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Brighton Beach Sukkot festival attracts thousands

Seven Russian Jewish teenagers – recently rescued from the clutches of a Ukrainian Baptist missionary camp – were among the estimated 6,000 people who celebrated Sukkot on Brighton Beach’s boardwalk last week.

The teenagers, their parents, and throngs of Russian Jewish immigrants waved lulavs, blessed etrogs, sipped wine in the sukkah and enthusiastically participated in the 15th annual Sukkot festival sponsored by FREE – Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe – an organization geared to preserving Jewish identity among Russian immigrants.

Less than three months ago, the teenagers were well on their way to conversion at the Connecticut missionary camp, according to Herschel Okunov, FREE director. The organization claims credit for securing their release and returning them to their Brooklyn homes.

“We are not going to rest,” said Okunov, “until the camp and all similar organizations either give up their missionary work on Jewish boys and girls, or shut down completely. We don’t care if they have a thousand campers each summer as long as none of them are Jewish.”

The five-hour festival, held outdoors despite inclement weather, featured the hard-driving Chasidic sounds of the Piamenta Band, Avraham Fried, and songs by Cantor Shneur Zalman Baumgarten. Rabbi Shalom Simson, spiritual leader of the Ocean View Jewish Center, and Rabbi Zev Nisnevitch, formerly of the Soviet Union, told the predominately Russian-speaking crowd of the significance of Sukkot for Russian Jews in America.

“Russians understand the word simcha, joy,” said Okunov. “People dancing and drinking l’chaim brings a sense of closeness to God and the realization that Judaism is very great. This festival makes a lasting impact on everyone present.”

Related: Missionaries themselves acknowledge the success of FREE’s activists in pulling Jews out of the their clutches

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