Stuart Verstandig, shul president. A lively Q&A session was also held. Acknowledgement was given to Rebecca Wittert for organizing the symposium.
By Shabsie Saphirstein