Through the good offices of my local New York City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, I had the opportunity some months ago, along with the local Jewish leadership of Central Queens, to meet Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the Councilwoman from neighboring Corona who also currently serves as the Chair of the powerful Committee on Finance of the New York City Council. Although the meeting was not organized for the purpose of advancing individual pet projects, it nonetheless attracted, as one would expect, a great deal of interest among local Jewish leaders.
Just a few weeks ago, I was privileged to welcome Councilwoman Ferreras-Copeland to my synagogue, show her the kind of work and community engagement that we do, and familiarize her with the particular constituency that I represent, as the rabbi of a large Conservative congregation. We also had the opportunity, for me, a very precious opportunity, to focus in for the moment on the changing demographics of Central Queens, which impact all of the citizens in my area. Historically, Forest Hills was always perceived, accurately, as home a large population of upper-middle-class Jews, and very wealthy Protestants in the formerly restricted neighborhood called Forest Hills Gardens. These days, with the dramatic influx of Bukharian Jews from the Former Soviet Union and the expansion of the Asian population from Flushing to other neighborhoods in central Queens like our own, we are, in every significant way including socio-economically, a much more heterogeneous neighborhood. Our social service needs are significantly different than they were in the 50’s and 60’s: different, and greater.
Councilwoman Ferreras-Copeland was gracious and attentive, and anxious to learn about a neighborhood that abuts her own home district of Corona but is very, very different. What emerged, not surprisingly, was that our concerns, the fundamental concerns of those who call New York City their home, were very much the same. My people care about the availability of affordable housing, the safety of our streets, the quality of public education … your basic quality of life issues. Whether Latino, Jew, African-American, or any of the remarkably complex and diverse ethnic populations that make up Queens, what our Borough President Melinda Katz likes to call "The World's Borough," we share the same basic needs to make our lives not only tenable, but also pleasurable. Without the city’s active help in meeting those needs, the quality of life erodes for us all.
But beyond the details of our conversation, what fascinated me about my meeting with Councilwoman Ferreras-Copeland was the chance to gain a greater insight into the nature of her work, and the heavy responsibility that she carries.
As the rabbi of a large congregation, I often think of a synagogue as its own ecosystem, with different organisms living and competing within it for the limited available nutrients. Synagogues also have budgets, money is the main nutrient, and beyond the needs of heat, electricity, salaries and maintenance, there are programs that depend on adequate budgeting. They include religious instruction, youth programs, social and educational programs for both older and younger members, and much more. Each and every one can be said to be central to what would make a synagogue indispensable to its members. But when push comes to shove, some things get included in the synagogue’s budget, and others don’t. No one likes to be left out, made to feel “less than.” And some need, that some group of people feels is critical to the synagogue’s work, simply won’t get met.
As the ancient rabbis might have said, “al ahat kammah v’hamma…” How much more so is this the case with a behemoth like New York City! Last year’s budget was just a little south of eighty billion dollars. Eighty billion dollars! That’s more money than any one of us could possibly imagine having to dispense, or knowing what to do with. But the truth is that even with a budget of that size, there will still be needs that aren’t met, and unhappy constituents complaining that the city is not being responsive to its citizens.
The Chair of Finance of the City Council is charged with the responsibility of working closely and cooperatively with the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget to both develop and insure the passage of the city’s budget. As such, it is the Councilwoman’s responsibility to be well educated on the expansive plethora of needs that characterize New York City, from its neediest and most helpless citizens to even the wealthiest and most able. Some things can be done, some issues can be addressed, and some… just can’t.
I left our meeting both impressed and encouraged. New York is a tough town, and accessing city services even when they do exist can be a herculean task of human over bureaucracy. But it’s comforting to know that competent and caring people are in positions of authority in the city that I love, positions that carry with them the weight of serious, even life-altering responsibilities. Julissa Ferreras-Copeland certainly seems to be one of those people.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.