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Shining light on Chanukah

Rabbi Avrohom Okunov and sisters Rena (c.) and Milana Liberman prepare for Chanukah festivities tonight at Hebrew Alliance.

Read the article in Daily News

Every year, Rabbi Hershel Okunov oversees the lighting of Brooklyn’s largest Chanukah menorah on the corner of Brighton Beach and Coney Island Aves. This year is no exception.

Today at 4 p.m., to celebrate the third night of the Festival of Lights, there will be the menorah lighting and singing and dancing in the street. The rabbi’s congregation, Hebrew Alliance – FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe), will serve traditional potato latkes as well as doughnuts, and give children dreidels and Chanukah gelt.

Then, for the first time in recent years, the celebration will move indoors. At 6 p.m., Hebrew Alliance – FREE is throwing two parties, one for children and one for young adults and families. The congregation is trying to draw more young Russians into the religious life of the community.

Rabbi Avrohom Okunov, the 25-year-old son of Hershel, said that on major Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur, the synagogue – at 2915 Brighton Sixth St. – is packed.

But the rest of the year, although the congregation is in one of Brooklyn’s largest Jewish communities, attendance at services is sparse – about 100 to 150 people weekly – and two-thirds of the regulars are elderly.

That is to be expected in a community where most residents or their parents were raised under communism, Okunov said. But it doesn’t mean that can’t change.

“Many people think religion is sitting in a synagogue and praying the whole day,” Okunov said. “But it offers so much more.”

Tonight’s party will be an informal way of teaching traditions and letting younger Russians know about the services available through the synagogue, such as day care and after-school programs for children and weekly classes on topics in Judaism for adults.

Rena and Milana Liberman, who belong to the congregation, are helping plan this evening’s festivities.

Born in Pyatigorsk, Russia, the sisters were in their teens when their family came to the U.S. in 1989, seeking religious freedom.

“This was the first synagogue our father saw,” said Milana, 29. “He grew up in a religious family, and when he came here and walked into the shul, he started to cry.”

The family was able to openly practice their religion for the first time, Rena, 33, said.

“Here, you can say you are Jewish and be proud. It was a shock,” Rena recalled.

Through the synagogue, Milana and Rena said they learned more about the traditions they had seen their parents observe secretly in Russia.

Now, the two sisters, who are married and have families, want other young Russians to join them in building a congregation for the next generation. They are hoping tonight’s Chanukah party will be a step in that direction.

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