Queens, NY…More than 50 residents of Rego Park jammed into a 4th floor courtroom of the Queens Civil Court on Friday as the synagogue and community center Ohr Natan fought back attempts by developers to evict the major center for Bukharian Jews. They were there in support of their beloved rabbi, Nahum Kaziev and the Ohr Natan synagogue and community center he heads. The landlords, developers who are planning to demolish the beautiful synagogue when its lease ends in 2017 in favor of a large development, are seeking to evict the synagogue immediately through trumped up legal charges of non-payment of rent, a charge Ohr Natan denies, citing proof of its attempts to pay the rent. Judge Terrence C. O’Connor said that he would read the written motions and render a decision in the near future.
In addition to the broad community support, two elected officials who represent the Rego Park area signed a joint letter to Rabbi Kaziev noting that “it is very important that you are able to continue to work and serve the people of Queens.” Congresswoman Grace Meng and Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz praised the work of the organization, noting: “The Bukharian community in Queens is thriving and your center is an integral part of this development.” In another major letter of support and direct appeal to the developers, Cynthia Zalisky, the Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, which represents 146 organizations, noted: “The Educational Center for New Americans (Ohr Natan) is an essential organization that needs to continue its important work within the immigrant community. We strongly urge you to allow this Center to serve the constituents for the remainder of the lease. Anything else would cause irrefutable hardship on the Bukharians living in the area that need and depend on its services so much.”
Founded in 1986, Ohr Natan invested more than $2.1 to renovate the old Trylon Theater on Queens Blvd as well as $1.2 million in rent as one of the major shuls and community centers for the area’s large Bukharian Jewish population. The Trylon LLC developers that acquired the building had informed Ohr Natan of their intention to build a housing development on the site leaving the shul and its 1000 members “on the street.” According to Rabbi Nachum Kaziev, spiritual leader and head of Ohr Natan, “once the developers became aware of our intent to fight the planned 2017 eviction when our lease officially ends, they began a series of legal maneuvers that would move up the date of expulsion to as early as weeks from now.” He said that the Bukharian Jews were already denied any access to their ancient heritage as a result of living under Communism for 70 years, are being actively recruited by missionaries and now face the ultimate rejection as the shul and center they have adopted sends them packing.”
The developers have all but ignored the pleas from local elected officials and community leaders as well as a “tzav ikul” — an injunction, by the Vaad Harabbonim of Queens. Rabbi Kaziev said that attempts by his organization to reach an accommodation with the Bukharian Jewish developers including retaining the beautiful shul and building above it, have been rejected. “Attempts are made throughout the city to save synagogues that are no longer functioning let alone an active shul with 500 people who daven there every Shabbos.” He pointed to the recent announcement by Mr. El Gamal, an Islamic developer, who vowed to rebuild the Garment District Synagogue as part of his large development despite the fact that the synagogue membership is dwindling. “It is shameful for Jews to destroy a vibrant and dynamic shul,” the rabbi emotionally stated.
In addition to its fully functioning shul with tefillois and shiurim, Ohr Natan offers a full program of after school programs, adult education (including ESL), food distribution and many events. Since 1991, it publishes Druzhba, a monthly magazine with a readership of 80,000 people throughout the five boroughs, the largest publications read by immigrants of the former Soviet Union.
Rabbi Kaziev issued an urgent plea to save the shul and the “neshomos of 1000 Jews who may potentially be lost to our people forever as the danger of assimilation threatens to take its toll on this group of Jews.”