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CD 8: A Scramble for Spiritual Space

Queens -

When Josh Levy left the Soviet Union, he moved his devout Bukharian Jewish family to Jamaica Estates. They left communist Russia with a simple goal — to raise a family and worship freely.

They found the opportunity in Queens.

And so did 30,000 other people from more than 150 different countries, making Jamaica Estates one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world. But a rising population of immigrants has created a greater demand for religious real estate.

“All we need is something for our children so they can keep our traditions,” Levy said. “We’re not trying to take over. It would be good for all the neighbors since we’re trying to upgrade the community.”

‘Saturation’ Point

Levy, the executive director of the Bokharian Community Facility, asked the local community board in March to approve an extension on the congregation’s synagogue. The congregation, he said, is quickly outgrowing its building.

The board turned down the request, however, citing fears of traffic congestion and a “saturation of religious institutions,” according to Marie Adam-Ovide, the community board’s district manager.

Within a 2.5-mile radius — not even the entire community district — there are at least 51 places of worship. So a conservative estimate finds one religious institution every four blocks. And with recent immigrants comprising seven percent of the population, it still may not be enough.

“You have new Jewish temples, mosques, Korean churches and Buddhist temples opening up all over, especially in Flushing and the outlying area more than other places,” said City Councilman David Weprin (D-Queens). “Some are bigger, more modern places, but most are these small, local, orthodox institutions.”

A Fresh Approach

While Weprin didn’t have an answer to sprawling temples and churches, he noted there are many institutions that do not have a shortage of space, like the all-inclusive Unitarian Church and the 250-seat Fresh Anointing International Church.

Joyce Valentine, a secretary for the Fresh Anointing International Church in Jamaica Estates, believes her church has found a model that works. The five-year-old Fresh Anointing is housed a large cement building with concrete slabs of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew above the entrance, a testament to its past as a synagogue.

“You find people separated with such small, disjointed churches,” she said. “Here we bring people from all over together under one roof.”

Valentine described her church as an open place of Christian worship with members from more than 35 countries, though the sermons lean toward Methodism. Parking is sometimes an issue, but there is no shortage of seats.

Property and Values

So for now, the religious community and local government may be at an impasse. Neither wants a confrontation but until the influx of religious immigrants abates, property for worship will become increasingly scarce.

“There’s a lot of Jewish people living in the neighborhood and not enough shuls,” Levy said. “That’s why we want to make one big place for the Bukharian, so we don’t have to build again and again. We’re trying to think five years ahead. Why build so small and then have to get another property?”

“We respect the community’s decision, we’re good people and we pay taxes,” he added. “Over here, finally we have freedom of religion and we want to practice it. It’s a shame that we come here to this country and they’re against us.”

To hear a podcast about the music program at Fresh Anointing International Church, click below:

[podcast]http://cdn.journalism.cuny.edu/blogs.dir/9/files/audio/2008/church.mp3[/podcast]