FOREST HILLS, New York – The bus stop in front of the UJA Federation in central Queens displays an advertisement that shows a smartphone and a link to the city’s voting website, encouraging voters to vote on November 8. “All the voting information you need at your fingertips,” it says.
Four synagogues within five blocks surround this bus stop in the New York City borough of Queens, including Beth Gavriel Bukharan Jewish Center, one of the largest and most active in the Bukharan community. This year, local council members used ads at the bus stop to announce major renovations at the synagogue.
The ads “kind of opened their eyes about the importance of elected officials in politics and things along those lines,” local community organizer and publisher of Chazaq magazine, Yaniv Meirov said. “We’ve been sending around a link on WhatsApp – to hundreds of groups – on how you can register to vote online.”
Voter turnout in the community was low for the primaries.
The neighborhood voted primarily for Hillary Clinton, and cast more ballots for Bernie Sanders than for Donald Trump. But the numbers for the Republican nominee were significantly higher than in other Queens neighborhoods.
Come November, the Bukharan community – comprised of Sephardic Jewish families from the old Soviet Union – is expected to vote for Trump, whom they view as beneficial to Israel and whom they favor for having a Jewish daughter, Ivanka.
Bukharans carried an inherent distrust of the political system with them from the USSR when they immigrated from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries during the late ’80s and early ’90s. They did not believe in their vote.
Now that is beginning to wear off as American-born, post-Soviet youth show their political voice in local politics.
Nonetheless, there is still an attachment to modern-day Russia. The attachment is not patriotic, but more out of interest as outside bystanders who have a cultural attachment to the country. So there is a mild interest in Russian President Vladimir Putin, but not in the country’s politics.
The biggest influence on politics this year will come from local rabbis, who are encouraging congregants to vote. Adding to this, earlier this year for the first time, the community appointed a chief Sephardic rabbi of New York, who has begun to unify the community.
The presidential election could be the beginning of a change for some traditionally Democratic strongholds in New York City with this conservative, post-Soviet, religious community likely voting Republican.
“If the chief Sephardi rabbis says to vote,” store owner Alex Yakubov said, “there will be millions of voters.”
Yakubov’s bustling breakfast location – Pizza Palace Cafe – is one of many kosher eateries in a four-block strip.
It serves Russian and Israeli- style morning meals along with typical American fare.
Yakubov switches between English, Russian and Hebrew for his customers, while slipping in a bit of Spanish when directing one of his employees who brings in a new batch of bagels.
“I’ll be honest with you, a lot of us don’t vote,” Yakubov said. But his views on American politics are quickly changing. Recently his rabbi advised the congregants to vote, which is the first time Yakubov recalls that happening.
In the past, in addition to his inherent distrust in the political system, the rabbi saw greater value in studying than voting.
As a religious man, Yakubov’s outlets for news are limited. He doesn’t have a television and he typically doesn’t read the papers. So his news mostly comes from what he hears from customers or on local radio. “A lady came in and said you should vote for Hillary,” he said. “What makes you think I’d vote for Hillary?” Like many in the community, he sees Trump as a better choice, in large part because he is perceived to be good for Israel, but primarily because he has a Jewish daughter.
The owner of Salamander Professional Shoe Repair, Alex Levi, came to the States in 1987 and feels Trump is a strong candidate. He and his family are registered Democrats, but in the last election Levi voted for the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. He values Putin’s attitude although he doesn’t pay much attention to him, or to Russia.
“We have to be friends with them,” he said. “They are a huge, huge power. ‘Keep your enemies closer to you.’” Levi is also concerned about immigration. A wave of Muslim Uzbeks who have come to the neighborhood. Some Bukharans are wary, not because they are Muslim but because of past experiences in the Soviet Union, such as the 1989 riots in Uzbekistan, which left more than 100 dead and 1,000 injured in fighting between Muslims and Turks.
“They are supposed to come,” Levi said. “But there has to be some kind of control.”
There is a general agreement that Trump will not be good for everyone currently in the United States.
“For Jews, I think it will be better with him than with her,” Levi said. “Maybe for other nations not so good. I don’t know. For Muslims, not good.”
Later in the conversation, a former surgeon of 50 years and current professor at New York University and Albert Einstein Medical Center in New York, walked into the store.
“What do I think? I don’t like Hillary Clinton and not Trump,” Prof. Paul Shalonov said. “I don’t have any choice.
Do you understand?” He said that he may not vote this year.
“Trump has good ideas for the United States, but he cannot analyze and explain,” Shalonov said. “And Trump is a liar.”
“Everybody lies,” Levi said to him. “Tell me, which politician does not lie?” They both agreed on one thing – the borders of the country need to be more secure.
“Borders should be protected, 100%,” Shalonov said.
“United States now is in very bad condition.”
“They say 100 or 250 patrol men are on the border. The border is so many miles,” Levi said.
“Soviet Union, the border was maybe 10 times more than [the] American border. Russia is a very big country,” the professor replied.
“Nobody wants to go to Russia! But everybody wants to come here.”
Outside the store and inside Russian pharmacies and supermarkets you can find Chazaq magazine. The nonprofit organization that produces the magazine is now 10 years old and has increasingly become an influence in local politics, urging the community, especially youth born in the US, to vote.
Yaniv Meirov, who started the nonprofit back in high school with his brother by publishing a newsletter, said, “We’re building a lot of hype about the importance of going out and voting.”
One flyer posted around the neighborhood read: “Put our community on the political map with an army of voters who vote in the primaries in addition to the general elections.
We get to chose an elected official that will listen to the community’s voice. We need politicians to respect our point of view.”
Chazaq has worked with local, mostly Democratic, politicians such as council member Grace Meng, who was the first New York House representative to oppose the Iran nuclear agreement. At an event hosted by the organization, New York’s new chief Sephardic rabbi Yitzchak Yisraeli was pictured with Mayor Bill DeBlasio.
Recently, Meirov got involved in politics by hosting a question and answer at the JBIZ Expo in Manhattan with chief legal officer of the Trump organization, Jason Greenblatt. The campaign is “up to par with our regards to Israel,” Meirov said, though he made it clear that he and Chazaq will not endorse any candidate because of their nonprofit status.
“A candidate like Trump gets them excited,” Meirov said of the community. “He’s an interesting character.
Obviously we all know that.
He’s from New York, so we’ve definitely heard of him in the past. His daughter converted to Judaism. That adds to the picture a lot. He says things the way they are, which Bukharans really like. That’s just been there mentality.”
This time, the mentality may also include the idea that your vote is worth something.