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In Western Queens, New Blood Raises Hopes for Jewish Revitalization

In Western Queens, New Blood Raises Hopes for Jewish Revitalization

Young Jewish singles and families are flocking to Astoria, Long Island City and Jackson Heights — but can the existing synagogues draw them in?

When Cara Bernstein walked down the aisle a month ago to meet her fiancé under the chupah, she knew her wedding day was a crossroads not only in her life, but in the life of her Queens synagogue, which had not hosted a bride and groom for 22 years.

Nearly the entire congregation at Astoria Center of Israel celebrated her marriage that day, whether or not they knew the couple personally.

“A fellow congregant told me that I’m part of a new wave of congregants,” said Bernstein, who is 38.

Astoria Center of Israel is just one pocket of many in northwestern Queens where residents say they are seeing a revitalization of their historic Jewish populations. For 20- and 30-somethings who crave cheaper rents in close proximity to Manhattan, Astoria has become somewhat of a mecca, with popular restaurants, shops and nightlife options.

In Long Island City, brand-new yet pricey condominiums are attracting a slightly older crowd — young families in their 30s and 40s who find the East River waterfront an attractive place to raise small children. Other young singles and families are choosing nearby Jackson Heights and Sunnyside, which offer even more affordable real estate than the riverside neighborhoods.

Yet as young people — both Jews and non-Jews alike — continue to flock to northwestern Queens, they often lack the infrastructure necessary to accommodate Jewish community, area experts agree.

“I felt very good about Jewish life beginning here, but I don’t see any push to set up synagogues there,” said Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Queens Jewish Historical Society. “I see a lot of young Jewish people there, but I don’t see any real sparkle of any organizational Jewish life.”

Spiritual leaders like the Astoria Center’s Rabbi Jonathan Pearl are trying to combat this notion and reinvigorate their aging populations by pulling in younger crowds.

“There was an amazing sense of revitalization coming back into the sanctuary when we had a marriage taking place here,” said Rabbi Pearl, who has been at the synagogue for a little over a year. “The place was full.”

Last Sunday, Astoria Center of Israel received landmark designation status from the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places, for its beautiful interior décor and history of civic leadership since the 1920s. Today, the Conservative synagogue is egalitarian with about 100 members, most of whom are the elderly remnants of a neighborhood that was once home to seven synagogues and multiple kosher butchers.

Meanwhile, however, younger people have begun to wander into to the synagogue, the rabbi said, and in addition to the wedding and a brit milah he conducted last month, he hopes to oversee a bar mitzvah soon.

“There’s a growing mix of the population who were here and people who are moving in and exploring the place,” Rabbi Pearl said. “There’s a tremendous sense of community — between the older ones and younger ones.

“It’s neighborhoody,” he added.

But at the same time, he sees a buzz in Astoria.

“It’s amazing to drive around here sometimes at night,” Rabbi Pearl said. “There are so many people out walking. You don’t see that in eastern Queens. The number of people who are out eating and shopping is so vibrant. I think that’s one of the things bringing people back here.”

Even his three teenage children agree, and his middle son who currently commutes from Floral Park to Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan is vying for a move to the neighborhood.

Ilan Harel, 30, who played bass guitar at the historic designation ceremony, said he moved to the neighborhood because of the cheaper rents, ample space to keep a car and lack of pretentiousness, and just recently began attending sporadic events at the shul.

“The new rabbi is really trying to put an emphasis on bringing younger people here,” Harel said.

Down the street between Broadway and 34th Avenue, Rabbi Jay Shoulson at the Orthodox Sons of Israel Synagogue says he sees a similar dynamic of young people filling his congregation, which now contains about 75 families.

“For the first time in I don’t know how many years it’s much younger than older,” Rabbi Shoulson said, noting that around 60 percent of the members are now in their 20s and 30s. “Some of them are people who gave up paying the rent in the city — why not get a cheaper apartment that’s nicer and newer?”

Yet plenty of Jewish Astoria residents, including a large population of secular Israelis who live throughout the neighborhood, don’t go to either synagogue.

“The hard part about the Astoria Jewish community is that there are Jewish people living there, but they’re not the type of people who are going to shul,” said Dan Allen, 22, who moved to the neighborhood in June 2008. “There’s a ton of Israelis — I meet Israelis on the train all the time.”

Allen, who wanted to get involved in Jewish life but didn’t feel comfortable in either synagogue, joined hands with Rabbi Zev Wineberg, director of the JCC-Chabad of Long Island City, who also does outreach in Astoria.

Together, the pair has held Friday night Shabbat services in Allen’s apartment, summer barbeques in his backyard and kabbalah jams in his living room.

While these events have attracted around 20 people each time, Allen says that he’ll often see people at one of these events and then never hear from them again — partially due to the sprawling nature of the neighborhood.

“There’s no concentrated area where Jewish kids are going to move,” agreed Rabbi Wineberg, 31. “It can be right in the middle of an Arab enclave or a Spanish neighborhood and there’ll just be apartments spread around.”

In nearby Long Island City, Rabbi Wineberg caters to slightly older groups, who are more established in their careers and are looking for places to settle with their young families. Hunter’s Point, the waterfront section of Long Island City filled with brand new condominiums, is only one subway stop from Grand Central.

“Every single week we get in touch with a new family and a new individual who move here,” said Rabbi Wineberg, who has lived in the neighborhood with his family for over two years now. “Most of them are not observant — a greater majority. About half of our active members were not seeking out the synagogue. We found them and invited them and made them feel comfortable.”

Just east of Long Island City, the Young Israel of Sunnyside — an Orthodox congregation of about 55 that has an eruv and a daily minyan, but no rabbi — hopes to partner with Rabbi Wineberg for some future events, according to the executive director, Betty-Ann Weiner. While her immediate neighborhood hosts both Sunnyside and Woodside Jewish Centers, services are infrequent at both of these shuls, according to Weiner.

“We’re actively doing outreach — there are Jews living in the neighborhood that are unaffiliated,” said Weiner, who finds an increasing number of 20- and 30-somethings moving to Sunnyside.

Back in Long Island City, Rabbi Wineberg said 100 people showed up at his most recent High Holy Day services and around 75 gathered under a rooftop sukkah at an 11th Street condominium. In the past year, his Hebrew school has grown from four to 11 students, and the community has already shared two baby namings.

Yet some members of the expanding Jewish population of Long Island City crave broader options for their families that just don’t exist thus far, and they hope that a Reform or Conservative synagogue will come to the neighborhood sometime soon.

“Nobody wants to travel, and it would be nice to have a Hebrew school in the area,” said Eric Paltanik, a 40-year-old lawyer and board member on the Queens Jewish Community Council. “Chabad is a different animal. It’s great what they’re doing, and [Rabbi Wineberg] is trying to play a little more to the Reform, but we’re looking for a social network.”

Palatnik, whose wife recently had a baby girl, said that seven children have been born in his building alone in the past two months, and that Jewish families there will be looking for an alternative to Chabad when it comes time to enroll in Hebrew school.

“What would be a good start would be a Reform synagogue affiliation that has services at a satellite location,” he suggested.

While Palatnik suspects that this won’t happen anytime soon, Warren Hecht, the president of the QJCC, is a bit more optimistic.

“Long Island City is definitely the area of the future,” Hecht said. “This is a place where you’ll be seeing more synagogues and Jewish centers starting to open up because I think it’s going to really expand.”

Young families in Jackson Heights face a similar debate, where their options until recently were only an aging traditional Conservative shul at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights and a moderately sized, also elderly, Orthodox community at Congregation Tifereth Israel, according to Gottlieb from the Historical Society.

“More and more young families are moving in, and we have like a baby boom,” said Abby Drucker, president of Kehillat Tikvah, an unaffiliated liberal congregation in Jackson Heights that was founded a little over a year ago and holds Shabbat services and Tot Shabbat sessions once a month. Housed in space rented from a church, the congregation has X members and a part-time rabbi.

“People don’t move into [this] area specifically because it’s Jewish. It’s a rare thing that that happens. Then when the kids come along,” Drucker says, “they wake up to the fact that they should give the kids some Jewish identity.”

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