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Helping Hands

By Jon Kalish

Since 1968, when two Russian rabbinical students were asked by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to attend to the needs of immigrants, Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE) has been assisting Jews from the former Soviet Union and Warsaw bloc.

“I wasn’t thinking about organizations. I wanted to study,” recalls Rabbi Hershel Okunov, who founded FREE and now directs a staff of 38 full-time employees with a $1.5-million annual budget. “The rebbe said people are going to be coming out and we’re going to need to start special yeshivas and summer camps for the refugees.”
So the 19-year-old rabbinical student and his older brother, Meir, went to work and a quarter of a century later FREE is more than a catchy acronym. The multi-service organization assists Eastern European emigres and their children with jobs, clothing, furniture and religious observance. It even acquires kosher meat at discounted prices for recent arrivals.

‘FREE is headquartered in an old mansion on President Street in Crown Heights, around the corner from the Lubavitch World Headquarters on Eastern Parkway. Okunov said the group receives no money from the Lubavitch organization. He said contributors are not all Hasidim but represent all branches of American Judaism. FREE has distributed at least 100,000 charity coin boxes common in many Jewish households, in the New York area. On a regular basis families empty the container, add up the accumulated coins and then mail in a check to FREE.

The funds are used to provide:

  • High Holy Day services at the Hebrew Alliance of Brighton Beach each fall. About 1,500 worshipers attended last year.
  • Passover seders in Brooklyn. About 1,600 Eastern European immigrants will attend FREE seder next month.
  • Ritual circumcisions. More than 10,000 have been performed on Jewish males ranging in age from a few months old to more than 60. Most are done at Brooklyn Interfaith Hospital in Crown Heights. FREE picks the men up and takes them home after a religious ceremony marking the occasion.
  • Translations of Jewish texts into Russian
  • Cheaper-than-wholesale kosher meat for 300 families in Brighton Beach and Crown Heights. “Actually, it’s cheaper than non-kosher,” Okunov said.
  • A Sabbath club in which 25-30 children enrolled in public school get to spend the Sabbath in the FREE and interact with religious the families in Crown Heights over the weekend.

FREE has also arranged for more than 700 Russian and Eastern European students in Crown Heights, Brighton Beech Flatbush, Borough Park and Staten Island to study towards an associate degree in liberal arts. The programs are affiliated with Concordia College and Molloy College. Students also take courses in neighborhood synagogues.

Okunov, 44, seems to have inherited his zeal for helping his fellow Jews from his father, who was arrested when he was 12, for studying Torah in a Lubavitcher yeshiva in Russia. His father became a teacher and had to go into hiding. It took him about 35 years to finally get out of the Soviet Union. The elder Okunov took his two sons to Israel and after a brief stay there the brothers came to Brooklyn in 1967 to study at the United Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Crown Heights.

“Whatever we have done,” said Okunov, “there’s at a least fifty times more to do.”

Jon Kalish is a free-lance writer.

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