Last Thursday, the residents of Kew Gardens Hills experienced an event that was a bright spot amid the dreariness of the coronavirus quarantine: a parade of ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars on Main Street, to celebrate the selfless, live-saving work of Queens Hatzolah volunteers during this pandemic. “The volunteers are beyond incredible; their call volume had doubled, and it wasn’t spaced out evenly,” said Shiu Reichmann, a longtime Queens Hatzolah coordinator.
Hatzolah of Queens, together with SeniorCare, the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the NYPD, staged a parade honoring emergency service workers with a strict warning that all spectators are either to watch the procession from inside their vehicles, or on a Zoom livestream from their homes. “I was proud to drive by, honk my horn, and show my support,” said Councilman Rory Lancman. “From what I could see, others did likewise. It was a great show of love and support for a critically important group of first responders and frontline workers.”
Reichmann noted that although the number of calls has decreased in the past couple of weeks, some individuals experiencing medical emergencies have not called Hatzolah out of fear of the virus. “There are people who are sick and it’s not COVID-related. They should call,” he said. At the parade, only 8 of Queens Hatzolah’s 12 ambulance trucks were on display at Freedom Square, with the rest at their posts awaiting calls.
From my parked car on the corner of 73rd Avenue and Main Street, I saw vehicles slowing down to take their spots along the route. Across the street were two vehicles with homemade posters on their windows with words of gratitude to Hatzolah, and the few pedestrians were mostly families standing together and shoppers on their way to stores.
This was not the first public event in the neighborhood that took place after the quarantine began in mid-March. On Chol HaMoed Pesach, a pickup truck drove through Kew Gardens Hills playing festive music. The event was sponsored by the Queens Jewish Link and Bukharian Jewish Link, the Queens Jewish Alliance, and Chazaq. People stood on their porches and others watched the event on Zoom. It brought a moment of joy and sense of community, breaking up the isolation with music and song.
In the days approaching Lag BaOmer, there were sharp comments trading back and forth on Facebook whether it made sense to have a pickup truck with a deejay driving through Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills this past Tuesday night. Some individuals asked why there were no maps of the event, and whether having an evening concert would disrupt dinner or bedtime for children.
Compared to the bonfires, barbecues, and late evening concerts of the previous year, a mobile concert does not seem as disruptive. DJ Jordan Benjamin stood in the back of an open van for an hour and a half at his turntable with a cameraman filming his performance. “I’ve been deejaying for 15 years. I’ve done party buses, but to do it from the back of a van was a first for me,” said Benjamin. “I was excited to bring simchah and joy to the community.”
The shutdown of parties since early March means that entertainers like Benjamin cannot perform in person, and only have livestreaming as their venue. The comments, number of viewers, and advertisers serve as metrics of a performer’s popularity. “I’ve done two free parties on Facebook Live. This was special, as I was able to make people happy. Kids were jumping around in their homes.”
The van moved quickly and there were more viewers online than in person to observe the music passing by the familiar shops of Main Street, yeshivos, and the homes of 147th Street, Jewel Avenue, and Main Street. Over 7,500 watched the livestream on Zoom. The event was sponsored by Holy Schnitzel, coordinated by Queens Shmira, with Queens Jewish Link and Chazaq as media sponsors.
“We spoke to the community affairs officer at the 107th precinct, and we were told that as long as it isn’t blaring too loudly [it would be fine],” said Queens Shmira coordinator Yoni Fricker. “We’re in a very negative time and we pulled it off. We wanted to bring spirit to the community. We kept putting out messages about social distancing and the community listened.”
As these three events have proven, the Queens Jewish community is compliant with social distancing guidelines. People have shared examples of unmasked individuals in public and children playing with members of other households, but these are the exceptions. Our rabbis are on the same page as our medical professionals. Each individual plays a role in reducing the number of infections, while maintaining social interactions at a safe distance with proper attire.