70 Jews Leave Missionary Camp
- The Jewish Press
By Doniel S. Wise
NEW YORK - A Christian missionary camp that had mobilized its resources to convert Russian Jewish children received a severe setback when 70 of its 130 campers, heeding the call of a dedicated anti-missionary group, packed their bags and left.
The Evangelist Baptist Camp of Ashford, Connecticut, had attracted the children by charging five dollars a week and providing lavish facilities and Russian-speaking staff members for the unsuspecting campers, mostly from the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn.
Rabbi Hershel Okonov, director of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE), first learned of the missionary camp when he offered a thirteen-year-old Russian boy named Sasha a Bar-Mitzvah and a Bris Milah.
"Why do I need a Brie Milah and a Bar-Mitzvah when I'm going to be baptized next week?" Sasha asked, and he informed Rabbi Okonov about the camp he was planning to attend. Rabbi Okonov soon learned to his horror of the other 129 children enrolled in the camp and he immediately set his mind on in emergency rescue plan.
Rabbi Okonov explained how he managed to rescue 70 children so far. "Our first job - to find the parents of the campers - wasn't easy. We had to work fast and with very limited funds. First we organized 15 Russian volunteers. We went to the boardwalk at Brighton Beach to rind out which parents sent their children to this camp."
The volunteers succeeded in locating almost 50 parents who were visited and persuaded to take their children out of the camp." The parents were themselves horrified," said Rabbi Okonov. "Some were so overwhelmed that they undertook to speak to their friends whose children were still in the missionary camp."
Okonov's next move was to go to the camp itself. On the next visiting day, four volunters went to thec amp with a nine-year-old Russian yeshiva student under the pretext of seeking to enroll him in the camp. There they met with many more parents and spoke to many of the children.
The children complained that most of the day was devoted to religious studies, and church attendance was required five times daily. The children also claimed that the counselors hit them with sticks when they misbehaved or refused to go to the church.
The high point came, said Rabbi Okonov, on Thursday, August 11 when Sasha had a Bar-Mitzvah. He, like most of the other children rescued from the missionaries, is now attending a Jewish camp.
Rabbi Okonov is now working on a project to establish a center in the Brighton Beach area to combat the rampant missionary problem. "The Russians arrive in this country with nowhere to turn," Rabbi Okonov said. "The missionaries offer free community programs, schooling, cheap summer camps and free Bible classes in Russian."
Missionaries themselves acknowledge the success of FREE’s activists in pulling Jews out of the their clutches
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