Yevgeny, a high school student from a Bukharian Jewish family in Queens, had too much time on his hands.
Like many children in émigré families, he would return to an empty home after school each afternoon — both of his parents, working long hours, were still on the job.
Like a small number of Bukharian children, Yevgeny (not his real name) turned to drugs. He stopped going to school, says Maria Pinkhasova, a fellow member of a Bukharian Jewish family who has known him for several years. He started hanging out on the street with the wrong crowd, and appeared likely, as his older brother had, to lose his life to drugs.
Then, influenced by other friends in Queens’ Bukharian Jewish community, he started coming to the Bukharian Teen Lounge, a Forest Hills program under the auspices of the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA). Since the launch of the lounge five years ago, it has increasingly become a sanctuary for teens like Yevgeny, giving them a sense of belonging and camaraderie. A hangout for dozens of young Bukharians at the end of the school day, the lounge allows them to let off a little steam playing pool and ping-pong in the 5,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of a new apartment building on Yellowstone Boulevard. And should they need it, the lounge’s rabbis and social workers are on call for a full range of personal and academic issues.
Time at the lounge “helped him,” Pinkhasova says of Yevgeny. “It gave him a distraction” from the streets. He’s off drugs, has completed his GED degree and, Pinhasova reports, is working at a local kosher restaurant.
The lounge, says Pinkhasova, who has been going there for four years, has helped “a lot” of her peers — those, like Yevgeny, who had begun to engage in at-risk behavior, and other members of a latchkey generation who may have turned to gangs and petty crime without a productive alternative. “It gets people off the streets.”
The lounge — which gets financial support from the city, UJA-Federation of New York and various private foundations — is open five days a week, from the time school gets out. Most of the crowd is junior high and high school students, but also some college students attracted by the myriad activities.
On a recent afternoon, half a dozen Bukharian Jewish teens sat around a conference table in the lounge and described how it has given them confidence, the ability to write a résumé or speak with strangers, to plan for the future and apply to college.
“It’s very valuable — it gives us a sense of pride,” said one girl.
Without the lounge, said 15-year-old Ariella, who declined to give her last name, “I would be sitting at home not doing anything.”
Added Nick Kakuriev, 16: “I would just be hanging out with the wrong type of people.”
It was a familiar refrain.
If not for the lounge, “I would be out on the streets,” David Musheev, 17, said. Eli Zavlunov, 15, who sees kids from his background hanging out, doing drugs, said, “I think I would be one of those kids.”
The lounge helps give the teens a shot at a better future. “They probably wouldn’t go to college,” says Zhanna Beyl, director of Bukharian youth services at the Teen Lounge. Beyl emphasizes that the rate of at-risk behavior among teenage members of the Bukharian Jewish community here is much lower than among the general population, and calls the lounge a “preventative mental health center,” geared to prevent problems rather than deal with existing ones.
According to Debby Perelmuter, JCCA vice president for services, Bukharian Jewish teens, growing up in families whose parents are largely unfamiliar with the ways of America and have not mastered English, “do not see themselves as Americans or as part of the organized American Jewish community.” The parents know little about the college application process, can offer scant career advice and often depend on food stamps. Hence, the kids are at risk of straying.
Based for a few years in cramped quarters next to the nearby Central Queens Y, the lounge offers, through a largely bilingual staff, programs that include paid internships, career and personal counseling, SAT classes and “College Readiness” training. It also provides leadership development, health workshops, Jewish educational and cultural classes, and tours of Israel.
The term Bukharian Jews refers collectively to Jews with roots in the former Soviet, Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan.
Central Queens is home to an estimated 40,000-60,000 Bukharian Jews, most in the Forest Hills-Rego Park area colloquially known as Regostan. The newcomers, part of the wave of émigrés from the former Soviet Union since the 1970s, has reinvigorated and repopulated the adjacent neighborhoods whose Jewish populations had been on the decline for several decades.
But, say experts on the Bukharian community, two-income families, mothers and fathers working long hours away from home — most members of the community, despite the stereotype of showy mansions along Forest Hills’ side streets, are not wealthy — have meant thousands of children with minimal parental supervision. When school lets out, often by early afternoon, the teens are alone.
“Among the major hardships facing Bukharian teens is acculturation in a new country,” a recent JCCA report on its Bukharian outreach states. “The responsibility to home and to school laces additional stress on these youth, who are also facing the typical developmental challenges associated with the teen years, including peer pressure, struggles with Bukharian, American and Jewish identity, and finding direction in their lives.”
Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov, spiritual leader of Kehilat Sephardim, a largely Bukharian congregation in nearby Kew Gardens Hills, sees this dynamic at play every day.
The insular Bukharian community, he says, has not developed strong connections to the mainstream network of established, Jewish communal organizations that offer youth-oriented programs. Bukharian parents and leaders often do not know where to turn when delinquency becomes evident, and few parents have the funds to pay for the kind of after-school classes and sports teams that many American Jews take for granted, says the rabbi.
“It’s a problem that is growing — we know there is a problem,” Rabbi Nisanov says. “It’s compounded by the fact that we are still on the learning curve,” unfamiliar with the fine points of U.S. culture. “We’re not really Americans.”
While no exact figures are available on the extent of at-risk behavior in the Bukharian community, Rabbi Itzhak Yehoshua, president of the Bukharian Rabbinical Council of America, says he “deal[s] almost every day with problems of drugs, crimes, etc.”
The majority of teens in the Bukharian Jewish community here attend public school, not Jewish day schools or yeshivas.
“There were more kids who were falling through the cracks. There were more kids who were not in yeshiva,” therefore more susceptible to outside, non-Jewish influences, Perelmuter says.
At-risk or potential at-risk behavior in the Bukharian community is probably less than in the haredi community, which in recent years has started to acknowledge and combat an increasing problem of at-risk youth, observers say. (Inspired by the success of the Teen Lounge, JCCA four years ago opened a Kew Gardens Hills Youth Center for at-risk teens in that heavily Orthodox neighborhood.)
As in the wider Orthodox community, some Bukharian parents have been reluctant to admit that any problem exists.
“The biggest problem with the Bukharian families is their difficulty acculturating. [They] don’t pay enough attention to their children,” says Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council. “There is a rift between the ‘old world’ ways and the American ways that the kids want to be a part of. Bukharians don’t want to recognize the at-risk youth factor.”
Zalisky calls the lounge “a home away from home for these kids — a place without friction and negativity that unfortunately many experience at home. For the girls particularly, it is a place where they are recognized as important and equal to the boys. They are not made to feel as second-class citizens — a cultural issue in the [wider Bukharian] community.”
Yafit Mullukandov, college student, daughter of immigrants and a resident of Forest Hills, has graduated high school but still a regular presence at the lounge. She walked through its front door one recent afternoon, greeted some old friends who were playing pool and ping-pong inside, and started chopping apples.
For the next few hours, Mullukandov, a 21-year-old psychology major at Touro College, worked in the kosher kitchen. The apples and some ziti she prepared were for a birthday party to be held there that night.
Mullukandov, who works at the lounge about 20 hours a week and goes to school at night, has been coming to the lounge, sometimes several times a week, since high school. It’s a “second home,” she says. It’s changed her life, she says.
Today, Mullukandov says she is confident and is thinking of a career in medicine.
“Without [the teen lounge], I wouldn’t be what I am today,” she says. “Without this, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It’s made a huge difference.”