Photo by Michael Shain
At the Bukharian Jewish Center in Forest Hills, Borough President Melinda Katz (c), City Council member Karen Koslowitz (l) and NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce (far left) reassure community leaders they are actiively pursuing a serial arsonist who has struck at least seven times in two months.
By Gabriel Rom

After six weeks of fear and uncertainty as an arsonist targets homes being built by Bukharian Jews, city authorities are stepping up foot patrols and surveillance measures throughout the beseiged Forest Hills community.

Community leaders met Tuesday morning with Borough President Melinda Katz, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce and a host of other city lawmakers. Packed into The Bukharian Jewish Community Center in Forest Hills, they offered what reassurance they could.

“This is something that we take extremely seriously and the community stands together in making sure that we find this arsonist that is out there destroying not only people’s homes, but people’s lives and people’s dreams,” Katz said at a news conference following the meeting.

On Monday, the NYPD added two fire sites to the list of suspected arsons that now stretches back to Oct. 20. All of them have targeted Jewish-owned homes under construction in the heavily Bukharian neighborhood of Cord Meyer.

After Tuesday’s meeting, civic and religious leaders from the Bukharian community hugged and shook hands.

“Today’s meeting was a very good sign that both the community and the Police Department, Fire Department and elected officials are all interested in solving the problem at hand,” said Aron Borukhov, a Bukharian community leader.

Borukhov said community security patrols were being organized in conjunction with the police to monitor the sites. He called the patrols a “work in progress.”

As calls for action from within the community have grown louder, the Bukharian Jewish Center announced it will offer a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist. The NYPD is also offering up to a $12,500 reward. A second video of the suspect has been released which shows a hooded male walking near one of the fire sites on 69th Road.

Deputy Inspector Judith Harrison, commanding officer at the 112th Precinct, said a new command post has been set up at 112th Street and 68th Avenue.

Harrison said police have a list of 29 buildings that are currently under construction in the Cord Meyer neighborhood.

Police have not yet provided a motive for the arsons, but said they do not believe it is a hate crime.

But Manashe Khaimov, who works closely with Bukharian community organizations, connected the arsons to an upswing in global anti-Semitism.

“There is a saying that if you open up an umbrella in France, you must open up an umbrella in Odessa, too,” he said. “Well, what is happening in France is beginning to happen here.”

“If this isn’t a hate crime, then what is?” he added.

The Bukharians’ explosive population growth and preference for constructing large homes has created long-simmering tensions between them and longtime Forest Hills residents.

But Raphael Nektalov, who came to the United States in 1993 after fleeing political and religious repression in previously Soviet-occupied Uzbekistan, spoke of his dream to express his culture and heritage, building taste included, undeterred.

At his office at the Bukharian Jewish Center in Forest Hills, Nektalov proudly opened a book of historic, long abandoned Bukharian homes in Uzbekistan. “See this one? It’s beautiful,” he said. “Our homes, they were beautiful.”

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) concluded Tuesday’s news conference by connecting the Bukharians’ troubled history of state-sanctioned persecution with the current crimes.

“As I was sitting at the meeting I was thinking about the conditions that brought the Bukharian community to the United States,” she said. “It’s sad that they cannot feel safe in their homes anymore, that they left a disturbing situation in the former Soviet Union and they have to face this in their new home.”

Lilianna Zulunova, who was standing outside the press scrum, whispered to herself “that’s so true, so very true.”

Reach reporter Gabriel Rom by e-mail at grom@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

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