I live in New York City’s borough of Queens, what our Borough President Melinda Katz likes to call “the world’s borough.” On its own, Queens would be one of the largest and most populous cities in the United States, with close to 2.2 million residents. There are one hundred and twenty languages spoken here, from one hundred and thirty countries, and a million immigrants from all over the world.
Within the physical borders of Queens, there are significant communities of virtually every ethnic and religious group that one might find in America. In the large Kosher supermarkets that are the glory of central Queens for its Jewish residents, one is just as likely to find Muslim women—in hijab and burka—shopping for Hallal meats, as they are to find traditional Jewish women in sheitels (wigs). Each neighborhood has its own character, dictated by the point of origin of its residents. Go a few miles in another direction and you’ll find stores for Punjabi wedding clothing. Go a different way, and you’ll hear the music of the Caribbean islands, or smell the fragrant aromas of Pakistani kebab restaurants.
Throughout my residence in Forest Hills, some thirty-six years, I have never experienced any racial unrest or tension here—not between African-Americans and whites, not between Muslims and Jews, none at all. Each neighborhood has been largely unto itself, with most points of intersection being at some of the excellent ethnic restaurants that dot the borough, or the aforementioned supermarkets. But largely, we have lived in peace, side by side. That in and of itself has been a successful experiment in American urban coexistence worthy of study.
The recent campaign for President, however, and its results, have changed the dynamic in our remarkable borough. The President-elect has, at one time and in one way or another, delivered a menacing and unsettling message to Latinos, Muslims, African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, Jews… and a few others as well. On their own, leaders in the Muslim community have begun to organize themselves to become a more cohesive political force. But when I looked around at our borough these past few weeks, I saw a situation where side-by-side coexistence needed to become a much more integrated model, and spiritual leaders are the ones that must shepherd that effort. Alone, we are threatened. Together, as parts of each other’s lives, we are a stronger, more cohesive community of Americans.
With the help of a friend in the Muslim community, I was proud to participate in the first meeting of a new group—a nascent effort to bring together the various ethnic and religious groups in Queens, along with leadership of the police precincts that service the most at-risk neighborhoods here. The meeting took place in a social hall in Richmond Hill, and the first follow-up meeting will take place in my synagogue.
There is a long way to go in this effort. Specifically, we need to get more religious leaders and their congregants and followers involved, particularly from the White communities of Queens. There were far more Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus than White Jews and Christians. But that may be exactly the point…
I have spent a lot of time this year, both in the months leading up to the presidential election and the weeks since, contemplating what all of this means for Jews, both individually and as a collective. All along, from the earliest signs that the so-called alt-right movement had found its chosen candidate in Donald Trump through Steve Bannon’s appointment as Chief Strategist to the President-elect, it has been clear to me that there is more than a little reason to be concerned. The increased manifestation of swastikas since the election, along with that horrifying video of Richard Spencer ending his speech with “Hail Trump,” are profoundly unsettling reminders of the fragility of this most accommodating of Diasporas for Jews.
But when I was in that room this past Monday evening, this was abundantly clear. Whatever concerns I might have as a Jew in the aftermath of this electoral season are less threatening than what certain other communities are experiencing. Every day seems to bring with it another story of a woman having a hijab pulled forcibly off her head, and Imams are counselling their followers to walk outside in groups, and stay away from places that are known to be unfriendly. And although the Latino community was not represented at the meeting, I can only imagine that the same is true of them, with the specter of mass deportations and family separations hanging over their heads. This is already manifesting itself in schools, where Latino students have been bullied with taunts that they’re soon to be “sent home.” The police personnel who were in attendance did their best to reassure those present that the police were well aware of the dangers they were facing, and it was certainly a welcome message. But make no mistake—there was palpable fear in the room.
And one more thing…
In addition to fear, what was also plainly evident in the room was patriotism, writ large. Speaker after speaker, people of color from all sectors of the Muslim community, spoke proudly of their American citizenship, of what the freedoms of this country represented to them, and how those freedoms were the reason they came here in the first place. I was reminded of the remarkable presentation at the Democratic convention last summer by Khizr Khan, who told the story of his son Captain Humayun Khan who died heroically in battle in Iraq in 2004. Not everyone in that room was a war hero, but the obvious take-away was that not everyone is a terrorist either. They are Americans, many of them proud patriots, and to paint them all with one broad brushstroke is to deny their uniqueness.
In this new administration, where enhanced suspicion and more force appear to be the tactics of choice, our very real and appropriate concerns about the long-term security of the Jewish community are not the only ones in play right now. This is the time, both here in Queens and everywhere in America, for our various ethnic and religious groups to be building new alliances that will not only enhance our security, but also forge a stronger and more cohesive social bond. Now more than ever, that is what we need. If not now, when?
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.