Freedom For the Free
By Boruch Jacobson
Friday, April 30 1993
here to see pictures of the event
Friday I had two visitors, Rabbi Meir Okunov and Rabbi Zalman
Shagalov, both of whom work for an organization called FREE
(Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe). The two rabbis came
to report on their activities for the thousands of Russian Jews
who are streaming to America to build a new life after so many
years of suffering and persecution.
Many of these new immigrants know little or nothing about Judaism,
which was repressed almost to the point of extinction in the
former Soviet Union over the last seven decades. "We just
recently celebrated our 10,000th circumcision," said Rabbi
Okunov, "since most of the boys and men come out of Russia
lacking this very essential mitzvah." "The general
media reported this milestone widely, but hardly anyone realizes
how great the number 10,000 is," added Rabbi Shagalov.
Rabbi Okunov explained: "After the circumcision is done,
we don't just kiss them goodbye. We follow up by encouraging
the children to go to a Jewish school or yeshiva, helping the
families keep kosher, and making every effort to help them join
the activities of the Jewish community. Our many projects include
summer camps, Jewish weddings, job placement programs and more."
"We stay in touch with our Russian families for years
and years," said Rabbi Shagalov. "One of the greatest
miracles regarding Soviet Jewry after the collapse of Communism
is that after coming to America, without any knowledge or experience
of Judaism, they become full participants in the Jewish way
"In fact," chimed in Rabbi Okunov, "many of
the boys who were circumcised by us have grown up and built
fine, strong Jewish families of their own." "The greatest
nachas of all is that some of them have joined our organization
and now head some of the programs. Their own life experiences
help them better serve the wider Russian Jewish community,"
explained Rabbi Shagalov.
Rabbi Okunov was very excited to report about the organization's
recent Passover holiday activities. "FREE conducted the
Passover seder feast for thousands of Russian men, women and
children. For many of them it was their first free Passover,
and the Hagadda's prayers and blessings revolved not only around
the Egyptian exodus, but their own exodus from Russia, too."
Rabbi Okunov continued. "This year we published the 16th
printing of our Russian-language Hagadda, and distributed more
than 13,000 copies. We also authorized its printing in Israel
and in the former Soviet Union. The popular response to this
Hagadda, as well as to FREE's other Russian publications, has
been phenomenal. Many of the recent refugees praised the modern
Russian-language translations, which they appreciate much more
than the archaic and obsolete translations previously available."
Okunov elaborated on the adult education programs FREE offers
throughout New York. "Our instructors and teachers are
also usually recent refugees, which enhances the success of
the classes and lectures. The students are overwhelmed that
there are Russian Jews who kept the faith behind the Iron Curtain,
yet who understand the problems and specialized situations which
face the contemporary Russian refugee."
One of the most successful ongoing programs is the weekly Mesibat
Shabbat directed by Hershel Okunov, a brother of Meir. The children
gather joyfully for several hours to play games, listen to stories
and review Mishnayot by heart. "Thanks to Rabbi David Hollander,
the children are comfortably accommodated in the Hebrew Alliance
Synagogue," stated Rabbi Okunov. "The only snag we
encountered was that many of the parents and grandparents who
come to pick up their children from the weekly Mesibat Shabbat
have a problem, because the kids don't want to leave. So we
came up with a solution that benefits everybody. We opened up
an adjacent room and now run an interesting program for the
parents and grandparents while they wait."
"Each event, whether on Shabbat, the holidays or during
the week, produces dozens of new observant Jews. It starts with
something small, like lighting the Shabbat candles or the giving
of charity, but it grows from one mitzvah to another, until
you have a whole family of traditional Jews, like their grandfathers
and great-grandfathers used to be," said Rabbi Shagalov.
Okunov described their strategy for sparking the children's
interest: "Since at first some of the children are not
particularly interested, we have also developed a full program
of recreational sports, including skiing trips to the Poconos,
horseback riding, boating, amusement park outings, and camping
trips. This attracts all the kids. Once they see that you can
have fun even after you pray and eat a kosher breakfast, they
bring the Judaism they learn back home, to share its enjoyment
Aside from informing me of their various programs and projects,
the two rabbis also shared a recent report from their colleague,
Aaron Pasternak, who is in charge of FREE's circumcision department.
Pasternak reports that when FREE's 10,000th circumcision was
recently covered in the general media, exposure was given in
newspapers and television to Russian-Jewish boxing and chess
champions who had also gone through the difficult procedure.
After the television reports were aired, FREE's telephones were
ringing off the hook. People wanted more information, donors
called wishing to contribute, and many, many men and boys called
to say that they, too, wanted a brit (circumcision).
When the two rabbis left my office last week they smiled and
commented that although they were sure I would write about how
successful their wonderful activities are, I shouldn't fail
to mention that thousands of Russian families ? who don't yet
know what Jewish freedom is all about ? are still arriving.
FREE cannot reach everyone. All Jewish people must share the
responsibility to help their brothers and sisters be "free"
in every sense of the term.
Back to Top