“Welcome to the beginning of this new organization.” Dinner Chairman Moshe Schwerd’s opening sentence at the Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island’s 26th anniversary dinner was puzzling. The Jewish Heritage Center, founded by Five Towns visionaries Dov and Marilyn Wolowitz, Jerry and Esther Williams, Yisroel (z’l) and Tzurtie (yblc’t) Bloom and Edward and Phyllis Chernoff of Westchester, now beginning its second quarter-century of outreach, is hardly a new organization. Rabbi Schwerd clarified. Over the past year, under the directorship of Rabbi Naftali Portnoy and Rabbi Moshe Turk, the Jewish Heritage Center has taken on a myriad of new initiatives which have galvanized and reinvigorated the center in its mission to provide guided growth in Torah to all Jews regardless of background. This new beginning provides a priceless opportunity for the community to get in on the ground floor of one of the country’s most all-encompassing and effective outreach organizations.
25 Years Of Success
For the past quarter-century, the Kew Gardens Hills-based Jewish Heritage Center has provided classes, retreats, learning, and one-on-one Torah guidance to more than 15,000 Jews throughout the greater metropolitan New York area. Many thousands of Jews of all ages and backgrounds have taken tangible steps to increase their connection to Torah and mitzvos, and more than 1,500 of those have become fully shomer Shabbos. Add to this the ripple effect that center students have had on their families and communities and the number of lives touched by the outreach of the center is immeasurable. The rabbis of the center, however, were not content to rest with the satisfaction of an important job well done. They have called for the beginning of a new era, a new phase of increased activities. This new beginning will not see a diminishing of previous efforts. Current programs are being strengthened and expanded to reach out to and attract even more of our fellow Jews, many of whom have nowhere to turn for meaningful knowledge of and guidance in Yiddishkeit.
Inreach As Prevention
One year ago, the JHC expanded its work to “inreach” as well. Over the past decade or so, a great deal of effort and attention has been rightfully focused on the “kids at risk” crisis. More and more of our youth are turning away from their heritage and succumbing to the significant challenges presented by the world around us. Eliyahu Turk and Avraham Portnoy, directors of the JHC’s year-old high school inreach division, believe that when it comes to kids at risk, prevention is a more significant and effective approach than treatment. By providing meaningful programming, a healthy social environment, and guidance that speaks to our youth and not at them, we can stem the tide of kids at risk. The year-round inreach programs run by the JHC include teen Shabbos minyanim in Kew Gardens and Kew Gardens Hills, motzaei Shabbos activities, trips, Wednesday night learning and cholent, various group and individual learning opportunities, and a brand new mentoring program.
Jewish Family Initiative
Another facet of the center’s new initiatives has been the reinvigoration of its Long Island division of outreach. Situated in one of the most assimilated counties in the United States, the Long Island Center, with its Sunday Hebrew School program and classes for parents and other locals, has had remarkable success over the past 25 years. This past year, the center raised its kiruv efforts to a whole new level through a critical partnership with the Plainview-based Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. An Orthodox Jewish day school with a noticeable percentage of non-observant families, HANC is the rare yeshiva that will cater to growing Jews and would-be ba’alei teshuvah. But, as Rabbi Kalman Fogel, principal of HANC, put it, “We know how to run a good school but the rabbis of the JHC are the experts in kiruv. We look to them to help us identify, inspire, and ultimately recruit from the thousands of local Jewish families that need a school like this to maintain the Jewishness of their children.” Already in the past year, the new events created and run by the JHC at HANC have attracted more than 250 local Jewish parents and their young children. This month, the JHC has hired the dynamic Rabbi Yaakov Gruenstein to take charge of this newly expanded division, increase its activities, and create a new social organization of young Jewish families who will, b’ezras Hashem, be inspired to deepen their attachment to Torah Judaism.
Iranian Torah Scholar
Recognizing that a large segment of Long Island Jewry is of Iranian descent and still somewhat traditional, this year the JHC inaugurated a new Long Island Sephardic outreach division. The center engaged a learned musmach of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yaakov Vosoghi, himself of Persian heritage, to spearhead this effort focusing on the Persian Jewish communities in Great Neck, Roslyn, and Plainview. For the past two years, as the respected rav of the Iranian Shul in Plainview, Rabbi Vosoghi has been providing popular shiurim and sought-after counseling to this community. The JHC has tasked Rabbi Vosoghi with focusing his efforts on uncovering the potential growth of this community of Sephardic Jews that is not-yet observant but less assimilated and hopefully more reachable than many of their more distant American cousins.
As secular Jewish youth enter the ranks of our nation’s colleges, they are often at their greatest risk of allowing their already tenuous connection to the Jewish people slip away. However, with exposure to the depth, beauty, and relevance of Yiddishkeit, college students can create a bond with their Torah heritage that sets a completely different course for their lives and the lives of their future families. Rabbi Yoni Katz, the center’s director of campus outreach, successfully shows college students the beauty and relevance of authentic Judaism and provides an example of how successful careers can be synthesized with and enhanced by an authentic Jewish lifestyle. Rabbi Katz’s success was recognized by Long Island University through his appointment as the official representative in charge of Jewish life on their Long Island CW post campus where he also directs the Hillel program. Rabbi Katz’s weekly programs, Shabbatons, and trips have already become an integral part of Jewish life for many college students on this and other university campuses.
The last pillar of the center’s innovative approach to outreach is, perhaps, the most unexpected and unconventional: the Jewish Heritage Center’s Brooklyn Division for Chassidic Youth. What started as a seed planted through a providential meeting has blossomed into a full-fledged initiative that has already garnered over 200 participants. Situated in the heart of Boro Park, on McDonald and Ditmas Avenues, the division’s new drop-in center, headed by Rabbi Ozer Babad, provides learning, socializing, job training, and chizuk to Chassidic youth.
A New Era Of Outreach
Rabbi Naftali Portnoy, co-director of the JHC, dispels the notion that kiruv is dead. “While some kiruv programing may need changing and the venues and demographics are constantly shifting, kiruv rechokim is very much alive. In many ways, the approach to kiruv has not changed at all: provide people with access to programs with Torah content and teachers and rabbis that are accessible, sensitive, knowledgeable, warm, and erudite.” Co-director Rabbi Moshe Turk adds, “The truth and profundity of Torah delivered by teachers who strive to be role models is a proven formula for success, and always will be. With this proven model and with an abundance of siyatta d’Shmaya, we have accomplished so much over the past quarter-century, but there is more to do. There is much more to do. So we will continue expanding our programs and continue spreading Torah until there is no one left to be found to spread it to.”
The next quarter-century of outreach is unfolding at the Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island. Directors Rabbi Naftali Portnoy and Rabbi Moshe Turk and their cadre of six energetic and skilled rabbinic leaders are ensuring that Jews throughout the Metropolitan New York area–Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or even Chassidic, preschooler, college student, or adult, secular, or already attached to the Jewish community–are provided with guided growth through Torah. May Hashem bless their critical efforts with continued and increased success. The Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island can be reached at www.theJHC.org or 888-4-Judaism, 888-458-3247. v