Combating Overdoses

UJA-Federation launches initiative to respond to opioid overdoses in Queens

The initiative, launched this month, aims to respond to the rapidly growing opioid overdose crisis among the Bukharian Jewish community in Queens by distributing Narcan at no cost.

The opioid epidemic in the United States claimed 109,680 lives in 2022. Drugs have become increasingly lethal, with fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine, used to lace counterfeit pills. American Jews have not been spared. A new UJA-Federation of New York initiative aims to respond to the rapidly growing opioid overdose crisis among the Bukharian Jewish community in Queens. 

“We knew this was an issue in the community for quite some time,” David Aronov, special advisor community and external relations at UJA-Federation, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Community leaders approached us and we decided to take proactive action to save lives.” 

Through the initiative, launched this month, 12 community-based synagogues and community centers around Queens will now provide free Narcan kits on request in partnership with The Jewish Board, a licensed Narcan provider. Each community site will have a point of contact responsible for training and for distribution of Narcan to any community member in need of a kit, according to the federation. The Narcan is distributed to The Jewish Board at no cost from the New York State Department of Health. 

Aronov said the increase of addiction within Queens’ Bukharian community mimics national trends. While there aren’t official counts, Aronov estimates there have been “several dozen” overdose deaths within the last few years, mostly males between the ages of 19 and 40.

“Fentanyl is cheap, invisible and like all other communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were significantly worse, and that’s definitely a factor in addition to societal pressures within the immigrant community,” he said.

Aronov, himself a member of the tight-knit Bukharian Jewish community in Queens, estimated that every member of his community knows someone who is battling with addiction or has passed away from an overdose. Aronov said he got involved because “UJA has the resources and network to help.” 

Bukharian Jews, who come from present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, represent just a small fraction of the American Jewish community. But the Bukharian Jewish population has grown rapidly in Queens since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the past three decades, the community went from one synagogue to 30. Of the approximately 70,000 Bukharian Jews living in the U.S., close to 50,000 reside in Queens.  

For Ruben Izgelov, a Bukharian Jew living in Queens, getting involved in the program was personal. “I’ve seen a lot happen to a lot of the community’s youngsters, including friends and their parents going through pain from addiction. A close friend of mine passed away [from an overdose] 10 years ago. They found him in his bathroom on New Year’s Day. One day David told me about the initiative, and I said ‘count me in in any capacity possible.’” 

Izgelov is one of the designated point people. Community members at Izgelov’s synagogue know to reach out to him if they are in need of Narcan.  

Hiski Mierov, vice president of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, serves as another community point of contact for Narcan distribution. “A large chunk of the problems going on in the community comes through to our center,” he told eJP.

“In the past six or so years, the drug-related issues really started to surface here in our community. I don’t think it’s unique to our community, but I think it’s something new that is due to lack of education to parents and teenagers and lack of programs to handle things like this. We have rolled out programs in schools to educate on fentanyl’s dangers, but this is still all new to our community so the UJA program is a great help. It’s reached a lot of families and teenagers in Queens,” Mierov said. 

Rivka Nissel, a social worker and director of Jewish community services at the Jewish Board, said in a statement that the partnership with UJA is a “powerful step toward addressing the opioid overdoses that continue to rise and steal the lives of our loved ones.” 

Aronov noted that UJA runs numerous addiction recovery services throughout New York State, but the particular initiative, which is being launched as a pilot, is intentionally local to Queens. 

“[This is] a community that might not respond to typical methods of outreach, which is why we are keeping it hyperlocal. People know where they are going, they trust their rabbi,” he said. 

The launch comes amid existing stigma surrounding mental health and addiction in the Bukharian community. The stigma is so bad, according to Aronov, that there are no concrete statistics within the community associated with the issue. “It’s still unknown to a lot of folks — what does it mean to be addicted to drugs, is this going to bring shame to the family. It takes time to break down the barriers.”

How will the initiative break down those barriers? “Not only will people be able to get Narcan for free, but we are also [running] an educational campaign,” Aronov said.

“This sparks [awareness] that there is an issue to begin with and [encourages] community members to be open to talking about it. When your rabbi talks on Shabbat about an issue with opioids, people become more open.”