light on Chanukah
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Avrohom Okunov and sisters Rena (c.) and Milana
Liberman prepare for Chanukah festivities tonight
at Hebrew Alliance.
Every year, Rabbi Hershel Okunov oversees the lighting
of Brooklyn's largest Chanukah menorah on the corner
of Brighton Beach and Coney Island Aves. This year is
Today at 4 p.m., to celebrate the third night of the
Festival of Lights, there will be the menorah lighting
and singing and dancing in the street. The rabbi's congregation,
Hebrew Alliance - FREE (Friends of Refugees of Eastern
Europe), will serve traditional potato latkes as well
as doughnuts, and give children dreidels and Chanukah
Then, for the first time in recent years, the celebration
will move indoors. At 6 p.m., Hebrew Alliance - FREE
is throwing two parties, one for children and one for
young adults and families. The congregation is trying
to draw more young Russians into the religious life
of the community.
Rabbi Avrohom Okunov, the 25-year-old son of Hershel,
said that on major Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur,
the synagogue - at 2915 Brighton Sixth St. - is packed.
But the rest of the year, although the congregation
is in one of Brooklyn's largest Jewish communities,
attendance at services is sparse - about 100 to 150
people weekly - and two-thirds of the regulars are elderly.
That is to be expected in a community where most residents
or their parents were raised under communism, Okunov
said. But it doesn't mean that can't change.
"Many people think religion is sitting in a synagogue
and praying the whole day," Okunov said. "But
it offers so much more."
Tonight's party will be an informal way of teaching
traditions and letting younger Russians know about the
services available through the synagogue, such as day
care and after-school programs for children and weekly
classes on topics in Judaism for adults.
Rena and Milana Liberman, who belong to the congregation,
are helping plan this evening's festivities.
Born in Pyatigorsk, Russia, the sisters were in their
teens when their family came to the U.S. in 1989, seeking
"This was the first synagogue our father saw,"
said Milana, 29. "He grew up in a religious family,
and when he came here and walked into the shul, he started
The family was able to openly practice their religion
for the first time, Rena, 33, said.
"Here, you can say you are Jewish and be proud.
It was a shock," Rena recalled.
Through the synagogue, Milana and Rena said they learned
more about the traditions they had seen their parents
observe secretly in Russia.
Now, the two sisters, who are married and have families,
want other young Russians to join them in building a
congregation for the next generation. They are hoping
tonight's Chanukah party will be a step in that direction.
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