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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Leaders Try To Revive Judaism

Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz, the director of Howard Beach’s Rockwood Park Jewish Center, rocked to the cadence of the Exodus verses that opened last Saturday morning’s Shabbat service. At the synagogue’s lectern, he then, like hundreds of other clergy people conducting weekend services throughout the borough, referenced scripture in his exaltation of virtues such as tolerance, charity and honesty. And though the 25 worshippers present listened with rapt attention, Berkowitz — like these other clergy people — still found himself addressing a congregation significantly smaller than those his predecessors did.
But Howard Beach’s legacy as South Queens’ incubator of Judaism makes this membership decline — a 40 percent drop in congregation size in the last 15 years, by some estimates — all the more alarming. The responding leaders of Howard Beach’s Orthodox Jewish communities have looked both inside and outside their neighborhoods to find out where the Jewish community has gone and how to get it back. As recently as the early 1970s, both Lindenwood and Rockwood Park were roughly 50 percent Jewish, according to current residents of both communities. Many now estimate that Jews comprise roughly 10 percent of Rockwood Park’s population and that Lindenwood’s Jewish population has shrunk considerably as well.
Most Howard Beach Jews today cite the separate draws of the Florida sun for retirees and Long Island suburbia for young families when asked about their population’s decline. Brian Roffel, a 155th Street resident, said simply: “There are no Jews moving back into the community when people die.”
Berkowitz, an 85th Street resident, said that it is the “astronomical” price of Howard Beach homes that makes moving back into the community difficult.
Now in his 10th year at the Rockwood Park Jewish Center, he has begun counseling prospective Jewish homeowners about the different options available in the neighborhood. Keeping abreast of changes in the garden co op, co op, condominium and residential real estate markets, he steers potential congregants toward different area lenders and mortgage brokers. He said that he typically assists three new Jewish couples or families a week in their searches.
“This is a beautiful community. Most people take the Belt Parkway and just pass us by,” he said. Berkowitz tries to sell prospective congregants on this relative isolation, the accessibility of public transportation and significantly lower city taxes, compared with what Long Island homeowners pay. For the couple he met on Monday afternoon whose Crown Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood has become too congested, Howard Beach offers “a bit of suburbia in the city,” according to the Rockwood Park Jewish Center’s Web site.
Others have traveled from farther than Brooklyn to consider making the Rockwood Park Jewish Center their synagogue. Only a year old, the center’s Yeshiva teaches approximately 20 young men, many recruited by Berkowitz when he was on different out of state trips. They have come from Los Angeles, Chicago and Connecticut, among other places. All are between the ages of 19 and 23 and roughly half dorm together in a Lindenwood home.
The center’s 33 year old cantor, Yehoshua Samuels, himself a Milwaukee native, said that these men and their families may represent the center’s base for years to come. Samuels envisions re establishing the center’s preschool, closed now for roughly 10 years, to complement its Hebrew school.
But the religiosity of Howard Beach’s Jewish population, not just its size, concerns Orthodox leaders. Of Howard Beach’s roughly 3,000 Jews, Berkowitz estimates that 200 are Rockwood Park Jewish Center congregants. Some say the fact that no strictly kosher store exists in the community both reflects this low number and keeps it from growing. Though no reform synagogue which would ask significantly less adherence of its members exists in Howard Beach, Howard Beach Judea, a Conservative synagogue, has a congregation of only 140, according to President Barry Rachnowitz.
Rabbi Avrohom Richter, the director of Chabad of Howard Beach, has targeted non Sabbath observing Jews in the area. His fliers, advertisements and home visits have fueled the word of mouth spread of the mission of his Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish community center under its own auspices now in its third year.
Richter, the 29 year old former youth and activities director at the Rockwood Park Jewish Center, runs the Chabad of Howard Beach out of his 87th Street home. He said that the underlying philosophy of Chabad, a movement within Orthodox Judaism that emphasizes the inclusion of all Jews, has allowed him to draw roughly 40 worshippers for Sabbath services each weekend and over 200 people for holiday services. He estimates that 90 percent of his following was never affiliated with any other synagogue.
“Our objective is to make the new, the next generation that has gone away from the synagogues to come back to the synagogues,” he said. “I believe that every single Jew has the capability of being a Torah abiding Jew, a religious Jew,” added Richter, who also serves as a prison chaplain at the Queens Private Correctional Facility in Jamaica.
Many Chabad prayer services are conducted in English, whereas most Orthodox prayer services are held only in Hebrew. During Purim celebrations last year, the Chabad’s worshippers read scripture passages that scrolled in English across the bottom of a 6 foot by 6 foot screen. Richter’s wife, Zeldi Richter, the center’s co director, runs a Jewish women’s club that has drawn as many as 40 women to meetings.
Shia Tauber, a Chabad of Howard Beach member, said that the “tremendous amount of energy” that Avrohom and Zeldi Richter possess accounts for their success.
But despite their efforts to grow their congregations, both Chabad of Howard Beach and the Rockwood Park Jewish Center remain fiercely loyal to Orthodox Judaism. While recognizing that “a Jew is a Jew,” Samuels said that orthodoxy, as opposed to Reform and Conservative Judaism, remains “the real truth, the real religion.”
The Rockwood Park Jewish Center’s mechitzah displays this commitment to orthodoxy. The wooden, 6 foot high latticework partition completely encloses an eighth of the synagogue, separating women from men during services. When Samuels paraded the Torah throughout the synagogue for congregants to kiss on Saturday, the seven women in attendance waited patiently at the enclosure’s swinging doors for him to make his way in their direction.
Some women who attend services less regularly call the current mechitzah, double the size of the one used before Berkowitz’s arrival, troubling. Tauber, a former Rockwood Park Jewish Center congregant, said that both vocal support and hushed opposition surrounded the new mechitzah’s construction. Many favored the lower, more symbolic mechitzah built by the center’s previous director, a modern Orthodox rabbi.
Howard Beach Judea does not have a mechitzah. Men and women sit separately during services at the Ozone Park Jewish Center, a modern Orthodox synagogue, but no barrier exists between them.
The Chabad of Howard Beach uses a folding partition to separate men and women during prayer. “This is the hardest thing that a Chabad has to deal with. Many people are very intimidated by a mechitzah,” Richter said. But he added that many misunderstand the segregation. He said that a woman is the “pillar of a Jewish home” and that mechitzahs address male desires, not female fallibility.
Though Richter said that some women have not attended services after showing interest in the Chabad because of the mechitzah’s presence, he added: “There’s no concession here. This is God’s house and I’ve got to follow God’s rules.”

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