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Growing Up Bright, Lubavitch and full of Questions

Among the emigres who come to the U.S. are some extraordinarily bright and energized Russians. Zelig Krymko came to the U.S. from Leningrad in 1978

BROOKLYN NY – Wednsday, November 1, 2006

Among the émigrés who come to the U.S. are some extraordinarily bright and energized Russians.

Zelig Krymko came to the U.S. from Leningrad in 1978 at the age of one and a half.  He was one of many thousands of Jewish children from Russia inspired by the work of FREE.  When he was two years old, Rabbi Mayer Okunov , of the FREE headquarters, approached his parents and offered a no-cost bris mila for their son. Zelig’s parents agreed, and today he remembers with thanks the bris and the bottle of wine presented as a gift.

Many years elapsed and Zelig was chosen as a student in The Gifted and Talented Program of the NYC public school system. Zelig’s mother, reading the Russian newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo, saw an ad for a Jewish summer camp.  Apparently “she didn’t realize the camp was a religious camp” recalls Zelig. “My mom saw an ad for a Jewish summer camp featuring sports, trips, arts and crafts, and even some Jewish cultural learning.”

Mrs. Krymko  decided the camp was right for Zelig even “if she didn’t realize that she would be sending me to FREE’s Russian division of Camp Gan Israel, the Lubavitch summer sleep-away camp in upstate New York,” continues Zelig.

“The summer of 1988 was the first really positive, fun-filled Jewish experience I had.  I learned how to read Hebrew in a few weeks, learned the brochos, and started wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis on a regular basis for the first time.

Rebellious Kid

“My counselors saw that I was very rebellious against the religious aspect of the camp, mostly because I wanted to do what made sense, and it made no sense to me at that point.  So they set me up with this incredibly bright camper from a Lubavitch family, a fellow by the name of Shmuly Hecht, who was a year older than me. We would get beer on Friday nights from somewhere and walk around camp together debating and discussing G-d, Judaism, Torah, and the question of the authenticity of it all (all this at the age of 12!).” Shmuly Hecht is now the Chabad Shaliach at Yale University.

Zelig relates how FREE’s Shabbos Club, which sponsored a weekly Shabbaton in Crown Heights for teens from non-observant homes, brought his summer experience into the entire year.  “I couldn’t wait to come to Crown Heights for Shabbos to see the Rebbe, to learn and win prizes, but most importantly, to go skiing on Sundays in the winter months,” Zelig goes on.

The FREE Shabbatonim would host an average of 10 to 20 teens every Shabbos. Zelig describes the scene. “We slept on mattresses on the top floor of FREE headquarters on President Street. We would split up into two or three teams that would compete. The competition would involve davening, games, learning, answering questions on whatever parsha or holiday reading. Mordechai Goldin, program coordinator of the FREE Shabbos Club, would bring us to the front of the crowd of overjoyed, pulsating hassidim in 770 when the Rebbe would walk through among us before and after davening.”

It was FREE’s summer camp that planted the seeds, FREE’s Shabbos Club that fertilized and watered them, and then they suddenly began to grow.

At Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School , which had a Jewish student population of roughly 800 (20% of the student body), Zelig started a Chabad student club with weekly meetings, outreach activities, guest speakers, and over 100 active members.

Zelig was the only student to wear a yarmulke and tzitzis in the entire school.  He won the admiration of many of the Jewish students and faculty. He was a recipient of the Uri Savir Scholarship Award for Jewish Student Leadership to attend the ” March of the Living,” a two week educational trip to Poland and Israel.  

Rebbe Blesses Zelig

After high school Zelig received a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to go and study in Eretz Israel. He spent over three years in yeshivos in Jerusalem, Tzfat, and Tel Aviv.  He also studied at Yeshiva University , and worked as public relations director of a dot com company in Los Angeles.

In recent years, Zelig has been very active in pro-Israel PR, working as director of college activism for the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). He is actively involved with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living memorial to the Holocaust.

FREE extends its good wishes to Zelig Krymko for his accomplishments and wishes him Nachas from his family.