Orthodox synagogues pull adherents to boro

By Howard Koplowitz
April 13, 2006


If you build it, they will come.

Like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams,” that mantra also worked for the Orthodox Jews of Queens.

It was the construction of synagogues and nearby religious schools that brought their people to the borough from Europe after World War II.

In most religious communities, the people usually settle before a place of worship is built. But that was not the case in the Orthodox Jewish community of Kew Gardens Hills, according to Rabbi Fabian Shoenfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. At 83 years old, Shoenfeld was one of the temple’s founders and has seen the neighborhood’s growth first-hand.

Before 1950, there were only 15 Orthodox Jewish families living in Kew Gardens Hills, Shoenfeld said. Without a synagogue, the group would pray in the house of one family. A short while later, a farmhouse served as the temple.

But the community started to emerge between 1950 and 1980, after residents decided to build the Young Israel and a school. Now the number of Orthodox families that belong to the temple are 450, according to Shoenfeld.

“They heard that a Young Israel was being built so they moved in,” he said. “We have found Queens a wonderful place to build synagogues and schools. It has been truly a remarkable event.”

At a time when congregations at temples of other denominations of Judaism are dwindling in the borough “because they were not viable,” Shoenfeld said the Orthodox Jewish presence is strong.

“Queens has established a reputation for being welcoming to Orthodox Jews,” he said, noting the “exceptional relationship” between the sect and elected officials, the police and civic groups.

In fact, Shoenfeld said the community relied on Borough Hall back in the 1970s to approve its eruv, or boundary within the community that allows Orthodox Jews to carry possessions on the Sabbath. He said that with the establishment of the eruv, which was composed of existing utility company wires, more growth was able to occur in Kew Gardens Hills.

“That played a major, major role,” he said about the eruv contributing to the population explosion.

With the establishment of a synagogue and school, Kew Gardens Hills also saw the emergence of kosher shops, butchers and stores that carried religious items. The phenomenon enabled the community to be self-sustaining.

“You don’t have to go out of Kew Gardens Hills,” Shoenfeld said. “You can get everything right here.”

Of the 31,000 Jews who live in Fresh Meadows, Kew Gardens Hills and Hillside, 51 percent identified themselves as Orthodox, according to “The Jewish Community Study of New York: 2002,” a report conducted by the United Jewish Appeal. It is the latest year for which the statistics are available because the study is conducted once every decade. No other denomination reached 17 percent.

Orthodox Jews also have a presence in nearby Rego Park and Forest Hills, where a few Orthodox temples, including a Bukharian synagogue, can be sighted on and near Queens Boulevard.

In Rego Park and Forest Hills, where 42,400 Jews lived as of 2002, only 16 percent were Orthodox, according to the report.

Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt, the spiritual leader of Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills — the borough’s oldest Orthodox synagogue — said some Orthodox Jews who lived in the area have since moved to Nassau County and New Jersey.

But he said the community was once vibrant, with the first wave of Orthodox coming from East New York and the Bronx in the middle of the 20th century.

“These are the Jews who built Queens,” Grunblatt said.

He said the Orthodox Jews needed a place to re-establish their identity.

Why did they choose Queens?

“Jews are very adventurous,” Grunblatt said. “Where were they going to go? Manhattan has its own character. Queens was like the suburbs. Queens was the natural place.”

The next wave came from western portions of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, with Bukharian Jews, who lived in the Asian part of Russia, following about 10 years later.

The northeast Queens neighborhood of New Hyde Park, which also has a Young Israel, shares a similar story with Kew Gardens Hills in the establishment of its Orthodox Jewish community.

Like the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, the Young Israel of New Hyde Park was built more than 50 years ago.

However, the area already had a Jewish presence. But they were mostly Jews of the Conservative and Reform movements, according to Rabbi Benyamin Hammer.

“This was a community that was very Jewish,” Hammer said of New Hyde Park.

The neighborhood began to receive an influx of Orthodox Jews once the Young Israel was built, he said. And the number of the community’s Orthodox Jews has not declined since the 1950s.

“We’ve remained strong all these years,” Hammer said. “Things that are anchored in tradition appeal to people. We stay the same. People respect that.”

Northeast Queens boasts 28,200 Jews, only 7 percent of whom identified themselves as Orthodox, according to the report.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.