The stately brick buildings with their white-mantled entryways, elegant blocks of Tudor houses and tidy tree-lined sidewalks of Forest Hills connote solid American values. They speak of community, continuity, middle-class stability.
And indeed, these values are what have drawn generations of Jewish New Yorkers — and plenty more from around the globe — to this affluent swath of central Queens. From the small, family-owned businesses that line Queens Boulevard to the historic shuls like the Forest Hills Jewish Center, where three generations often sit together on Shabbat, Queens is all about families.
So when neighbors fall on hard times, as many have here, the community responds. One example is Masbia, the borough’s first glatt-kosher soup kitchen and an offshoot of the original in Borough Park, which recently opened on Queens Boulevard.
“It’s a wonderful thing, because it shows the altruism of the community, but it’s also sad because it shows we have this need,” said Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, which organized Masbia together with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the Orenstein Foundation, which provided major funding.
Many of the 100,000 Jews estimated to be living in Forest Hills-Rego Park are immigrants — most from the Former Soviet Union and Israel — and the area also has the city’s largest proportion of elderly residents. Between fixed incomes and low wages, both groups are particularly vulnerable in a cruel economy. Hence the appeal of Masbia, whose dignified setting — tasteful decor, waiter service — draws 125 locals nightly for hot, three-course meals.
The pinch in this traditionally affluent neighborhood can also be felt at the Conservative-affiliated Solomon Schechter School of Queens, where enrollment is down slightly despite generous financial aid, said its headmaster, Martin Mayerson. A good percentage of the nearly 400 students come from the Forest Hills area; about a third are from Russian immigrant families, a third from Israeli families and a third from American-born, Ashkenazic families.
“This area has felt the economic pinch, so it makes people less upwardly mobile,” Mayerson said. There is a silver lining, however: “They stay put longer.”
Indeed, a transient population of young adults has always chosen Forest Hills for the combination of factors that are its eternal allure: pretty suburban-feeling streets, a wealth of Jewish resources, relatively affordable housing compared to Manhattan, and easy Manhattan commutes. An impressive four subway lines, two of them express, and a Long Island Rail Road station serve the area; by car, the Long Island and Van Wyck Expressways and the Grand Central Parkway all pass through Forest Hills.
Yet while a certain percentage of these young professionals “make aliyah to Nassau County” eventually, as one local put it, a greater number come and stay. At the Forest Hills Jewish Center, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik (who blogs for The Jewish Week) has watched a steady stream of Upper West Side couples move in over the years, bringing a fresh infusion of cosmopolitan to a traditional part of town.
And increasingly, Mayerson noted, Russian-speaking immigrants and their children, having attained financial success, choose to put down roots and build large homes in Forest Hills rather than move to the suburbs. Many of these are Bukharian Jews — Sephardim who arrived en masse from Uzbekistan in the 1980s and ‘90s — who established the world’s largest Bukharian community here in Forest Hills, about 8,000 families.
Indeed, after a sometimes-fraught decade or two as the newcomers, Bukharians have become part of the comfortably diverse fabric of Forest Hills Jewry. Everywhere, there are signs that the community has arrived: in the three-story trophy homes going up where modest bungalows once stood, in the morning exodus of Russian-speaking professionals to Manhattan jobs, and in the glittering new building of the Bulgarian Teen Lounge, an after-school program for Russian-speaking teens run by the Jewish Child Care Association.
“I’ve been involved in Forest Hills, in the schools here, for 20 years,” said Mayerson, of Solomon Schechter. “Today we have virtually no children born in the Soviet Union. They’re all born here,” even if their first language is still Russian.
Bukharians have their own synagogues, yeshivot and Russian-language newspapers, but they are only one piece of the area’s polyglot mosaic. Significant communities of Georgians, Israelis, Iranians, and other Central Asians all have their own places of worship, ethnic food stores and social venues.
With its village-center feel, 108th Street has long housed a cluster of Russian businesses, as does the sprawling, multi-lane Queens Boulevard; shoppers also flock to Austin Street, which anchors an upscale shopping zone adjacent to the tony Forest Hills Gardens neighborhood. Kosher resources are plentiful and varied, with an enviable selection of restaurants, bakeries and cafes representing global cuisine.
It’s no wonder that “exciting” is a term that comes up often when Forest Hills residents describe their home. “It has wonderful restaurants, places of interest, and its diversity is exciting — both its diversity within the general community, and within the Jewish community,” said Steven Goodman, executive director and CEO of the Central Queens Y in Forest Hills (and the Samuel Field Y in Little Neck, where the two recently affiliated institutions are administered). “It’s an exciting, happening place.”
At the Y’s aging main facility — long a beloved resource for Forest Hills Jews of all persuasions, now the target of a capital improvement plan — the pre-K program is fully subscribed, while after-school and parenting classes are “packed,” said Goodman. To handle the increasingly complex needs of this community, Goodman’s team has created $1 million worth of new programs. Many of these provide support and enrichment for children: at-risk youth, high-school dropouts, youngsters with special needs.
With all this available, “we are seeing more young Jewish professionals moving in,” Goodman said. “They’re quite taken with the resources and activities in Queens, which they perhaps never knew about — they just thought of it as a place with good transportation.”
Good Jewish resources and school options, too. Forest Hills and Rego Park have myriad synagogues and minyanim across the denominational and ethnic spectrum, including long-established congregations like the Conservative Forest Hills Jewish Center, with more than 700 members, and the Modern Orthodox Machane Chodosh, founded in the 1930s by German refugees and thriving today with a new rabbi and a vibrant school. Neighboring areas like Middle Village, home to the Forest Hills Jewish Center West, and Flushing round out the worship options.
Numerous yeshivot and day schools are in the area, including the coed Yeshiva of Central Queens in Flushing. In addition, the area has long been sought after by parents for its highly rated public schools.
Few areas of New York City can compete with the variety of housing options in Central Queens, which explains its appeal to all ages. Large, centrally located buildings and tidy brick townhouses offer relatively affordable apartments for young professionals, while families often opt for the many neighborhoods of single-family houses with lawns on quiet, tree-lined streets.
Zalisky, of the Queens Jewish Community Council, expects the area to remain a vibrant Jewish destination. “It’s a beautiful area, the country in the city,” she said. “It has terrific access to Manhattan, so it’s always attracted yuppies — young professionals — and young families. Now the challenge is to keep the young families in the borough — and in the neighborhood.”
Editor’s Note: The Neighborhood profiles we publish periodically are meant as glimpses into the Jewish life of an area, not as definitive listings of every institution in an area.