Souks Soukhaseum, the director of community affairs at the Free Synagogue of Flushing, was selected as one of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 to Watch (formerly 36 Under 36). This distinction honors leaders, entrepreneurs and changemakers who are making a difference in New York’s Jewish community. During the pandemic, Souks’ outreach to local immigrant communities included a wide range of COVID-related services. Originally from Laos, Soukhaseum lives in Flushing, Queens.
For the full list of this year’s “36ers,” click here.
New York York Jewish Week: Tell us about your work and accomplishments.
Soukhaseum: I came to the United States as a refugee. Since joining the Free Synagogue of Flushing in 2014, I have been tasked with creating and implementing the organizations’ vision for a more diverse and inclusive community. The organization is 105 years old — it’s the oldest Reform synagogue in Queens. I live and work in one of the largest and fastest-growing “Chinatowns” in the United States — predominantly populated by immigrants. As a refugee from Laos, many of the services I had access to were through faith-based organizations. Drawing from my experience, I create and provide services that reflect the services that my family and I had access to during difficult times. During the height of COVID, my primary focus has been to support and provide for my community: establishing a community refrigerator, mobilizing members to deliver food to homebound seniors that were at high risk, working with Queens Together to procure food from the USDA and most importantly, working with the NYC Mayor’s Office to establish a vaccination site at our synagogue.
I am also involved with various Jewish organizations. I recently completed a fellowship at the JCRC-NY, am a content creator for PJ Library’s New York partnership network and I work with Be’chol Lashon, My Jewish Learning and the Union for Reform Judaism to highlight the diversity within the Jewish community. I also support emerging progressive Jewish communities across the world — Laos, South Korea, Singapore and recently Lithuania.
How does your Jewish identity or experience influence your work?
I have many identities — I’m gay, Asian and Jewish. Finding a Jewish space where my identities are welcomed was very difficult. As a leader, part of my job is to create a space where individuals can be celebrated, but also thrive in.
In one sentence, what was your best experience as a Jewish New Yorker?
One sentence? Oy! Annually, I invite local schools to come to the synagogue. Students come and ask questions about Judaism, but also experience diversity. One year, prior to arriving, students were told by their teacher that you can identify a Jew by a derivative of their last time — Gold-, -berg, -stein, etc. A student asked me if Frankenstein was Jewish! That was a precious moment, but also a moment where stereotypes need to be addressed.
What’s a fun/surprising fact about you?
During the winter, I teach myself various forms of floral arranging techniques. Last winter I taught myself the art of Japanese floral arranging called Ikibana.
What’s your favorite place in New York to take an out-of-town guest?
Flushing Meadows Corona Park!
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