Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of postwar America, the tidy Cape Cods and tranquil, tree-lined streets of central Queens offered spacious and affordable living for New York Jewish families.
But while the Flushing-Kew Gardens Hills area is as peaceful and family-friendly as ever, those days of sprawling abundance are over. In addition to the Ashkenazic Orthodox families who have lately flocked to this centrally located, low-tax enclave, a steady influx of immigrants has discovered Queens’ most vibrant Jewish community. The presence of Israelis, Persians, Bukharians, Russians, and Georgians — both newly arrived from abroad and not — lend the neighborhood an increasingly cosmopolitan feel, but the area’s very popularity threatens to undermine its viability for young families.
“The minute a house goes up for sale, it is bought. There is no property left,” said Cynthia Zalisky, a longtime resident and executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council. Compounding the problem is the fact that the standard single-family house in the area has three modestly sized bedrooms, insufficient for today’s large Orthodox families.
“One of the things we talk about is zoning issues, so the houses can be bigger, because we have some big families and we don’t want to lose them,” said Zalisky. “That’s a challenge that the Jewish leadership must deal with.”
It is easy to see why central Queens is such a magnet. Conveniently located just 10 miles east of Manhattan, Flushing — a hard-to-define area that encompasses the northern stretch of Main Street — and Kew Gardens Hills, just south of the Long Island Expressway, both lie just east of the Van Wyck Expressway, with easy access to both Manhattan and Long Island via the L.I.E. and the Grand Central Parkway. There is a Long Island Rail Road station on Main Street in Flushing, whisking commuters directly to Penn Station in a half-hour on the Port Washington line, as well as as numerous bus and subway options.
Residents have a wealth of Orthodox Jewish institutions: dozens of synagogues and minyanim and many affiliated social service organizations, like the Kew Gardens Hills Youth Center, which provides structured, engaging activity for Jewish teens. There are also numerous excellent schools in the area, both public and private; yeshivas include the boys-only Yeshiva Ketana and the co-ed Yeshiva of Central Queens, which both offer studies through eighth grade. Queens College, which has a prominent Jewish Studies program, is in Flushing, while Lander College, a men’s division of Touro College, and the Rabbinical Seminary of America are also in the area.
As Queens is the city’s gravestone capital — locals here routinely give directions like “across from the cemetery” — Flushing and Kew Gardens Hills are also home to many of the city’s most distinguished Jewish funeral homes, including Parkside Memorial Chapel, Schwartz Brothers – Jeffer Memorial Chapels, and Sinai Chapels.
The Bukharian community in particular — composed of Jews from Uzbekistan, in the former Soviet Union, who settled in Queens en masse in the 1980s and ’90s — has built a cultural nexus here as it expanded from its original settlement in Forest Hills and Rego Park.
About the only Jewish institution that is difficult to find in Flushing and Kew Gardens Hills these days is a thriving non-Orthodox shul. While there are a few holdout Reform and Conservative congregations in the area, they are vestiges of the postwar era, when local Jewish life was predominantly secular. In one of those mysterious but inexorable demographic shifts, secular Jewish children grew up and moved out of the area in the 1970s and ’80s, leaving an elderly population and a slew of closed or merged congregations in their wake.
“Most of my friends are gone, and most of the kids moved away from the area,” lamented Lillian Roth, who moved to the area in 1950 and is a longtime member of the Conservative Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills. The increasing Orthodox shift in the neighborhood has been difficult to get used to, she added with candor. Still, having worked in her temple office for nearly 30 years, Roth cherishes the sense of continuity here.
“It’s known as ‘little Borough Park,’” said Pearl Farbowitz, who also works at the Jewish Center, of Kew Gardens Hills’s rightward shift. Farbowitz added that some things haven’t changed over her 37 years in the neighborhood. “It’s a beautiful community. I brought up my kids here, they went to yeshiva here. It’s a nice, clean family-oriented neighborhood.”
Today’s Flushing is heavily Chinese, growing more Jewish as Main Street wends south from the train station. Weekend athletes fill Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the area’s western border, chattering and cheering in Spanish, Mandarin and Russian. Southern Main Street, as Flushing gives way to Kew Gardens Hills, is full of modestly dressed women with strollers, men in kipot and mom-and-pop merchants from around the Sephardic-Jewish world.
“I guess you can judge the diversity of the area by the restaurants on Main Street,” said Zalisky, whose office moved from Forest Hills to Main Street recently in order to be in the epicenter of Queens Jewry. “It’s a pleasure to behold, because a big part of our mission is to preserve the diversity of the Jewish community in Queens.”
With this growing ethnic presence, markets and cafes alike have responded with a smorgasbord of ethnic offerings that goes well beyond the old kosher staples of pizza, Chinese and falafel.
“For example, the hottest place right now is Carlos and Gabby’s, which is Mexican,” said Zalisky. “That is such a hit with the young people. I mean it is just the place to be.”
Across the street is Supersol of Queens, a local outpost of the food emporium that originally anchored the Main Street kosher scene. When it opened in the mid-1990s, Supersol dominated the local kosher market, recalled assistant manager Yehuda Ganchrow.
As the Orthodox life in the neighborhood has mushroomed, “competition has become a lot more fierce,” he said. Indeed, a new kosher supermarket, Aron’s Kissena Farms, recently opened in Flushing.
“We’ve always had the highest concentration of kosher consumers here, but there’s a lot more offerings now,” said Ganchrow. “We have people travel from all over Queens and Long Island, even Connecticut.”
Ganchrow commented that in his decade and a half observing the community, he has witnessed many children grow up and settle here, but “I feel like it’s still a somewhat transient area,” he added. As with so many semi-suburban areas of Queens — Forest Hills, Rego Park, Hillcrest — young couples frequently stay for only a few years, renting while saving up for a house in a Nassau County suburb like the Five Towns.
“But it’s still a very happening, very vibrant community,” Ganchrow said. You have probably 30-40 shuls here, a minyan any time of day. Whether you’re Ashkenazic, Sephardic, regardless of who you are, you find your niche — whether you’re Modern Orthodox or Yeshivish, or really anything.”