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Succos Celebration On Brighton Beach Boardwalk

By Yehudis Cohen

A crowd of 5,000 gathered on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk on October 22 for a Sukkos celebration sponsored by FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe). Russian Jewish emigres and their American brethren were invited to help Jews attain a greater understanding of our Jewish Heritage.

Newly arrived Russian immigrant Gregory Groysman was part of the program which included entertainment and speeches in English, Yiddish and Russian. Groysman, in the United States only 9 months, sang traditional Jewish liturgy in a soul-piercing voice. He spoke about the feeling in his heart, which he said “felt whole” at the sight of seeing so many Jews gathered together in one place for the Sukkah Celebration. “G-d blessed America,” Gregory told the rapt audience. “Here you can see that Jews are free to practice their religion.”

Gregory learned about FREE through his 11 year old son, who participates in FREE’s Shabbos Club, one of the organization’s many programs for young Russian Jews in public schools. Gregory’s son, Roman, had a bris milah five months ago. FREE made all of the necessary arrangements. They sponsor tens of circumcisions every month in the New York area, and, says Rabbi Hershel Okunov, Executive Director of FREE, 80% of all Russian Jewish boys who entered the U.S. have been circumcised since their arrival here.

But, despite the high percentage of boys entering the covenant of Abraham, there are a large number of children who have nothing to do with their Jewish heritage and after a relatively short time in the U.S. no longer call themselves Jews.

Many immigrants send their children to public schools. With little opportunity in Russia to acquire Jewish knowledge, parents cannot supplement their children’s Jewish education. Jewish children grow up not understanding about being a Jew.

“It was different in Russia.” explains Rabbi Okonuv, himself a Russian emigre. “In Russia, on your birth certificate and passport, every Jew has the word ‘Yevrey,’ Jew, stamped under nationality. When you register for school and have to show your birth certificate, they know that you are a Jew – if you are a Jew in Russia, you know it.”

FREE established a Shabbos club for Russian Jewish public school children to help instill in them a positive feeling for their heritage. They meet weekly for classes and other activities and periodically for Shabbatons. To attract the youngsters to the programs, however, is not always easy. Often, when they are called and invited to attend a function, their reply is, “It’s not for me, I’m not Jewish, I’m American.” “It’s not that they want to deny their Jewishness,” Rabbi Okunov adds emphatically. “It’s just that their friends in public school identify themselves as Puerto Rican, Korean, African and they truly believe that once American appears on their passports, American is all they are.”

These Russian children are more likely to join the over 200 children who have already been attracted to Christianity by missionaries who run free summer camps, offer free tuition at private Christian schools and hold after-school and weekend activities. The only way to protect the children from continual proselytizing is to give them the knowledge of who they are, Jewish, even if American is stamped in their passport.

FREE effectively combats spiritual attacks on Russian emigres of all ages; whether on a one-on-one basis or through large-scale programs like the Succos Celebration they have been very successful.

One of the speakers at the Succos Celebration was Rabbi Zev Nissenevitch, originally from Moscow, who captivates audiences by speaking to them not only in Russian, but in their language. Regardless of their previous knowledge or connection with Judaism, he talks to them in a way that helps them feel a part rather than apart from the Jewish community.

The multi-lingual program of speakers and entertainment, planned especially for the crowd, attracted an audience of children, adults, and senior citizens. Rabbi Sholom Mendel Simpson, the chairman, and Rabbi David Hollander, the guest speaker, addressed the assembly in Yiddish, to the delight of many in the crowd.

The success of the Succos Celebration, measured by FREE’s standard, was overwhelming. Five thousand Jews, nationality American or Jewish, made “L’chaim’s” in the huge succah, erected especially for the event, and wished each other a good year. They laughed and sighed together, ate and drank together, They were touched by the brothers Horowitz from Israel, performing traditional Jerusalem dances, and caught up in the spirit of the festival, they too danced. They were overwhelmed by the strong yet emotional performance of singer Schneur Zalman Baumgarten. They laughed at the clowns and comedians together, and before leaving, knew a little bit more about what it means to be a Jew.


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

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