History

The Revolution and the Stalin Era
After the First World War and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Eastern European Jewish communities plunged into a chaotic and frightening era. There was a major disruption in the traditional Torah educational system. Religious education of the young was banned, the practice of Judaism was systematically obliterated, and observant Jews suffered severe consequences. Even with great courage, observance of the commandments such as Shabbat, kashrut and circumcision became virtually impossible for the traditional Jewish masses.

The Inner Jewish Spark
These restrictions led to widespread ignorance, but the inner Jewish spark could never be extinguished. Most Soviet Jews retained awareness of their Jewish identity, but often without any concept of what “being Jewish” really meant.

Developments in recent years dramatically illustrate the presence of this “inner Jewish spark.” Russian Jewry has miraculously survived despite all efforts to destroy it in body and spirit. After the Revolution and amidst continuing hardships, generations of assimilated Jews awakened to the meaning of their Jewishness and began observing Mitzvot (commandments). Scientists and intellectuals, reared on Marxist-Leninist dogma, repudiated atheist materialism and sought their way back to ancestral roots.

The Russian Revolution in America
In the late 1960’s, Russian Jews began to arrive at the shores of America. These refugees urgently needed humanitarian aid, moral support, and resources to regroup as a cohesive Jewish community. Existing organizations, such as NYANA and HIAS, worked to fulfill the refugees’ material needs. However, due to the large number of refugees, many families were left without enough assistance. Moreover, there was a specific lack of spiritual guidance and information about their Jewish heritage. FREE filled this gap. Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe was founded to assist these immigrants, both physically and spiritually.

In 1969, a group of young men and women volunteers started visiting newly arrived Russian immigrant families. These volunteers helped them with job placements, housing, and organization of English classes. The immigrants were befriended by those who not only understood their culture, language and mentality, but who also personally shared the same background, problems and experiences of the Soviet Jew. The volunteers were truly permeated by a deep feeling that these Russian Jews were their very own brothers and companions in suffering. This was not just a job, but their very life work.

FREE has maintained its focus in helping the growing Russian Jewish community in the United States. FREE is an entire network of programs and services, and has become the largest Jewish organization in the United States serving Russian immigrants with their spiritual and material needs. The range of our programs include: social & humanitarian services, Jewish education, bar mitzvah preparations and celebrations, Judaic literature in Russian language, summer camps, circumcisions for children and adults, holiday programs and greetings, the distribution of clothing and furniture, and much more. Tens of thousands of immigrants from the past, present and future, know they can rely on FREE to help!

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