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Russian Jews of Brighton Beach: Jewish and Proud

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BROOKLYN, NY — Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Reported by Raizel Metzger

When Milana Feldman was growing up in Pyatigorsk, Russia, borders was a concept to be reckoned with. Under the tight grip of the Soviet Union, even small children understood that there were certain borders that were absolute and impenetrable- the iron curtain, for one. The border between Soviet Russia and the free world seemed impossible to cross. But last week, at a concert named Music Without Borders: Moscow-New York 2004 Milana and her family joined over 600 fellow Russian-Jewish immigrants who turned out to hear the Moscow Synagogue Choir and M Generation –a local boys choir in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

The concept of Moscow having a synagogue, whose choir comes out here to perform in New York, together with a local choir of boys from Russian-Jewish immigrant families, was mind-blowing for most of our audience, says Rabbi Hershel Okunov, director of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, known to most people as F.R.E.E., the organization that coordinated the concert. For people like Milana Feldman, and her father, Isaac Lieberman, who struggled for years to bring his family over to the United States, Sunday night’s concert confirmed that the borders they once thought were impassable are clearly a thing of the past.

Music Without Borders which celebrated the Rebbe’s upcoming 102nd birthday this week, was a fitting tribute to the Rebbe’s vision, says Rabbi Okunov.

It takes a visionary to see beyond seemingly impenetrable borders, and Rabbi Okunov, who founded FREE in 1968 at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, says the Rebbe truly broke the border between Russian and American Jewry, by laying the groundwork for a Russian-Jewish community in America long before that seemed viable. Music Without Borders which celebrated the Rebbe’s upcoming 102nd birthday this week, was a fitting tribute to the Rebbe’s vision, he says.

Hershel Okunov was a yeshiva student, newly arrived from Russia, in 1968 when he met with the Rebbe for a private audience. In the course of the meeting, the Rebbe requested that he undertake the founding of an organization for Soviet Jewry in America, in preparation for a large influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. Okunov was stunned. There were perhaps two or three families leaving the Soviet Union per year, he recalls, An influx of Russian Jewry seemed out of the question. Sensing his surprise, the Rebbe assured him that indeed, the governments in Eastern European countries would soon be issuing visas for young people to leave the country. When those people would arrive, the Rebbe said, they would need an organization to assist them in settling in the U.S. Eventually, the Rebbe continued, people would be arriving in large numbers from various countries in Eastern Europe and even central Russia.

Okunov lost no time in setting up initial meetings and committees for the fledgling organization, guided every step of the way by the Rebbe’s personal instructions. When he sent in minutes of the inaugural meeting of the so-called Society for Russian Jews for the Rebbe’s comments, the Rebbe made a notation on the page, changing the organization’s name to Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe – or F.R.E.E., as it became known.

Today, F.R.E.E. is a name known to tens of thousands of Russian- Jewish immigrants in the New York area, with countless more in various affiliated branches across the U.S. In Brighton Beach, an area predominantly occupied by Russian immigrant families, FREE serves the material and spiritual needs of thousands adjusting to a new life in America.

When Milana Lieberman-Feldman arrived in Brighton Beach with her parents and siblings in 1989, their first contact with Jewish life in America came through F.R.E.E., which had recently set up permanent quarters in the old Hebrew Alliance Synagogue in Brighton Beach, down the street from their new apartment. Like most of Russian Jewry, Milana’s family knew little about Judaism, but they were very grateful to meet up with a Rabbi who knew Russian, the only language they spoke at the time.

Okunov, assisted by his then-teenaged sons, helped the family find jobs and get settled in the neighborhood. Closely associated with the Okunovs for over 15 years now, Milana says she has watched F.R.E.E.’s growth in Brighton Beach over the years and it is truly astonishing. When we came, she recalls, they could barely gather ten men for a minyan on Shabbos. Today, F.R.E.E. boasts a growing community of over 40 Shabbat-observant families, most of them young couples with children, and that number is steadily increasing, thanks to constant outreach efforts.

The center offers various ongoing educational activities for children, including an after-school program, Shabbat program, Sunday outings, and a recently opened preschool. Daily and Shabbat Minyanim are well attended, as are annual holiday events such as grand public Chanukah celebration and a Sukkot Festival on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk, attended by close to 2000 people last year. F.R.E.E. publishes and distributes a wide variety of Jewish publications in Russian for the holidays and year-round.

Some 200 local Jews are expected to join F.R.E.E.’s annual communal seders next week. A longstanding F.R.E.E. tradition, the seders are open to the public and conducted entirely in Russian, accompanied by Russian-Hebrew Haggadahs that are published in-house. For nearly all of the participants, the F.R.E.E. seder experience marks their first time ever celebrating the holiday.

Jews who came from Soviet Russia were not used to being part of a Jewish community and they know very little about Judaism, says Milana Feldman, who, together with her husband Igor and daughter Zlata, are now active members of the young community centered around F.R.E.E., led by Okunov, and his son and daughter-in-law Rabbi Avraham and Chanie. The key to bringing them in, she says, is often through their children. People come perhaps because their children are interested, and then they start to see this wonderful, warm community and they want to be involved.

Of particular pride to F.R.E.E. of Brighton is the M Generation Boys Choir – M for Moshiach- made up of seven of the community’s youngsters. The choir won first place in an international contest in Germany last year, and Rabbi Okunov says they were a major draw for Sunday night’s Music Without Borders event. Their performance alongside nine members of the internationally acclaimed Moscow Synagogue Choir made for a spectacular concert, he says.

Also on the program was a video presentation of a talk delivered by the Rebbe at a Lag Bomer parade in 1980, where the Rebbe spoke in Russian and directed his comments to an international audience. Emphasizing G-ds protection of Jews everywhere, the Rebbe invoked the right of every Jew to study and practice Judaism, a right which he insisted was legally upheld by the Soviet constitution.

The Rebbes far-reaching vision saw no borders between Soviet Jewry and the freedom to practice religion openly at a time when no one could imagine it, Okunov observes.

Music Without Borders seemed the perfect way to pay tribute to the Rebbe’s leadership and the fulfillment of his vision.

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