‘Creatures who adapt to their environment fly; if not, they become extinct. We are adapting and evolving.”
Rabbi Menashe Bovit, the new spiritual leader of the Conservative Bellrose Jewish Center, isn’t just referring to the survival-of-the-fittest law of the jungle. He’s also referring to the sometimes cruel, Darwin-esque nature of Jewish demographics in an ever-changing city. In this case the demographics of northeast Queens, an area on the Queens-Nassau border trying to claw back from the brink of extinction — Jewishly, that is.
For Rabbi Bovit, adaptation means moving the 62-year-old synagogue toward full egalitarianism, as part of an outreach philosophy that he hopes will keep it relevant.
For the Reform congregation in the area, Temple Sholom of Floral Park, which will install a new spiritual leader, Cantor Josee Wolff, next week, adaptation means selling off its oversized edifice and building a smaller “more economically feasible” synagogue. And it means “opening our doors to everyone regardless of ability to pay,” says its president.
And for the Orthodox Young Israel of New Hyde Park, adaptation means breaking ground on a new mikveh — the first in northeast Queens — in a bid to “grow the observant community” and “provide a spiritual level that will uplift the community,” say shul officials.
The attempts at adaptation and outreach on the part of all three congregations — which will soon be in walking distance of each other — comes as the area’s Jewish population has dropped significantly. Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Queens Jewish Historical Society, said the area has witnessed the “biggest decrease in Jewish numbers in the last 10 years” of any section of the borough.
The exodus began a decade earlier, with the number of Jews in northeast Queens actually dropping by about half. Although Jews made up 44 percent of the community in 1991, they represented only 22 percent in 2002, according to the Jewish population study commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York. The number of Jews plunged during that decade from 23,000 in 1991 to just 12,400 in 2002.
“Chinese and South Asians are moving in and the Jewish population is aging and Jews are moving out,” Gottlieb observed.
In attempting a fresh start, the leadership of Temple Sholom of Floral Park is building its new home on a quarter-acre plot — half the size of its former home — at a cost of a little more than $500,000. The temple’s former building sold for several million dollars.
“We’re starting over with some money in the bank,” said the temple’s president, Paul Trolio. “The key is to be able to build a new place and to make sure there is still sufficient money in the bank so that the endowment kicks off enough capital to pay our overhead. …
“The idea is to be able to open our doors to everyone regardless of ability to pay. In order for us to make a comeback and stop the contraction of the Reform and Conservative movements here, we are going to have to find a way to make sure everyone can come in and not worry about fees. If we don’t, half of the synagogues in northeast Queens will be gone.”
The congregation held High Holy Day services last fall in its old building and invited the entire community to join it for free. Trolio said that instead of the 150 congregants they would have had, the sanctuary filled with nearly 400 congregants.
“These were people who would not have gone if it was not free,” he said. “I saved a voice message from one woman who said she was so appreciative because she never would have been able to come had it not been free. With our endowment, we hope to do it again.”
Cantor Wolff, who has been leading services there since October, said attendance at services has increased since she began. She said she brings to the congregation new energy and a “strong musical presence” that has inspired members. And as a teacher at Hebrew Union College, Wolff said she “brings a connection of our movement” to the congregation.
The Reform temple’s new building will be adjacent to the rear of the Bellerose Jewish Center, the area’s 62-year-old Conservative congregation that also has a new rabbi, Menashe Bovit. When he joined the congregation last August, he ushered in a new era as the congregation switched from traditional to egalitarian.
Shortly before he was hired, the 200-family congregation voted overwhelmingly to allow women to count in a minyan and have the same status as men in all aspects of worship. Although a handful of people left as a result, Rabbi Bovit said more families joined. But it has a long way to go to come even close to what it was years ago when its Hebrew school was bursting with 600 students; last year it had just four students.
“We’re rebuilding,” Rabbi Bovit said, noting that there are now about 12 students in the Hebrew school and that outreach efforts are continuing.
“We’re a renewing congregation,” he insisted. “We have made a very distinct change in direction. Egalitarianism is part of a recipe for revitalization, which includes updating and modernizing services and making Jewish life more fun, upbeat, lively, relevant and spiritually significant to people.”
The introduction of a mikveh into a community can also help make a difference, the Queens Jewish Historical Society’s Gottlieb observed, citing the changes that occurred in Kew Garden Hills after a mikveh opened there in the 1970s.
“Main Street in Kew Garden Hills had many Christian-owned stores and stores that were owned by Reform and Conservative Jews,” he said. “But now, it’s an Orthodox area to a great extent.”
Steven Orlow, a longtime resident of Kew Garden Hills, said the establishment of a mikveh and an eruv — an enclosure that enables observant Jews to carry objects outside on the Sabbath that would otherwise be forbidden — “had a tremendous impact” on the community.
“They are essential to the lifestyle of Orthodox Jews and having them helps people decide what neighborhood they choose to live in,” he explained.
Orlow said it took a few years, but that the shift in demographics in Kew Garden Hills was “dramatic” because the “entire complexion of the neighborhood changed. In the first instance, it anchored the people who were here already, giving them the fortitude to stick it out despite what was happening in the community. And then it served as an attraction to those living here who might consider becoming more observant because of the convenience” of the mikveh, as well as those considering moving to the community.
Orlow said, however, he does not believe a mikveh in New Hyde Park would have the same lure as it did in Kew Garden Hills because “there are many more options now as to where to live. There are such places as the Five Towns and areas of New Jersey.”
But Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, said she is “enthusiastic” about the new mikveh because her group’s mission is to “preserve the Jewish presence in Queens and anything that will attract people to our borough and stay here is great.”
And she said the fact that there are congregations representing the three major branches of Judaism all within blocks of each other is a draw for that neighborhood.
“There are different choices for people there and that is our strength,” Zalisky said. “It’s all wonderfully positive.”
Larry Barth, who together with Stuart Appel chairs the New Hyde Park Mikveh Committee, said the Young Israel of New Hyde Park, which has 125 members, is in the process of “trying to grow the community” and believes the mikveh “will be the impetus for building this [Jewish] community. It will definitely put New Hyde Park on the map.”
According to Nechama Teitelman, 32, the wife of the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of New Hyde Park, Rabbi Lawrence Teitelman, “There were those in the community who were very anxious to have a mikveh both for those who live here and to help make the neighborhood more attractive to those who would consider moving in. I believe this will be a key to increasing observance … and provide a spiritual level that will uplift the community. Even though a mikveh is not relevant at all stages of life, I believe it will receive widespread support.”
Teitelman, noted that the $300,000 building — plans for which go back 11 years and which got a recent $70,000 boost from a four-year-old Brooklyn organization, Mikvah USA — is slated to be built on the front lawn of the synagogue on 77th Avenue, which is next door to her home. Groundbreaking for the mikveh is tentatively scheduled for the middle of next month.
Appel pointed out that years ago the Jewish community of New Hyde Park — where homes sell for about a half-million dollars —- had two dreams: a yeshiva and a mikveh. The yeshiva came to fruition 21 years ago when Yeshiva Har Torah opened. The school long operated in rented locations all over Queens, including the Bellerose Jewish Center, but built its own facility in nearby Little Neck in 2005. It now has 464 youngsters in nursery through the eighth grade, although most come from Nassau County and other parts of Queens, rather than the immediate environs.
“The other dream was to have a mikveh,” Appel said. “It was a matter of timing and we finally got it right.”
Rabbi Teitelman agreed that the yeshiva and mikveh make a “package” that many people are looking for.
“We have to get the word out and let people know what is going on here,” he said. “But once people start to see what is available … it will pick up pretty quickly. There’s a good quality of life here and people can live in either Nassau County or Queens and be within walking distance of the synagogue. City taxes are pretty moderate, there is no alternate-side-of-the-street-parking and the homes are detached.”
Rabbi Bovit, 54, of the Bellerose Jewish Center said it would be “wonderful if all the Jewish institutions here grow and find success. We all offer things that are distinctly different. We offer a blend of Jewish tradition and innovation that is unique to our style, and many people in this area are looking for a Jewish experience.”
He said he himself was “educated in the Orthodox world, and egalitarianism is something I believe in through my spiritual evolution. It is obvious to me that things that worked in the past and made sense then don’t always continue to work. Today I cannot justify excluding women from a meaningful religious life.”
Rabbi Bovit said he still remembers the words of one elderly woman who told him as she walked up to the bima for her aliyah: “Rabbi, I have been waiting for this for 50 years.”
“I never felt prouder as a rabbi,” he said.
Both Trolio and Rabbi Bovit said the proximity of their congregations would be conducive to joint programming and other cooperative ventures.
Trolio questioned why other Reform and Conservative congregations in many other parts of Queens are not selling their buildings and merging in light of steeply dropping membership numbers.
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