Tag Archive | "Parkchester"

Bangladeshi families prep for controversial specialized high school exam

About 40 middle school children—all but one from Bangladeshi immigrant families in the Bronx—sat quietly inside a stark classroom at Khan’s Tutorial in Parkchester on a Sunday afternoon in September. Barely audible from the upstairs classroom were the sounds of children playing at a nearby park as the 12 and 13-year-olds reviewed fractions, greatest common factors and least common multiples. Eighth grader Rafsan Zaman, with the beginnings of a moustache and a mouthful of braces, reviewed again and again the one math problem he missed on a practice test from that morning. Rafsan’s name was up on the Khan’s Tutorial room whiteboard as it had been nearly every week. It meant that he was the top scorer on the 100-question practice exam for the specialized high school admissions test, known as the SHSAT, the all important gateway exam into the city’s eight legendary, elite public high schools. It was set to be given on October 24 and 25--in just two weeks.
Eighth grade student Rafsan Zaman studies nearly 15 hours a week for the specialized high school exam he will take at the end of the month.

Eighth grader Rafsan Zaman studies nearly 15 hours a week for the specialized high school exam he will take at the end of the month.

Still, for Rafsan, one wrong answer meant there was room for improvement. Parents said they can spend up to $4,000 for the year-long tutoring program. Their hopes for their children's futures depend on a high score. “Every time the score comes back it gives me more information of what I need to study,” said Rafsan, tightly clutching an algebra practice book under his arm. The eighth grader expects to get into Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, considered the best of the best of the elite schools that include Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and LaGuardia School of the Arts. Admissions decisions are based solely on results from the highly competitive SHSAT, a requirement that is currently up for debate in the state legislature. “It sets the way for college and career,” Rafsan said. Three rows behind Rafsan sat Rahat Mahbub, also an eighth grader, but with a younger face and gentler demeanor. Rahat worried that his reading comprehension scores would not be good enough. His mother, Taamina Mahbub, enrolled him in Khan’s SHSAT prep program in June of 2013. She feels almost the same pressure as her son, and urges him to keep studying. “The process is stressful and the culture is competitive,” Taamina Mahbub said. “I am really nervous—usually the parent is more nervous than the child.” For the last two decades, this private SHSAT tutoring company has successfully targeted the city’s growing Bangladeshi immigrant community. Khan’s Tutorial, a 20-year-old institution begun in Queens, recently set up its second center in the Bronx, following the Bangladeshi immigrant migration from Jackson Heights to Parkchester that began in the 1990s. The website advertises prices at $15 per hour. Parents said they pay as much as $4,000 for their children to attend tutoring nearly two years before the exam, hoping a high score will help guarantee placement in a good university down the road. Since its founding in 1994, Khan’s has sent 1,400 students to specialized high schools. Some students come two weeks prior to the exam for tutoring, some start as early as the sixth grade. The company’s administrators recommend that students prepare for the exam at least one year in advance. “For South Asians or Asian Americans, the SHSAT has been the common path to pursue in our culture,” said Sami Raab, director of Khan’s Tutorial in Jamaica Queens. “You see testing as important and that carries over to first generation children.”
Khan's Tutorial, a prep center for standardized tests like the SHSAT, opened a second location in the Bronx this year to accommodate the growing Bangladeshi community in Parkchester.

Khan's Tutorial, a prep center for standardized tests like the SHSAT, opened a second location in the Bronx this year to accommodate the growing Bangladeshi community in Parkchester.

For students who are well prepped, scoring high on the SHSAT is possible, but for those who can’t afford tutoring programs, or don’t know about the test at all, access to specialized high schools remains out of reach. Bronx students have historically ranked at the bottom in the city in terms of the number of children who take the test, and who score high enough to be considered for admission. Although the city provides free tutorials, such as the DREAM Specialized High School Institute (SHSI)—a rigorous 22-month program offered to sixth graders with high test scores and financial need—some feel that more needs to be done. Many, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, believe that the single test criterion is unjust and leads to student bodies in the elite schools that do not represent the public school population. Last year, 375 Latino and 243 African American public middle school students were offered admission at the eight specialized high schools, compared with 2,601 Asian and 1,256 white students; this in a system where 72 percent of the public school students are black and Latino. After a complaint lodged by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the increased controversy over the schools’ one test admission process, Mayor de Blasio proposed a bill in June that would allow for criteria such as attendance and grade point average to be considered as well. Those in favor of the bill claim the legislation would give students without extended tutoring and prep, a better shot at specialized high schools. Assembly member Luis Sepulveda who represents Castle Hill and Parkchester, is a co sponsor on the bill. He called the 12 percent of African American and Latino students at the elite three specialized high schools—Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science “dismal” and “unacceptable.” “Anyone can have a bad day and do poorly on a test,” Sepulveda said. “Schools have to look at other criteria. It’s not solely about your education, it’s about your involvement in your community.” The day after de Blasio proposed the bill last June, coalitions in favor of the test formed in protest.  Don’t Abolish The SHSAT and CoalitionEdu, as well as parent and alumni associations from the specialized schools, argued that the test did not cause a lack of diversity in the high schools. Instead, they said, the fault lay with a school system that failed to prepare more diverse students to pass it. Don’t Abolish The SHSAT has collected 4,198 signatures through its website and CoalitionEdu offers politicians’ contact information, urging parents and students to get involved. These groups claim the school district’s lack of communication about the test leaves students from low socioeconomic backgrounds out of the loop until it’s too late to study. “The overall issue is failing K through Sixth grade and middle school systems throughout New York City,” said the head of Khan’s Tutorial, Ivan Khan. “By proposing a more holistic approach, wealthier families will have better access to more subjective resources. We strongly feel that those should be explored further rather than changing the criteria.” While Khan’s Tutorial addresses the bill from the corporate level, tutors keep the issue at bay during weekend test prep. Rafsan and Rahat had two more Saturday classes before they took take the two-hour test alongside 27,000 other eighth graders on October 25 or 26. “It’s just a test,” said Rahat, with uncommon calmness. “I know it’s the most convenient way, but one Saturday moment doesn’t determine everything.” Rahat’s mother believes an essay or report card should be included. His stay-at-home mom has seen too many bright students miss out on the opportunity to go to a specialized high school because of the single criterion. “It should change,” Mahbub said. “One test is not fair. One or two points and you have to go to another school.” Still, tensions are high as the test date approaches. It may abate after the test is given, but will likely return in February when the results are announced. Middle schools, tutoring centers and the Parkchester neighborhood unofficially referred to as Bangla Bazaar, will buzz with the news of who got in where. And who didn’t. Mohammad Rahman, a 14-year-old from Castle Hill, remembers the day last February when his SHSAT results came back. Fifteen months of prep at Khan’s in Castle Hill and countless hours studying at home were for naught—Mohammad’s scores weren’t high enough to get accepted. He would not join his brother at a specialized high school. “I felt to an extent ashamed I didn’t get in,” Mohammad said. “My mom felt I should follow in [my brother’s] footsteps.” Now a freshman at Manhattan Center for Math and Science, Mohammad thinks maybe the single test process isn’t fair. “People just study the test format,” he said.
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Wasi Choudhury writes the top scoring students' names on the whiteboard as incentive for all of the students to study harder. "Everyone's goal is to get on that list," he said.

  Photocopies of practice tests fill Rafsan’s backpack. He estimates he has taken over 20 by now. Because Khan’s Tutorial is known for giving diagnostic tests that are more difficult than the actual SHSAT, Rafsan is hopeful. “If you can get a 95 or a 96 on these tests, you can definitely get into a specialized high school,” he said. Rafsan’s tutor at Khan’s Tutorial, Wasi Choudhury, will continue to write the top scorers’ names on the whiteboard for the class to see. There are only 2,500 seats in the top three specialized high schools and students know their competition is each other. “Everyone’s goal is to get on that list,” Choudhury said. “It pushes them to get up there.” Choudhury, a student at New York University and an alumnus of Bronx Science said Rafsan has a good shot of “going specialized,” though tutors can never know for sure. “Stress ruins it for a lot of students,” Choudhury said. “There were kids that we said were sure to get in and failed the test.” Rahat lives a few blocks away from Khan’s center in Parkchester and looks forward to the coming weeks when he doesn’t have to come sit for four hours on the weekends. This summer his family will be able to visit Bangladesh—a vacation forgone last summer due to his tutoring schedule. In November, Rahat plans to apply to private schools, in case the test day doesn’t go as planned. But life will be good, he said, if he scores high enough on the test. “I’m going to play six hours a day. Nothing will matter because you got into a specialized high school.”  

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Mosque, ultra-Orthodox synagogue share one roof in the Bronx

Members of the ultra-Orthodox synagogue Chabad of East Bronx were mostly members of Parkchester's Young Israel congregation in Parkchester, which closed down because of low membership. (Ted Regencia/THE BRONX INK)

Near the corner of Westchester Avenue and Pugsley Street in Parkchester, just off the elevated tracks of the No. 6 train, Yaakov Wayne Baumann stood outside a graffiti-covered storefront on a chilly Saturday morning. Suited up in a black overcoat with a matching wide-brimmed black fedora, the thickly bearded 42-year-old chatted with elderly congregants as they entered the building for Shabbat service. Nothing unusual here except that the green awning above the entrance reads Masjid Al-Iman in bold white letters with an Arabic inscription below. The building is owned by the Islamic Cultural Center of North America, home to the Al-Iman mosque. For the past two and half years, the Chabad of East Bronx, an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, has also worshiped under the same roof. At a time when New York’s Jewish community is facing tension after the recent anti-Semitic attack in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, this Bronx neighborhood’s Muslim community and its remaining Jewish residents have shown that they can worship peacefully side by side. And while many view them as historic adversaries, a demographic change in the Bronx has propelled the two religious groups into a unlikely bond. “There is no reason why we should fight,” said Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the center’s founder. Baumann only recently found out about the Chabad when he spotted six Orthodox men walking briskly in his area. They then invited him to their unusual prayer space for food during Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival in October. Baumann said he was surprised to find the synagogue was housed in a Muslim center, but also happy that there is still a place for Jews in Parkchester to worship. “People have a misconception that Muslims hate Jews,” said Baumann. “But here is an example of them working with us.” It all started a few years ago at the now-shuttered Young Israel Congregation, also in Parkchester. The congregation used to give away clothing for needy families in the neighborhood, said Leon Bleckman, 78, the treasurer of Young Israel, who now attends the Chabad. Drammeh was in charge of collecting clothing donations for members of his mosque, many of whom are immigrants from Africa. The 49-year-old is an immigrant from Gambia in West Africa who came to the U.S. in 1986. After a year in Harlem, he moved to Parkchester, where he eventually founded the Muslim center and later established an Islamic grade school. Through that initial interaction, cooperation between the two houses of worship was developed. It didn't hurt that Drammeh is a likable person, Bleckman said. The synagogue continued to donate to the Islamic center, among other organizations. But in 2003, after years of declining membership, Young Israel was forced to sell its building at 1375 Virginia Ave., according to Yeshiva University, which keeps historical records of  synagogues in New York City. Before the closing, non-religious items were given away, including chairs and tables now used at Drammeh’s Islamic center. Meanwhile, Bleckman and the remaining members moved to a nearby storefront location, renting it for $2,000 a month including utilities. With mostly elderly congregants, Young Israel struggled to survive financially. That decline followed a trend in the Bronx. In the 1930s, the Jewish population was estimated at 630,000, according to the Bronx County Historical Society. Bleckman remembered that when he was growing up in the South Bronx, there were six or seven synagogues and on Saturdays, they were always packed. But by 2002, the number of Jews in the Bronx had dropped to 45,100 in the borough of 1.3 million people, based on a study by the Jewish Community Relations Council. At the same time, the Muslim population has been increasing. According to a 2001 Columbia University study, there were 600,000 Muslims spread across the five boroughs. In Parkchester alone, there are currently five mosques, including Drammeh’s Masjid Al-Iman. At the end of 2007, Young Israel ran out of money and closed for good. The congregants were left without a place to pray. During the farewell service a day before the closing, members of Young Israel were surprised when four young men from the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights showed up. Three months earlier, Bleckman, then chairman of the synagogue’s emergency fund, had appealed for help from the Chabad. “The boys from the Chabad said they came to save us,” said Bleckman. “We were crying.” From then on, Chabad took over from Young Israel. The members adopted the new name Chabad of East Bronx. Still, for the next six to seven weeks, Bleckman said they could not even hold a service because they had nowhere to hold it.

On weekdays, when the makeshift synagogue is not in use, students from the Islamic school use it as their classroom. (Ted Regencia/THE BRONX INK)

When Drammeh learned of their plight, he volunteered to accommodate them for free at the Muslim center at 2006 Westchester Ave. “They don’t pay anything because these are old folks whose income are very limited now,” said Drammeh, adding that it was his turn to help. For about six months, the few remaining Jewish members held their Friday night service inside Drammeh’s cramped office. As more people began attending the Friday prayer, Drammeh offered a bigger room where the Chabad could set up a makeshift shul, the Yiddish term for synagogue. Inside the synagogue, a worn, beige cotton curtain separates the men and women who attend the service. A solitary chandelier hangs just above the black wooden arc that holds the borrowed Torah, which is brought weekly from the Chabad headquarters. A large table covered with prayer books stands in the center. In one corner, a table is stacked with pastries and Seagram’s ginger ale. A picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, is displayed prominently nearby. During Shabbat, when Jewish congregants are strictly prohibited from working, they have to rely on the Muslim workers at the center or on Drammeh to do simple chores such as turning on the light and switching the heater. Drammeh said he admires the dedication of the rabbis, who walk 15 miles from Brooklyn every Saturday so that they can administer the service for the elderly Parkchester residents. Bleckman said he was comfortable attending service inside the Islamic center. “They were very friendly to us when we were in Young Israel, so I knew that it was okay,” he said. “They are funny and nice and one of the most hospitable people in the world,” Drammeh added. At first, it did not make sense, said Hana Kabakow, wife of Rabbi Meir Kabakow. "I was surprised," said the 26-year-old congregant who was born and raised in Israel. "But when I came here I understood.” The Kabakows have been coming to the service from Brooklyn for the last two years. Harriet Miller, another congregant, said she appreciated the center's accommodating the synagogue. “They are very sweet people,” said the 79-year-old Bronx native and long-time resident of Parkchester of her Muslim hosts. Miller said she welcomes the new Muslim immigrants in her neighborhood, adding “we were not brought up to hate.” Drammeh also understands the importance of teaching tolerance. That is why fifth-grade students at the center’s Islamic Leadership School are required to participate in an interfaith program organized by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust memorial in Manhattan. And it seems that he is making a conscious effort to make the school a model for religious tolerance in New York. The Islamic school was originally founded at the nearby St. Helena Catholic Church on Sept. 11, 2001. “We’re not as divided as the media portrays us to be,” Drammeh said. “Almost 90 percent of Jewish, Muslim and Christian teachings are the same." The project introduces fifth-grade Jewish and Islamic school students to each other’s religious traditions. Other participants of the four-month program include the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, the Al Ihsan Academy of Queens, and the Kinneret Day School of Riverdale. “It has been more successful than we thought possible,” said Shireena Drammeh, the principal of the Islamic school and wife of the center’s founder. She credited both the Muslim and Jewish parents and students for embracing the “opportunity to interact with each other.” The program, now on its sixth year, involves Jewish and Muslim students visiting a mosque and a synagogue. At the end of the program, they also organize an exhibit that shows family artifacts of their respective cultures and religion. At the Islamic center itself, the makeshift shul doubles as a classroom for the Muslim students during weekdays. The principal said that even after the program ended, the student participants became “fast friends” and would visit each other’s homes. “They would have birthday parties together,” Shireena Drammeh said. “When someone invites you to their house, I mean, that says it all right there and then.” The two faiths have a lot in common and its critical to teach students about those lessons at a young age, said Dr. Paul Radensky, Museum Educator for Jewish Schools. “We want to build mutual understanding and mutual respect between Muslims and Jews.” Patricia Tomasulo was the community leader in Parkchester who introduced the leaders of the synagogue and mosque to each other. “Nowhere in the world would Jews and Muslims be meeting under the same roof,” said Tomasulo, who is Catholic. “That’s why it’s so unique.” While the Jewish congregants are thankful for the welcome, they hope that one day they can rebuild their own synagogue. But that day may be far off. Even now that they have space to worship, they still struggle to operate. They don’t have proper heating inside, and the portable working heater could not reach the separate area where the elderly women are seated, forcing them to wear their jackets during the entire service. Congregants are appealing for financial support from the Jewish community and other congregations. Even with the less than ideal conditions, they hope to use Hanukkah to attract new congregants.  Rabbi Notek said hopes to publicize the Dec. 26 Festival of Lights celebration to local Jewish residents through the mail and on the web. Leon Bleckman said the goal is to revive the Jewish presence in the neighborhood, while reaffirming the positive relationship with their Muslim friends. “We are able to co-exist together side by side in the same building,” said Assistant Rabbi Avi Friedman, 42. “That’s sort of like a taste of the future world to come, the messianic future where all people live in peace.” Despite his many efforts promoting religions tolerance, Moussa Drammeh said he still has a lot of work to do even within Parkchester's diverse Muslim community. "Not every Muslim likes us because not every Muslim believes that Muslims and Jews should be like this," Moussa Drammeh said referring to them sharing a space with a Jewish synagogue. “There’s no reason why we should hate each other, why we cannot be families,” Moussa Drammeh said.

Aside the from the mosque, the Chabad of East Bronx synagogue also shares space with an Islamic school. All fifth graders at the Islamic school are required to participate in an interfaith program organized by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Ted Regencia/THE BRONX INK)

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From Bangladesh to the Bronx

Naan bread and meat curries are among the house's specialties; the menu varies, but goat, chicken, and duck stews are always available. BIANCA CONSUNJI/The Bronx Ink

Make no mistake: The food in Neerob, a canteen-style eatery in the Bronx, is Bangladeshi—not Indian. The Parkchester restaurant first opened over three years ago, spurred by owner Mohammed Rahman’s frustration that numerous “Indian” restaurants actually served dishes native to Bangladesh, and were staffed by Bengalis. “When you say that the food in a restaurant is Bangladeshi, no one wants to come,” said Rahman, who first came to the U.S. 20 years ago as a student. “But when you say it’s Indian, people are familiar with it. They know what to order.” He refused to comment on Indian food, saying only that although the basic principles of Bengali cooking are similar to Indian styles, Bangladeshi cooking uses different spices. For his dishes, Rahman uses less garlic and omits curry leaves—a vital ingredient in southern Indian cuisine that imparts a strong, slightly bitter flavor. “My dream is to make Bangladesh’s food mainstream,” said Rahman, whose family worked in the food service industry back in his hometown of Dhaka. “It’s authentic Bengali food.” The hole-in-the-wall establishment is located in the heart of a Bengali community along Starling Avenue, and it’s evident by the clientele who drop in for some deep-fried pakoras (South Asian vegetable fritters) and spiced milk tea. Neerob attracts a varied range of diners from all five boroughs of the city, plus more from upstate New York and New Jersey, but its regulars are by and large, Bengali. Rahman, a jovial, stocky man in his late 30s, shakes hands and exchanges a few words with every customer who comes in. Although Neerob means “quiet” in his native tongue, the atmosphere of the restaurant is anything but. Space is limited; lunchtime tables are inevitably filled with groups sharing banter over large platters of curried meat, wiping up traces of mustard oil and sauce with pillowy triangles of naan bread. Even deep in the afternoon on a Sunday, the restaurant is never empty. Fish, the staple of the Bengali diet, stars prominently on the menu. Pan-fried in mustard oil, minnow and catfish are covered with onions, chili, and cilantro, and doused with sauce. Prices don’t go over $10, so it’s a common sight to see blue-collar workers tucking into bread and curry, as well as a steady stream of professionals toting takeaway cartons of food for their families. Meat curry and a saffron-hued pilaf cost about $7.50-9 for the combination; a $1 piece of naan and a $4 dollop of bharta (a mashed dish of vegetables sometimes mixed with seafood) is a meal on its own, although $1 portions are available for curious diners who want to try different varieties. Pakoras are three for a dollar. Desserts are limited, but shôndesh, a creamy ball of cottage cheese soaked in syrup, ends the meal on a satisfying note. Customers come for the food as well as the cozy atmosphere. Taxi driver Khandoker Huq, who comes in at least twice a month for some chicken or fish curry, said, “He’s a fantastic guy and cooks good food.” Bani Chodhury, a physician from Bedford Hills, often makes the trip from Scarsdale to Starling Avenue to purchase food for her family. “During the week, I can’t always cook,” said Chodhury. “I even have Neerob cater my parties, and the best part is, they always provide a surplus of food so there’s no shortage, no matter how many guests come—and in Bangladesh, people take home food from parties.” Rahman doesn’t hesitate to pass on recipes to customers, some of them American-born Bengalis yearning to learn more about their culinary heritage. “I always tell the recipe,” he said. “I’m not losing anything. When you help somebody, they will come again.” But don’t ask him what’s in Neerob’s signature tea, a fragrant mixture of milk and spices. “That’s my only secret,” he said, winking.   Neerob, 2109 Starling Avenue (Olmstead Avenue), Parkchester, Bronx; (718) 904-7061 By subway: Castle Hill on the No. 6 train  

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Bengali immigrant savagely beaten

Police are searching for two suspects in the assault on Bimal Chanda in his Kingsbridge apartment. JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

The fatal beating of a Bengali man in his Kingsbridge building last week has shaken members of the north Bronx Bengali community, who now believe he was targeted because of his ethnicity. Bimal Chanda, a 59-year-old former taxi driver, was robbed and severely beaten on the second-floor landing of his apartment building on 190th Street just off of Fordham Road on the morning of October 29. He died in the hospital four days later from severe head trauma, leaving behind a wife and a 16-year-old daughter. Friends were shocked at the brutal assault of Chanda, who emigrated to Kingsbridge from Calcutta, India nearly 30 years ago. “He was an innocent guy who was killed intentionally,” said Mohammed Ali, a member of Community Board 7, who had been friends with Chanda for more than 10 years. “The Bengali community is very afraid of this biased crime. It’s a hate crime.” Ali said Chanda, an acute diabetic, was moving from his apartment on the third floor to a condominium in Parkchester, because of concerns about crime in the area. He and his wife were picking up the last of their possessions in the apartment when Chanda left to purchase tape from a nearby 99-cent store. That’s when two men grabbed him from behind on the staircase and struck him on the head with a metal object. The commotion could be heard throughout the apartment building, which has no security cameras or working locks on the front entrance.
“I heard a big noise,” said first-floor resident Nidia Rodriguez, whose 16-year-old son attended elementary school with Chanda’s daughter. “Then I heard his wife screaming.” Another resident on the first floor, Sara Inoa, rode in the ambulance with an unconscious Chanda and his wife Chaya, both of whom she had known for 17 years. “She came banging on my door, asking for help,” said Inoa. “He was lying on the floor with his head bleeding. For me, he was dead right there.” Ali said he doesn’t believe the incident was just a robbery, since Chanda still had his cell phone and more than $80 in his pocket when he was taken to the hospital.
“Robbers, they target us,” said Ali, referring to what he said has been a series of thefts and attacks on Bengalis in the neighborhood in the last couple of months. Ali helped organize a rally Thursday after Chanda’s funeral in Parkchester, where Chanda’s wife and daughter now live.

Police have placed notices inside the building where Chanda was killed, on 190th Street. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

Police have released a video of the two suspects, described as male and black, between the ages of 20 and 25, and approximately six-feet tall apiece. Notices of the attack have also gone up in the apartment building, including one written by residents demanding the landlord install cameras and fix the broken locks on the front door.
Chanda’s death is one of three homicides that occurred within one week in the 52nd precinct, which encompasses Kingsbridge, Bedford Park and Norwood. A 35-year-old man was stabbed to death in the lobby of an apartment building on Grand Avenue near Fordham Road on Tuesday morning. Police have yet to identify the victim, or any suspects in the case.
On Saturday morning at around 4 a.m., a 21-year-old man was shot in front of an apartment building on 2843 Bainbridge Avenue, near 198th Street, a few blocks from where he lived on the Grand Concourse. Detectives on the scene said that the man had been in an argument with several other men when the shots were fired. The victim, Edwin Valdez, who was shot in the chest, was still able to walk to 198th Street where he was able to receive help. He later died at Saint Barnabas Hospital. Bainbridge Avenue was cordoned off by police between 198th Street and 199th Street all morning, including a portion right in front of the Academy of Mount St. Ursula High School. Police have not identified any suspects. The early morning killing convinced some longtime residents in the Bedford Park neighborhood that it was time to leave.
“I’m moving upstate,” said Linda Matos, a mother of four, who heard the gunshots that morning from her apartment two buildings down. “The Bronx is disgusting. You’re so used to it. For my children, I say to God every day, please protect them. Police have released video footage of the suspects sought in Chanda's killing.

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Parkchester Mugger Arrested, WSJ

Police have arrested 20-year-old Cameron Roebuck in connection with the brutal attack and mugging of an 81-year-old Parkchester senior, the WSJ reports. Police said his capture was expediated by suveillance camera footage, which showed Roebuck pushing 81-year-old Jose Rodriguez into the lobby of his apartment last Thursday (Sept. 28). Roebuck escaped with $30 and some jewellery after giving the senior a nasty beating.

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Bronx synagogue welcomes Jewish New Year with a last goodbye

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The conservative synagogue’s sanctuary of wood and stained glass once bustled with a congregation of almost 1,000. (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

On a rainy Wednesday night at the start of Rosh Hashanah, Miriam and Herbert Korman struggled up the stairs to reach the lobby of Temple Emanuel at Parkchester in the Bronx. Eight other congregants waited patiently for the couple to arrive inside the almost empty sanctuary of faded wood and stained glass. As he reached the foyer, 91-year-old Herbert Korman groaned with exhaustion. It was the final time that the Kormans will lead Jewish New Year services at Temple Emanuel. On Oct. 31, Parkchester’s last conservative synagogue will officially close, bringing an end to another chapter of Jewish history in the Bronx. “I can’t even imagine not having this,” said Miriam Korman, as she nodded towards the two-story sanctuary. “We’ve been members here for over 50 years.” The 88-year-old congregation president said she is disheartened by the synagogue’s closing, but with her stroke last July and her husband’s fragile health, it's time to let go. The synagogue's closing comes down to a problem of numbers. Without the Kormans, visiting Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch could not even assemble the minimum of 10 adult Jews needed to form a minyan, essentially a quorum to open the arc that holds the Torah, and start rituals to pray for a sweet new year. This time, there was more sense of sorrow than sweetness in the air. “I feel sad,” said Herbert Korman, the temple ritual chairman, as he clung to his walker for support. “I feel very sad. There are no Jews left here so we can’t continue. That’s what has to happen.” The rabbi’s recitation of the holy text reverberated across the hall, drawing attention to the almost deserted space that once held close to a thousand members. At times leading the service himself from the front pew, Herbert Korman directed the rabbi to read specific holiday passages. Temple Emanuel, on the corner of Benedict and Pugsley Avenues, was built in 1948. The congregation started in 1942 at a corner store under the No. 6 train, according to Joan Green, a lifelong member whose father helped raise the money to build the imposing red brick structure. At its peak, the temple overflowed during Shabbat service on Saturdays. Green’s voice crackled as she described her childhood at the temple: attending Hebrew school, joining the Girl Scouts and witnessing bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. “Everything revolved around here,” said the 75-year-old retired recreational therapist. “We had hundreds and hundreds of families. Parkchester had a lot of Jewish people in those days.” Green said there were so many kids during her time that the rabbi had to combine bar mitzvahs “because they didn’t have enough Saturdays” to hold individual services. “It was a home away from home for us,” Green said. Parkchester once needed at least five synagogues to accommodate all the Jewish families in the area, said Miriam Korman. According to the Bronx County Historical Society, almost half of Bronx’s entire population of 1.26 million in 1930 was Jewish. But as of 2002, there were only 45,100 Jews in the borough of 1.3 million people, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council, a non-profit advocacy group. At Temple Emanuel, George Serrano, 65, and Sharon Long, 52, are among the youngest members. Serrano said many upwardly mobile families moved to more affluent Riverdale and Westchester County in search of better schools. Other aging members simply died or retired to Florida. “What happened here is part of the Jewish phenomenon--Jews are moving,” said Deutsch, 40, the visiting rabbi, who had flown in from San Francisco. It was his first visit to New York City and he stayed for only three days. About 20 years ago, the congregation had a steep decline in membership, said Green. With much less money coming in, the temple could then only afford student or temporary rabbis, and the lively musical accompaniment of a cantor and organist was no longer in the budget. Three years ago, the struggling Temple Emanuel transferred the building's ownership to the Bronx Jewish Community Council Inc., which helped with its finances and the process of closing down. The Jewish non-profit group sold the synagogue in August to its next-door neighbor, the Bronx Charter School for Excellence, for $875,000, according to city records. But closing a temple isn’t simple. “You can’t just abandon a synagogue,” said Serrano. “We have to liquidate everything, even the Torahs.” He said one of the five holy scrolls will be donated to a Jewish day school in Rockland County. On Oct. 5, Green will also send a scroll wrapped in a shawl to a synagogue in Oklahoma City. “The spirit of the synagogue will always be present in the building,” said Serrano. The few remaining members have until the end of October to conclude services and move out before the charter school fills their beloved space. It will then be converted into classrooms and will not be torn down, said the charter school's finance director, Archie Crawford. Green, who lives in Co-op City, said she is not ready to find a new synagogue to call home. For now, she will focus on the last services, including the conclusion of Yom Kippur on Oct. 8. “And then we are history,” she said. “L’Shanah Tova,” (to a sweet year) the Kormans said as they greeted other congregants at the conclusion of the Wednesday service. Then they shuffled out of the synagogue and into the dark, rainy night.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Featured, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, SlideshowsComments (9)

Parkchester senior assaulted in his lobby

Police are asking for the public's help in identifying the man who assaulted Jose Rodriguez (above) last Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Ted Regencia)

An 81-year-old Parkchester resident was knocked down and punched inside the front door of his apartment building Thursday afternoon by a young male assailant who tore off the senior’s jewelry and emptied his pockets of cash. Police released security video footage from the building at 1555 Unionport Road that showed the attack lasted less than a minute. The elderly victim, Jose Rodriguez, sustained minor injuries, including multiple bruises. View Larger Map The footage shows Rodriguez, who was returning home at around 4 p.m., opening the door to his building, when a man wearing a towel draped over his head grabs him from behind. The mugger then held Rodriguez in a chokehold and shoved him into the lobby, where he began hitting him in the face. Once Rodriguez fell to the floor, the teen tore the towel from his head and continued beating and kicking. Rodriguez, who has dark bruises on his face from the attack, said he has lived in Parkchester for 35 years, and this was the first time he had been assaulted. “I don’t feel safe,” said Rodriguez, who was born in Puerto Rico. “You don’t feel safe in any part of the world.” Rodriguez said he did not get a good look at his attacker. His younger sister, Luisa Rodriguez, said she was saddened by the incident. Other neighbors commented that the area had become dangerous only recently. Police report that over the past two years, robberies in Precinct 43, which includes Parkchester, have risen 3.3 percent. “I’ve seen all kinds of stuff happening in the last couple years,” said Ronald Smith, 69, a retired social worker. “I’ve been here eight years and it’s getting worse and worse.” Smith said security in the area was not enough. “I’m checking when I go out at night to see who’s behind me,” he said. “I’m checking to see who’s on the elevator with me. You learn to be cautious. These little incidents make you that way.” In August, a 64-year-old man was assaulted and mugged by three assailants while entering his building in Fordham Heights, 3 miles away. Police are asking anyone with information about Rodriguez's attacker, who they believe is in his late teens, to report to the website nypdcrimestoppers.com. All tips are anonymous.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, CrimeComments (0)

From Bangladesh to the Bronx: immigrants find new hope and new tensions

Zakir Khan (left) poses with another Bangladeshi leader and Luis Sepulveda at a Bangldeshi cultural event in September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Zakir Khan (left) poses with another Bangladeshi leader and Luis Sepulveda at a Bangldeshi cultural event in September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

It’s hard to imagine from looking at his plush office on the Metropolitan Oval in Parkchester, but almost 20 years ago, Zakir Khan was a new immigrant, fresh off the plane from Bangladesh with a mere $5 in his pocket. He paid his way through The City College of New York by working for $4.25 an hour at Burger King and selling concert T-shirts outside of Madison Square Garden. That hard work earned him his own lucrative real estate business in the Bronx where he employs more than 20 people. When Mohammed Islam came to the U.S. four years ago he had more money in his pocket than Khan did—$20—but he’s had a rougher road than Khan. Islam was laid off as a city traffic worker last year at the height of the recession. On the evening of Sept. 17, he was mugged and beaten by a gang of teenagers while walking home on St. Raymond Avenue from a Bangladeshi cultural event at P.S. 106 in Parkchester. The  teenagers pulled a gun on Islam, punched him and stole $900. Islam spent three days in the hospital after suffering cuts on his nose, forehead, mouth and knee. He has since undergone two plastic surgeries to fix the damage to his face. Islam and Khan represent the two sides of the Parkchester Bangladeshi community: older residents, like Khan, who have begun successful businesses and newer immigrants who have been hit hard by the recession. Khan wears well-tailored suits with crisp, white pocket squares and vibrant ties often in shades of green while Islam dresses in linen pants and shirts in neutral, tan colors. They do have one thing in common: while they fear for their safety, they also revel in the opportunity to live in America, which they see as a land of opportunity compared to  Bangladesh. Even in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, America offers a fresh start. Over the past 20 years, the Bronx has become a haven for new Bangladeshi immigrants. Starling Avenue in Parkchester is the bustling main hub for Bangladeshi businesses, with stores selling Bollywood hits and fuchka, bite-sized street snacks made from fried, unleavened puri bread filled with a spicy mixture of potatoes, onions and chickpeas. Passersby can smell the deep fried chilies and spices from blocks away and hear the melodic Bangala music, heavy on bansuri (a Middle Eastern flute) and dotara (a small stringed instrument resembling a guitar).
Assemblyman Peter Rivera (right) speaks with Masuma Afraze (left) after her husband was attacked on September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Assemblyman Peter Rivera (right) speaks with Masuma Afraze (left) after her husband was attacked in September. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Bangladeshis began arriving in the United States in large numbers in the early 90s because of the new diversity visa lottery, an immigration program that opened up U.S. immigration to Asian countries that had largely been barred  because of quotas and high visa fees. The new program lowered the cost of visas and allowed immigrants to come to the U.S. based on a lottery system rather than needing to apply for asylum or having a “high priority” profession like engineering and science. According to the Department of City Planning, 9,000 Bangladeshis came to New York City between 1990 and 1994 and the number kept rising. Most Bangladeshi immigrants settled in Astoria, Queens, which quickly gained the name “Little Bangladesh” after dozens of Bangladeshi businesses and institutions set up shop, including mosques, grocery stores and cultural societies. The East Bronx began to draw more Bangladeshi families as the cost of living in Astoria began to rise. In 2003, the Bangladesh Society of New York moved from Queens to Parkchester and renamed itself the Bangladesh Society of the Bronx. After living in the U.S. for five years, a visa holder can apply for citizenship and then apply for visas for their remaining family in Bangladesh. Both Khan and Islam directly benefitted from the new visa process. In 1967, his sister came to the U.S., settled in the Bronx and brought over family members after she established herself for five years. An older brother came first. In 1991, after he had been in the country for five years, he brought Kahn in. Islam also came to America through family visa connections. When Khan speaks now about Bangladesh, his eyes dart around as if to make sure no one is listening. Then, he speaks slowly in a low voice. “Bangladesh is a great place and if you ever get the chance to visit you should,” he said. “But Bangladesh just can’t offer the opportunities that America can.” When Khan arrived in the Bronx in 1991, there were only roughly 10 Bangladeshi families in Parkchester, a small commercial center located off the 6 train in the east Bronx. Today, there are over 1,500 families totaling over 4,000 people, according to Census Bureau statistics released in 2009. The biggest local mosque, Jame Masjid, composed entirely of Bangladeshis, has seen similar growth. According to Moyez Uddin Lulu, Jame Masjid director, in 1987, the mosque had only 11 members. Today, there are over 1,500 worshippers on any given Friday, the biggest worship day for Muslims. “Most of our members are new immigrants, people who have been here five years or less,” Uddin Lulu said. Jame Masjid was the only mosque in Parkchester until the 1990s; now there are five others. Jame Masjid is a Bangladeshi mosque, the others are a majority Bangladeshi but also have members from other Muslim countries. Looking back on his childhood in Bangladesh, Khan remembers that he was lucky if he could buy one new shirt a year. Now he can purchase four or five new suits for work. “A college professor in Bangladesh only makes $10,000 a year,” Khan said. “There’s no comparison between the two places.” Khan speaks highly of his childhood friend Ahad Abdul, a school teacher in Bangladesh. Khan said that he and Abdul had, basically, the same upbringing; they went to the same schools and got the same grades. But Khan was afforded the opportunity to come to America while Abdul stayed behind, becoming what Khan calls “a fabulous teacher at a great school.” Still, when Khan went back to Bangladesh a few months ago to visit, Abdul asked him for money to help buy a bicycle. “He’s a school teacher and a good one,” Khan said. “But he needed help buying an $80 bike. That doesn’t happen here.” Khan gave him the money. Khan was two years old when Bangladesh became an independent country; today he believes himself very lucky tp have gotten out and flourished in what he sees as a fantastic U.S. economy, contrary to what may be in the news. “People here see the unemployment rate of 9 percent and cry for reform,” Khan said. “In Bangladesh, 36 percent of people live below the poverty line.” Islam remembers a similar life in his homeland. He misses it but realizes that even though he lost his job here, America offers many more opportunities and a more stable financial situation than Bangladesh ever could. “I have a job here,” Islam said. “That means I am successful.” While Khan and Islam enjoy the opportunities life in America allows, they also believe that they are targets for the African-Americans and Hispanics who have long dominated the neighborhood because they’re new and because they came to America equipped and ready to weather hard economic times since that’s all they knew in Bangladesh. Within a few months of their arrival, most Bangladeshis have found steady jobs and a place to live. “Many in the community feel there is racial jealousy going on towards us,” Khan said. “They feel we’re easy targets because we’re peaceful, many don’t speak a lot of English and we’re not known to fight back.” Islam agrees that those feelings lead to jealousy from other immigrants and unemployed Americans alike who don’t understand how their conservative Muslim faith helps them succeed by inspiring them to work hard. Mohobub Alom, president of the Bangladesh Society of the Bronx has spoken out against the violence and called Islam’s attack and many others like it “hate crimes” that represent what he sees as an increase in violence against the Bangladeshi community. Police in the 43rd Precinct, however, said they see no connection between recent robberies and the Bangladeshi community. “There is no indication that Bangladeshis are being targeted because of their national origin,” Deputy Inspector Charles Ortiz said. He also said that crime in the area has decreased over 10 percent in the last year. Yet, despite this decrease, tensions are high in the Bangladeshi community. Islam is afraid to speak out, declining to talk about his mugging and only about the Bangladeshi immigrants as a whole, fearing that he’ll be targeted again, especially because he identified his attackers who were arrested and released on their own recognizance before their court date on Jan. 24. “This violence needs to stop,” said Masuma Afraze, Islam’s wife, who was at home just blocks away when the attack happened. “I think the area needs more safety.” Clashes of culture also play a role  in exacerbating misunderstandings, many Bangladeshis say.  The Jame Masjid mosque caused controversy last January when it petitioned Community District 9 for a loudspeaker system to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer. The petition was rejected because residents didn’t want added noise, said Uddin Lulu, the mosque director. Francisco Gonzalez, community district manager, confirmed the noise complaint but wouldn’t comment further about why the petition was rejected. Despite that rejection, Jame Madjid  is an important resource for Bangladeshis in the community, especially recent immigrants. When new families arrive, they are adopted and taken in by families who have been here longer and they learn the ways of the city whose skyscrapers and subway systems look as foreign to them as a rice paddy and dirt road would look to a New Yorker. It’s this sense of community that has caused the Bangladeshi community in the Bronx to become a large and vocal demographic, but sometimes even the community’s embrace can’t shield them from hardship in a new country. So, Bangladeshis have turned to Bronx policy and lawmakers to help them feel safer in their new American home. During September’s primary race for the 76th District Assembly seat, both Democratic candidates Luis Sepulveda and nine-term incumbent Peter Rivera courted Parkchester’s Bangladeshi population as a way to gain votes in what would end up becoming a close race. The Bangladeshis soaked up the attention. “They made us feel like we matter,” Islam said. “Especially after losing my job it was good to feel seen.” Both assembly candidates were at the Sept. 17 cultural event during which Islam was attacked and both men made phone calls to connections within the police precinct to try and get Islam help as soon as possible, especially after they found out that the 911 system was down that day. “The Bangladeshis are such a growing group in this district that it’s silly not to see how much they mean to the community,” said Sepulveda, who many Bangladeshis call “Mr. Luis.”  “They own businesses and add a lot to the lifeblood of Parkchester.” Khan said that “Mr. Luis” gained ground within the community because he spoke early and often about stopping violence against them. “Street violence has increased at least 20 percent in the last year,” Sepulveda said. “It has to do with the economy. I want to start a community task force to police the streets.” Though he lost the Democratic nomination 44 percent to 56 percent, he still plans to lobby for such a task force to help combat street violence in the area. Despite what Khan and Islam see as the dangers of living in the Bronx both are thankful every day for the opportunity to come to the United States. “It’s better here,” said Islam whose face still shows scars from his attack two months ago. “In Bangladesh I would never have a job.” Islam now works at various Bangala restaurants on Starling Avenue. Khan feels the same way. He helps new Bangladeshi immigrants find affordable apartments and even funds 20-30 scholarships to put young people back in Bangladesh through school because Khan understands how important an opportunity an education is. All of the scholarship funds come from Khan personally--$3,000 covers books, tuition and school supplies for one Bangladeshi student for a whole year. “I’ve come a long way and I’m very proud,” Khan said. “But at the same time a lot of my work is to help people like me, new immigrants who are just looking for a chance.”

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