As a young generation of Russian-American Jews grows up, one organization makes changes in the way it reaches out.
As 30 Jewish teens, all first and second generation Russian immigrants, snapped their boot bindings into their skis and leapt aboard Hunter Mountain’s lift, they were continuing a tradition of Jewish education begun by Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E.) in 1969. Back in the 70s and early 80s, when Soviet Jews arrived with few or no possessions but a passion for religious freedom, F.R.E.E. served as benefactor, offering practical necessities – dishes and clothing – and spiritual growth opportunities with a yeshiva, Jewish camp, and brit milah services. All still exist: F.R.E.E. recently performed its 13,200th circumcision; its Brooklyn day camp attracted 150 kids last summer; the F.R.E.E. high school is still open on Ocean Parkway. But the organization’s focus has evolved with the changing needs of the Russian-Jewish community.
Overall, the first generation of Russians that came as children and now have kids of their own do not value what their parents felt was important,” said Rabbi David Okunov, associate program director of F.R.E.E. “Those who can afford it go to private schools out on Long Island How can a Jewish organization compete with the American dream? The answer may be found on the snowy peaks of Hunter Mountain Resort, where F.R.E.E. campers have been welcomed by the owners, the Slutzky family, for years. Skiing, rope courses, tubing, ice skating, bowling and swimming in an indoor pool at the winter camp’s site on the premises of the Landfield Avenue Synagogue’s inn took up most of eight-day experience. Torah classes were offered once a day.
Directors Rabbi Dan Dashevsky and Rabbi Mendel Okunov counted more upon the camp’s Jewish atmosphere and the counselors to convey the compatibility of Judaism and fun. The idea is they should have a great time while gaining a sense of Yiddishkeit,” said Rabbi Okunov. Sam Trost, a star student at P.S. 234, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah enjoyed camp.”What I love most about camp is that I had the opportunity to learn what being Jewish really means,” he said. Parents reluctant to enroll their sons in yeshiva favor the Jewish cultural experience offered by the F.R.E.E., especially since it is combined with winter sports. Sam’s mother, Marina, harried and still trying to get her baby daughter into a bath at 8:30 p.m. on Monday night, was grateful for the opportunity Winter Camp afforded her son. “I was very happy to have him go,” said Mrs. Trost. “He really liked it. The winter activities were very good for him, because otherwise he doesn’t get out much.”
Meir and Hirshel Okunov, originally from Russia, were just settling into rabbinical studies at the central Lubavitch yeshiva when the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s chief of staff Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, received word that two fatherless young men had arrived in New York from the Soviet Union. The Okunov brothers took Rabbi Hodakov’s request to make the Rosenberg boys feel at home very seriously. They repainted their dorm room and gave the newcomers their beds. As more Russians followed, the Rebbe encouraged the Okunovs to go door to door at New York City hotels where Soviet Jews took shelter.
Graduates of F.R.E.E. activities have found their way into leadership positions throughout the Jewish world. Alumnus Rabbi Eli Blokh leads Chabad of Rego Park in Queens, NY. Zelig Krymko, who received a brit funded by F.R.E.E. at age two and is now the national director of TruePeace.org, a pro-Israel think tank, recalled his summer in F.R.E.E.’s camp as “the first really positive, fun-filled Jewish experience I had.” More than three decades since its founding, times have changed but its core remains unchanged. F.R.E.E. brings Judaism to Russian Jews by building personal relationships family by family, child by child.