Today there is a flood of Jews surging from the oppression of life in the Soviet Union to a new life of hopes and dreams in America. This historic outpouring has sparked both Jewish pride and concern, as tens of thousands of Jews participate in "Save the Jews of Russia" campaigns throughout the United States.
But it wasn't always so: In the early 1970's, the flood was only a trickle and the concern for our oppressed Soviet Jewish brethren was not the cause celebrity that it is today. There were a steadily growing number of Russian Jewish families entering the Chicago area, and a handful of caring people, inspired by the concern of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, decided that other Jews needed to reach out and help these new Chicago immigrants.
Out of this caring concern, F.R.E.E. of Chicago (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe) was born: In 1973, working first from her home and later from a shul-based office, Mrs. Reitza Kosofsky began a loose-knit organization to serve the vast needs of these new Jewish immigrant families. In addition to meeting immediate physical needs, Mrs. Kosofsky, and her supporters were determined that these families - especially the children - also learn about their Jewishness, a vital aspect of their lives that for so long had been hidden and suppressed, like a precious treasure buried under the garbage heap of Soviet hatred and ignorance.
Providing material needs, feeding a spiritual hunger: Today, years later, under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Notik, F.R.E.E. of Chicago continues to respond to the material and spiritual needs of Russian Jewish immigrants. But today its a sophisticated, computerized social service agency serving tens of thousands of Russian Jews throughout the Chicago area.
Sometimes F.R.E.E. of Chicago offers help finding a job, learning English or enrolling a child in school. Sometimes it provides a companion to help at the doctor's office, an expert to unravel the mysteries of the applications, forms and affidavits that arrive daily in the morning mail, or an understanding and skilled ear to advise a distraught parent on how to help a lonely, homesick child.
And now that the flood gate has finally yielded to the heavy pressure of curiosity, fascination, and spiritual hunger, the staff of F.R.E.E. is constantly answering a torrent of questions about Judaism and its relevance to daily life.
But not all Soviet Jews come to America to embrace Judaism. Russia, through its hardships and propaganda, succeeded in breeding in many Jews a coldness to Yiddishkeit, a hardness of heart that feels no connection to Jewish heritage, no vibrancy for Jewish life. The Russian experience also created a wave of immigrants, many of whom are far more concerned about the material advantages America has to offer than the religious freedom and opportunities it provides.
And here the challenge for F.R.E.E. is very great indeed: to respond fully to all material needs, yet at the same time continually express with unswerving enthusiasm the warmth and excitement of Judaism until the heart of stone softens and the Jewish soul, now nurtured, returns to its natural state of responsiveness and connection to the Jewish people.
When a Russian Jew connects with F.R.E.E., whether because a sick, homebound elderly, person is paid a visit or because a young three year old Needs a nursery school, that Jew learns what it is to be Jewish. He learns about Tefillin and Shabbos of course, but he also learns first hand about the kindness and generosity of the Torah and the people it breeds.
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