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FREE vs. Missionaries: The Annual Summer Camp Battle Wages On

Every summer, Russian-Jewish immigrants are subjected to high-powered proselytizing by the Baptist Evangelical summer camp in Connecticut, operated by missionaries.

But now the missionaries have a battle on their hands, thanks loan aggressive recruitment campaign to register these children in Jewish summer camps. The registration is taking place at the Jewish War Veterans Hall, 3149 Coney Island Avenue in the Brighton section of Brooklyn, and is being conducted by FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe).

The Russian-Jews’ plight is one they face every year. The Baptist camp is large, beautiful, and free to Jewish children. the Jewish parents do not realize and sometimes do not care that the children are subjected to constant religious activities with the goal of conversion and baptism.

The director of FREE’s recruitment campaign is Mordecai Goldin, who was instrumental in rescuing 75 Jewish children from the Baptist camp, and who has been working with those Jewish youngsters ever since. The story of FREE’s daring infiltration of the Baptist camp made headlines throughout the country.

“We have organized a series of long-weekends and Shabbatons for those children,” Rabbi Goldin told us, “and it is having a wonderfully positive effect on them. When we rescued those 75 children, 50 still remained – in the Baptist camp. Now, with the help of Hashem and our Shabbatons program, we are even beginning to bring these children back to their Judaism.”

FREE’s Shabbaton programs involve bringing the children to Crown Heights for Shabbos, taking them to Shul (sometimes only for ten minutes at a stretch) and then to families’ homes for the Shabbos meals. The big first attraction for these children, however, is the post-Shabbos Sunday attractions offering, which range from skiing in upper New York State to horseback riding in the Poconos. All of the children attending FREE’s Shabbatons were in the Baptist camp last summer, but none of them submitted to the final stage of baptism and conversion.

The job of getting these children to realize the importance of their Jewishness and to reject the missionaries’ teaching is a difficult one. Rabbi Goldin and the other FREE rabbis and workers meet with the children’s parents, often with frustrating results. One parent recently told them, “I don’t believe in who they pray to and I don’t believe who you pray to, so what’s the difference where my boy goes? The Baptist camp is free and the Jewish camps cost plenty of money, that’s why he went there and that’s why I want to send him there again.”

Of course, most of the parents respond more favorably to the rabbis’ pleas of the importance of teaching their children about Judaism. But the discussions with both parents and children are often difficult.

“At first, the children are afraid of us,” Rabbi Goldin said. “They are all from public school and have been worked over by the missionaries for a long time, some of them for two and three years. So when they hear about Judaism or see a rabbi, they get scared. We start out by telling them stories about how Jewish children in Russia had been taken by the missionaries for hundreds of years. But how they always resisted conversion, sometimes even at the risk of their lives. We try to instill pride in their Jewishness, and it works. Having a child with us for 50 uninterrupted hours during a Shabbaton usually breaks through the missionaries’ brainwashing. After a couple of the Shabbatons, the children are usually ready to consider Bar Mitzvah lessons, Talmud Torah classes, or enrollment in a Jewish summer camp.”

The 50-hour Shabbatons have a remarkable impact on these children. When they first arrive Friday afternoon, they are given a snack and asked to make a bracha over the food. Almost all of them are afraid to say it, fighting an inner struggle between their Jewishness and the beliefs they have been taught by the missionaries. But by the end of Sunday, the whole group screams out pesukim from the Torah in unison with broad smiles on their faces.

Heroic Rescue From The Missionaries

When Mordecai Goldin became one of the heroic rescuers of the 75 children, he was just out of yeshiva. He infiltrated the missionary camp by putting on jeans and a baseball cap and taking a boy from the Lubavitcher yeshiva who posed as his cousin and potential recruit for the Baptists. Goldin and the boy asked to be shown around the camp to see if it would be suitable. The missionaries, of course, suspected Goldin inasmuch as he had a beard, which is uncommonly worn by non-religious Russian-Jews, but they were not sure, so they showed him around anyway, keeping a close watch on him. As Goldin and his young charge strolled through the camp, they surveyed the situation. It was a Sunday, and the camp was filled with parents visiting their children. At the time, there were 125 Jewish children in the camp.

Whenever Goldin would try to talk to the parents about their Jewishness, the camp’s officials would intervene and start talking to Goldin and the other Jewish parents. Then finally, the camp’s church bell began to ring and the missionaries announced that everyone had to go to church. Goldin complained loudly, “but we’re Jewish, we don’t go to church.” The missionaries demanded that everyone had to attend the church services.

Goldin insisted that he was only a visitor and that the other parents were also only visitors and did not understand why a visitor had to go to church. He became the focus of the parents who rallied behind him. The confrontation soon became a high pitched screaming battle, with the missionaries insisting that if Goldin did not go to church, then he had to leave the camp grounds. In a huff, he took his young companion by the hand and led him and an army of some 75 Jewish parents and their children out of the camp that Sunday afternoon, much to the missionaries’ chagrin.

Missionaries Pressure Children

Since that fateful day, it has been a building operation, trying to win the confidence of these youngsters and their parents. FREE has photos of some 50 Jewish families in attendance at the camp, but after publishing one such picture, the missionaries showed up at the family’s home to complain about being betrayed and to put on strong pressure to bring the child back, so FREE has subsequently made it a policy to avoid revealing the names of the children involved in this struggle.

Activities continue throughout the year for these Russian-Jews and are designed to teach them about their Jewish religious heritage. The Sunday before Purim, March 23, FREE held an enormous Purim party in P.S. 225 in Brighton, attracting more than 700 people, including a couple of hundred children. There were clowns and refreshments, games and prizes, and the people learned about the holiday of Purim. And it is this learning that FREE feels is the ultimate key to success. Meir Okunov, chairman of FREE, told us that the typical Russian-Jewish immigrant has little or no concept of the uniqueness of his Jewishness. To the children, most of whom come uncircumcised, there is no difference between a Jew and a Gentile.

Herschel Okunov, vice-president of FREE, posed an intriguing question that he often asks people whom he wants to give financial support that is much needed by the organization. “If it were fifteen years ago, and you were told that you had the opportunity to give a Jewish boy or man in Russia a Bris Milah, what would you spend? Well, Hashem has helped us by bringing thousands of these Jews to America. They still need the circumcisions and it still costs money, but now it is so much easier. Now your contribution can really perform wonders.” To date FREE has given over 9,000 Jewish men and boys circumcisions, each of which costs approximately $150, even though the mohelim donate their services without charge. This, because a circumcision on an adult must be done in a hospital with surgical supervision.

Jewish War Veterans Building

And now, the battle for summer begins at FREE’s new headquarters at the Jewish War Veterans Hall in Brighton, generously provided by Philip Cohen, Hyman Sommer, and Samuel Meltzer. FREE has the difficult job of bringing the children in and determining which of the Jewish summer camps will be most suitable for the individual, providing funds to help out the parents of the children, who would have a free ride with the Baptist Missionaries. The need is overwhelming and the main consideration on the part of the families is the cost.

In previous years, individual contributions have allowed FREE to offset the mounting costs of summer camp tuitions, but every year it is a hard struggle. Today it costs just under a thousand dollars to keep a Jewish child in camp for the whole summer, and FREE hopes to place approximately 250 Russian-Jewish children in more than ten summer camps, meaning that the financial burden is staggering. But the difference one summer in a Jewish camp can make will have an impact on these children for the rest of their lives.

The Chairman of the Manhattan-Brighton Beach committee for Russian-Jews told us: “Bringing Jewish children into Jewish summer camps means the difference between a child staying Jewish and marrying Jewish. With each child, the being in a Jewish camp instead of the Baptist camp can affect future generations for all time. I don’t know of any other battle as important as this one. Thank G-d, we’re winning the battle.”

For information about FREE’s Jewish summer camp activities, contact them at 718-467-0860.

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

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