The Fuzzy Nutter

Posts Tagged ‘LeFrak City’

A City of Faith

Posted by MSeech on May 12, 2008

by Mellissa Seecharan and Joshua Cinelli

On a recent Friday evening as the sun began its descent, Manash Shimonov greeted the elderly men who came to celebrate Shabbat. As the men made their way into the prayer room for the patriarchs, Shimonov busied himself with final preparations. For eight years he has volunteered at LeFrak City’s Jewish Center, and is known to all.

Everyone who came to the service, first stopped by Shimonov’s office. They touched the Mezuzah on the door frame before warmly greeting their fellow Uzbeki. Most of the men wore suits and fedoras, and spoke in Russian.

“Very difficult. Very difficult for us,” Shimonov said nodding his head. “That’s why we come here and to Israel.”

It pains Shimonov to talk about the town he left behind, but he understands it will always be a part of him. Fortunately for him and several hundred other Bukharian families living in LeFrak City, they are able to make a transition with help from the congregation – a congregation that shares the same past – at the Jewish Center.

The LeFrak City Jewish Center, located on the northern-side of the Long Island Expressway, occupies one of the 18 apartment towers within LeFrak City. After the construction of LeFrak City in 1966, thousands of working class families could afford housing. However, the buildings were soon overrun by gang violence and drugs throughout the 80s. As times changed, the area saw a revival in the mid-90s after a large number of immigrants – mainly Russians – moved into the apartments. With this Jewish resurgence, a synagogue was later built in 1996.

Today, Russians, West Africans and working-class families make up LeFrak’s population.

For Shimonov, life as a Bukharian Jew in Uzbekistan was indeed difficult. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Islamic fundamentalists took control of Uzbekistan, which resulted in a mass emigration of Jews to Israel and the United States.

After 70 years in his homeland, Shimonov left behind the oasis city of Kokand, and his job as an engineering professor, to seek religious freedom for his family. He and his family opted for Queens because he believes Israel is not his country. “People from Israel are patriots,” he said. His daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren moved to Israel in 1991. Shimonov’s eldest grandson currently serves in the Israeli army. He worries for his family’s safety.

“We had a difficult life in Uzbekistan and now Israel too,” he said.

While the practice of Judaism and other religions is legally permitted – as long as the government is not criticized – young Jewish men were frequently harassed as they walked to temple. And amid this increasingly volatile environment, Shimonov and his family immigrated to Queens, NY in 1999.

At the time his family left their home near the Fergana Valley, people attended service once a week.

“We have religious freedom here,” Shimonov said. “Every day we have people who come to synagogue.”

But Shimonov wasn’t the only Bukharian Jew to resettle in Queens.

According to US Department of State statistics, 70,000 Bukharian Jews left their homeland of Uzbekistan. More than 40,000 relocated to the Queens neighborhoods of Forest Hills, Rego Park and LeFrak City. In 2003, fewer than 30,000 Jews remained in the country. Recently, Shimonov learned from a friend in Kokand that only twenty-six Jews currently live in his hometown.

On this Friday night, Shimonov checked on the younger men as they slowly filed into a separate prayer room. Much like the youth, women must pray in a separate room, but only attend service on Saturdays. Friday nights are spent preparing Shabbat dinner.

The youth are less connected with religion than their elders, Shimonov explained. They now have more opportunities and freedoms than their fathers, mothers or grandparents were given.

Nearly an hour after the older men had begun their service, fifteen young men dressed all in suits began slowly trickling into the synagogue. They sat around tables in a room adjacent to where the old men could be heard praying.

After everyone had arrived and service began, Shimonov joined his peers with his prayer book in hand. Traditional hymns and chants filled the room – all spoken in Hebrew or Russian – as the group of elders sang with much feeling and great passion. At times the sang together, and other times prayed individually creating a cacophony of heartfelt expression.

Shimonov still misses his village, and as he reflects on his long exile he wonders if he will ever return. But he has other things to do. With the service over, he will spend the next week organizing a party for Jewish World War II veterans.

“This is what I want to do,” he said. “I serve the community.”


TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE LEFRAK CITY JEWISH CENTER, WATCH OUR VIDEO

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