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Freedom For the Free

By Boruch Jacobson

Click here to see pictures of the event

Last Friday I had two visitors, Rabbi Meir Okunov and Rabbi Zalman Shagalov, both of whom work for an organization called FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe). The two rabbis came to report on their activities for the thousands of Russian Jews who are streaming to America to build a new life after so many years of suffering and persecution.

Many of these new immigrants know little or nothing about Judaism, which was repressed almost to the point of extinction in the former Soviet Union over the last seven decades. “We just recently celebrated our 10,000th circumcision,” said Rabbi Okunov, “since most of the boys and men come out of Russia lacking this very essential mitzvah.” “The general media reported this milestone widely, but hardly anyone realizes how great the number 10,000 is,” added Rabbi Shagalov.

Rabbi Okunov explained: “After the circumcision is done, we don’t just kiss them goodbye. We follow up by encouraging the children to go to a Jewish school or yeshiva, helping the families keep kosher, and making every effort to help them join the activities of the Jewish community. Our many projects include summer camps, Jewish weddings, job placement programs and more.”

“We stay in touch with our Russian families for years and years,” said Rabbi Shagalov. “One of the greatest miracles regarding Soviet Jewry after the collapse of Communism is that after coming to America, without any knowledge or experience of Judaism, they become full participants in the Jewish way of life.”

“In fact,” chimed in Rabbi Okunov, “many of the boys who were circumcised by us have grown up and built fine, strong Jewish families of their own.” “The greatest nachas of all is that some of them have joined our organization and now head some of the programs. Their own life experiences help them better serve the wider Russian Jewish community,” explained Rabbi Shagalov.

Rabbi Okunov was very excited to report about the organization’s recent Passover holiday activities. “FREE conducted the Passover seder feast for thousands of Russian men, women and children. For many of them it was their first free Passover, and the Hagadda’s prayers and blessings revolved not only around the Egyptian exodus, but their own exodus from Russia, too.”

Rabbi Okunov continued. “This year we published the 16th printing of our Russian-language Hagadda, and distributed more than 13,000 copies. We also authorized its printing in Israel and in the former Soviet Union. The popular response to this Hagadda, as well as to FREE’s other Russian publications, has been phenomenal. Many of the recent refugees praised the modern Russian-language translations, which they appreciate much more than the archaic and obsolete translations previously available.”

Rabbi Okunov elaborated on the adult education programs FREE offers throughout New York. “Our instructors and teachers are also usually recent refugees, which enhances the success of the classes and lectures. The students are overwhelmed that there are Russian Jews who kept the faith behind the Iron Curtain, yet who understand the problems and specialized situations which face the contemporary Russian refugee.”

One of the most successful ongoing programs is the weekly Mesibat Shabbat directed by Hershel Okunov, a brother of Meir. The children gather joyfully for several hours to play games, listen to stories and review Mishnayot by heart. “Thanks to Rabbi David Hollander, the children are comfortably accommodated in the Hebrew Alliance Synagogue,” stated Rabbi Okunov. “The only snag we encountered was that many of the parents and grandparents who come to pick up their children from the weekly Mesibat Shabbat have a problem, because the kids don’t want to leave. So we came up with a solution that benefits everybody. We opened up an adjacent room and now run an interesting program for the parents and grandparents while they wait.”

“Each event, whether on Shabbat, the holidays or during the week, produces dozens of new observant Jews. It starts with something small, like lighting the Shabbat candles or the giving of charity, but it grows from one mitzvah to another, until you have a whole family of traditional Jews, like their grandfathers and great-grandfathers used to be,” said Rabbi Shagalov.

Rabbi Okunov described their strategy for sparking the children’s interest: “Since at first some of the children are not particularly interested, we have also developed a full program of recreational sports, including skiing trips to the Poconos, horseback riding, boating, amusement park outings, and camping trips. This attracts all the kids. Once they see that you can have fun even after you pray and eat a kosher breakfast, they bring the Judaism they learn back home, to share its enjoyment with everyone.”

Aside from informing me of their various programs and projects, the two rabbis also shared a recent report from their colleague, Aaron Pasternak, who is in charge of FREE’s circumcision department. Pasternak reports that when FREE’s 10,000th circumcision was recently covered in the general media, exposure was given in newspapers and television to Russian-Jewish boxing and chess champions who had also gone through the difficult procedure. After the television reports were aired, FREE’s telephones were ringing off the hook. People wanted more information, donors called wishing to contribute, and many, many men and boys called to say that they, too, wanted a brit (circumcision).

When the two rabbis left my office last week they smiled and commented that although they were sure I would write about how successful their wonderful activities are, I shouldn’t fail to mention that thousands of Russian families ? who don’t yet know what Jewish freedom is all about ? are still arriving. FREE cannot reach everyone. All Jewish people must share the responsibility to help their brothers and sisters be “free” in every sense of the term.

Thank You

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