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Dreams Delivered in Brighton Beach

By Daniel Botnick

When Rabbi Hershel Okunov and a young financier, from Boca Raton, Florida ascended in a cherry-picker to kindle the first lamp of Chanukah in Brighton Beach this, year, they experienced the realization of many dreams.

Rabbi Okunov dreams of bringing the recent waves of Russian immigrants- as close to Judaism as he himself is, and showing these new Americans that one of the great blessings of this land is that everyone is free to practice his own faith. The large crowd of participants at this menorah lighting, despite sub-freezing weather, brought the rabbi’s dream closer to reality as the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE) celebrated that lighting of its impressive 27-foot menora in grand style. FREE and its director, Rabbi Okunov, brought a touch of class and glitter to the intersection of Coney Island and Brighton Beach Avenues.

Against the bustling Brighton Beach atmosphere that sometimes included the roar of an overhead train, there was live music, dancing, and rousing songs by chazan Schneur Zalman Baumgarten.

Adding an almost magical element to the atmospore were the young people distributing trays of delicious treats. There were enough hot latkes, fresh sufganyot, mini-franks and l’chaims for everyone. A number of older people in the crowd were visibly moved. This gala, public observance of Chanukah was obviously a dream come true, for them as well.

The remarkable event was made possible through the generosity of Lev Parnas, 29, and Robert M. Grinberg, 30, a pair of very successful young Russian immigrants who are living the American dream. The two decided to show their appreciation to what they call “their adopted home-town” of Brighton Beach. What better way to do that than through FREE, the organization dedicated to providing spiritual and physical support to new arrivals from Russia – and what better time than Chanukah?,

Although Parnas and Grinberg are successful beyond their wildest dreams – the need for Americanstyle, material success often had eclipsed spiritual needs.

“We wanted to contribute to something that we were never really part of,” remarked Grinberg, somewhat wistfully, when asked how they became involved in FREE. “We also want to show the young people of this community that with educatinn and some effort, the rewards can be tremenous,” added an obviousy sincere and beaming Parnas.

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