The center of the Queens Jewish community can be mapped in a few precise ways: the Eruv boundary, certain ZIP Codes that match these boundaries, and the legislative districts into which they fit. Following the publication of last year’s nationwide census, the state is preparing to redraw the district lines to reflect shifts in the demographics and population, which could unite some neighborhoods under a single district, and divide others among several representatives, diminishing the clout of a community.
“In my opinion, this is probably the most important issue facing the Orthodox community right now,” said Leon Goldenberg, a Brooklyn businessman and activist who is encouraging Jews across the city to participate in this year’s virtual redistricting hearings to testify on keeping the communities united either within one district, or a district where they have a significant percentage of the population.
In Queens, a WhatsApp group of activists is encouraging participation by laying out the case for maintaining a district that would cover the entire community. “Our statement is that we need Pomonok, Electchester, and Kew Gardens Hills in one Assembly and Senate district,” said Jeff Kohn, the president of the JFK Regular Democratic Club. “Right now, Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal has 80 percent of Kew Gardens Hills and that’s what we want to preserve. We are signing people up to speak at the virtual redistricting hearing.”
At the same time that activists in Kew Gardens Hills are fighting for the lines to run around their neighborhood, South Asian community leaders are looking forward to bringing Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, and Woodhaven under a single representative as their population continues to grow. “By law, a district needs to be majority-minority,” Kohn noted. The law was designed to give historically underrepresented groups an opportunity to elect one of their own to Albany and Washington.
The Voting Rights Act does not define Jews or religious groups as minorities, but they can fight for a unified district as a “community of interest” that shares common concerns and demographic characteristics.
“I’ve looked at the maps. Right now, Kew Gardens Hills has two State Senators. The proposal is to divide it among four districts. It is important for people to participate and this year it is very easy to do so,” said Howard Schoenfeld.
Having political clout does not necessarily mean having a “super Jewish” district, as it would reduce Jewish representation to only one district, and nowhere else. Goldenberg argues that a district with 30 percent Orthodox Jewish voters is a “critical mass” that can make a difference in a crowded primary election and make coalitions with other groups on shared values and policies.
In Queens, the 23rd Council District and the Sixth Congressional District are examples where Jewish voters helped elect moderate Asian-American Democrats with strong records of support for Israel and Jewish causes. Likewise in Far Rockaway, where there were multiple Black candidates in races for city and state seats, where the Jewish community made the difference for the winning candidate.
Shimi Pelman, a Democratic District Leader in Kew Gardens Hills, noted the example of Rep. Grace Meng as representative of the Jewish community on substance although she is not personally Jewish. In Fresh Meadows, Assemblywoman Nily Rozic is Jewish but represents a district with an Asian majority. Her literature is bilingual, her staff represents the backgrounds of her constituents, and she is in her fifth term in office. “It is important that communities are protected and represented so that like-minded people can have a say in government and it reflects their needs,” Pelman said.
Looking at the maps proposed by the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission, the proposed Senate districts would unite clusters of Asian voters in central and northern Queens, but in the process divide Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills among multiple districts. In each of these proposed districts there would be too few Jewish constituents to make an impact in an election.
“What the Jewish community does now will reflect in the city and state for the next ten years,” Rosenthal said. “We could be divided among four Senate districts which would dilute our voice. We must speak up so that our communities remain united.”
In the suburbs, West Hempstead is also subject to proposals that could unite it under a single State Assembly district, while dividing it among at least two State Senators, with the line running through the heart of the community.
The proposed maps of the independent redistricting commission can be seen at www.nyirc.gov/draft-plans. To submit testimony online on keeping the Jewish neighborhoods of Queens within single districts, visit nyirc.gov/participate. The period for online public input ends on Wednesday, November 17.
By Sergey Kadinsky