The Kew Gardens Hills Shofar Blowing Initiative was the brainchild of neighborhood resident Mark Mittel, who has long blown shofar at local senior centers and a local minyan. With many homebound due to COVID-19 restrictions, Mittel felt there was an obvious solution. “Many in our area can blow shofar; we just needed to arrange a system to alert the community and find members from the neighborhood to rise to the occasion,” explained Mittel, who also stepped in for Jack Meth to lead the 72nd Avenue shofar blowing.
The haskamah of Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, was sought, and the advocacy of the Queens Jewish Community Council was a much-welcomed addition. Executive Director Cynthia Zalisky mentioned, “Helping assist seniors, young mothers, and those unable to leave their homes hear the shofar this Rosh HaShanah is a privilege for our organization.” Zalisky also dedicated time to field phone calls from those seeking nearby locations for outdoor shofar blowings and from those willing to lead the localized t’kios.
A block-by-block listing was devised by the staff at the Queens Jewish Link, and a dedicated portal was organized for the community to find nearby sites to hear the shofar. Nearly 30 locations were soon tabulated, and those in need felt comforted that they would be able to properly practice the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah day. This year, only one day, Sunday, was necessary to hear the kolos of the shofar, as the shofar is not used when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbos.
Three p.m. was the general time chosen for the neighborhood t’kios to commence, as families would have returned from shul. “It was amazing to see how everyone was coming outside from all corners to hear shofar blowing all at a synchronized moment,” pointed out Shuli Statfeld, who together with her children partook in the local shofar blasts. “I imagined this is how it might be when Mashiach arrives,” Statfeld mentioned, alluding to the teachings that Jews from all junctures of the planet will join in unison for those awe-inspiring blasts. Her sister, Pnina Aschendorf, explained, “Overall, COVID has been hard, and I miss seeing the shul at full capacity.” Due to COVID restrictions, shuls this year were void of many children. “I missed hearing the chatter of the youth,” said Aschendorf, but she added, “Walking around Kew Gardens Hills hearing nigunim and davening from all the various outdoor minyanim, and the nonstop shofar blowing, filled me with lots of hope and pride for our community.”
The various baal t’kiah volunteers were notified that neighbors nearby would be relying on them for their expertise. Some community members explained that they were uncomfortable or unable to go outside and would listen from their windowsills, while others without Internet access called to find the nearby t’kiah places. Zerach Greenfield, who blew along Melbourne Avenue, was delighted to help others complete the mitzvah, “Years ago, my father gave me the very shofar I will be using for this initiative on condition that each year I will use it to complete the mitzvah. Each year I somehow manage to find someone in need and keep this promise alive!”
Rabbi Shaul Wertheimer runs the Chabad on Campus for Queens College, and set up a tent in his backyard for the various holiday festivities. On Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Wertheimer blew shofar for many in need, but made himself available at both 3 and 5 p.m. for the community. “If there is a need, I will happily help others in the neighborhood fulfill this sacred obligation,” said the rabbi. At both instances, a socially-distanced crowd gathered for words of inspiration and the powerful shofar blasts. Just around either bend on both 69th Avenue and both sides of Main Street at 68th Drive, similar groups of residents formed by the porches and walkways of homeowners leading t’kios. Brocha Hartman attended Rabbi Wertheimer’s first program and was quite thankful for the opportunity. “We should have this every year. Mothers with small children are often unable to hear the t’kios in shuls, and having nearby coordinated shofar blowing is a huge relief. I hope this program continues in the years ahead.”
In other areas of the neighborhood, the baalei t’kiah reported that they had received notification that neighbors would be listening in. Danny Gross, who led a 78th Road blowing, said, “A few others had called to inform me that they would attend my 3 p.m. shofar blowing.” A similar program was run in the Kew Gardens and Richmond Hill sections of Queens, where 16 different times, with rain locations, were shared with the community for shofar blowing throughout the afternoon on Sunday. “Now we have what to aspire to here in Kew Gardens Hills, as we got lucky this year with clear skies,” observed this writer.
By Shabsie Saphirstein