Russian Jews of Brighton Beach, At Home With FREE


Russian Jews of Brighton Beach, At Home With FREE

Bar Mitzvah at Congregation F.R.E.E. in Brighton Beach

by Baila Olidort - Brooklyn, NY

March 25, 2014

They were teenagers when they arrived from Russia in the late 90s, early 2000s. Today they are young parents, the transitional generation between their Russian immigrant parents and their own American-born children. Successful, motivated and informed by two cultures, they are establishing a new paradigm for their children that allows them to retain their Russian culture while benefiting from a distinctly American Jewish experience.

As new immigrants, their parents dragged them to Jewish events where free food was the main draw. Some sent their children to Jewish schools for Russian immigrants where tuition was free. These were typically old fashioned and unattractive. Others went to public schools where their attempts to integrate as Americans trumped all and any Jewish educational or cultural opportunities. But today, these 20 and 30-somethings have different expectations of their children. They also have the means to obtain it.

“These parents are proud of their Russian background, but they also want to emulate the American Jewish model of community. They want their children to socialize with others from similar backgrounds, they want to provide their children with an excellent private-school education which they are willing to pay for. And they want to be part of an active parent association with like minded parents,” explains Chani Okonov, Executive Director of the Mazal Day School in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

In December 2013, the school, renovated only two years earlier with additional classrooms after a dramatic growth spurt, suffered a huge blow by Hurricane Sandy. Eight feet of water put the new classrooms completely under water. But destructive as it was, the response by parents was proof positive of something more powerful, atypical of an earlier generation of Russian immigrants.

“Parents were here the day after the hurricane wading through the mud and water, cleaning up classrooms,” said Rabbi Avreml Okonov, Executive Director of Mazal Day School. One parent sent both her housekeepers to work with the Okonovs. Another brought in several water pumps, and another provided space heaters. “They participated in any way they could, sharing resources and their own physical labor to help us pull out of the mess. And because of them, we did in fact clean up quickly,” says Avreml. “There was an extraordinary display of ownership that these parents feel for their childrens’ school.”

Mazal’s preschool includes 5 classes and 60 children, with a steady growth rate of six percent a year. As the only Jewish day school of its kind catering to children of Russian parents, it is sought out by families from Queens, Staten Island and all of South Brooklyn. Parents are thoroughly invested in the school; 80 percent will send their children to Mazal’s Elementary School, which has grown by a grade every year since it opened seven years ago and will open an 8th grade class in September. The school integrates a progressive model of teaching Judaic and secular subjects, Hebrew, Russian and English. Students choose from a variety of recreational courses including art, music, gym and chess classes.

 

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Hershel Okonov was a teenager when he emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1967. An old- world Russian Jew who grew up in a Chabad home under communist terror, Hershel’s arrival in the U.S. meant only a change in venue for continuing his outreach activities.

In 1985, he began reaching out to Russian Jews in Brighton Beach. The Brighton Beach area, the Rebbe pointed out to him, had many shuls, but they have not succeeded to embrace Russian Jews and make them feel welcome. Hershel’s warmth and passion made him an ideal choice for the mission, but he had no space to work from. The Rebbe advised him to walk the streets of Brighton Beach until he found a shul that was not in use. He soon came upon the Hebrew Alliance Synagogue on Neptune Avenue, which had sustained damage from a fire two years earlier. The congregation moved next door leaving the damaged building in disuse. Rabbi Okonov quickly worked out an arrangement with the late Rabbi David Hollander.

Hershel and his wife Zlata, herself a Russian émigré lived in Crown Heights where they raised their children. Zlata launched a custom dress making business to support the family while her husband set down roots in Brighton Beach. But she dedicated Thursday nights to preparing a multi-course Shabbat dinner for the Russian Jews of Brighton Beach. Working out of her small kitchen, Zlata cooked everything, packed up all the food, along with her little children, and moved to Brighton Beach for Shabbat. This became the Okonov family routine for the next 25 years. Over time, the crowd grew, and today, though her business expanded and her children are grown, she continues devoting Thursday nights to preparing Shabbat for as many as 120 people at a time.

Weaned on their parents’ selfless commitment to outreach, the Okonov children grew with the community. Today they head up different divisions of F.R.E.E.’s comprehensive educational and social services programs in Brighton Beach. Rabbi Dovid Okonov, one of Hershel’s sons, and his wife Ruta, lead Torah study classes there for groups, individuals, and a host of social and educational activities. Ruta is principal of the Brighton Beach Hebrew School, an afterschool program for 5-13 year olds, a good number of whom go on to a Jewish day school, she says.

Congregation F.R.E.E. at the old Hebrew Alliance Synagogue is now a busy hub, with daily prayer services, and about 100 worshipers on Shabbat. It has successfully carved a niche as a unique Chabad Center that has grown and evolved along with the changing demograhpic of Russian Jews who continue to be drawn to this area. While most Russian Jews typically have their sights set on America as the land of economic opportunity, the Okonovs have opened them up to another experience. “Many didn’t think Judaism relevant to their lives once they got here,” said Rabbi Okonov. “Our purpose is to help imbue their lives with meaning and purpose, with yiddishkeit, community and continuity as an integral part of their lives here.”

SIDEBAR/ Profile of a Chasid

Hershel Okonov was 19 years old, a new immigrant in 1969, when the Rebbe told him to arrange for for a young Russian student to study tuition free at Stern College, YU’s undergraduate college for women.

“I had no idea what Stern College was, or who to go to,” he says. So he asked around and learned that its founder, Max Stern, lived in Manhattan. Max Stern (who died in 1982) was a Jewish philanthropist, an entrepreneur who established and built the Hartz Mountain Corporation, a successful privately held company.

“I had no way of getting to him, and was told by everyone I asked that I won’t get an appointment with him,” recalls Hershel. “So I found out that he attends services at a shul on 86th Street in the city.” Hershel booked a hotel room in the area for Shabbat and waited for the chance to exchange a few words with Mr. Stern in the hallway. “Are you a Lubavitcher?” Stern asked him. “I am,” Hershel said. And in his thick accent and broken English, he told Stern that “the Rebbe spoke about you last night.”

Stern invited Okonov to meet with him after Shabbat, and made arrangements for the student to study at Stern, tuition free.

***

In 1973, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin contacted Chabad. He needed someone to lead a Seder for Russian Jews in the area. Hershel Okonov volunteered. It was an hour before sunset when he came to the Rebbe who was disbursing Shmura Matzah to Shluchim, to be shared at the Seder. When Hershel told the Rebbe that he’d be conducting a Seder in Manhattan, the Rebbe asked him about the second Seder. Hershel had no plans to conduct a second Seder, but the Rebbe let him know that doing only one Seder was inappropriate, an offense to the spirit and the laws of Passover.

“Once the Rebbe said this to me, I knew I’d make a second Seder. But it was less than an hour to Yom Tov, and there was no way I could obtain wine, matzah, or food for a second Seder in the quantity that was necessary. Stores were all closed by now, and I had no idea what I’d do, but I knew I’d have to make a second Seder.”

Hershel made it back to Manhattan just as the holiday was beginning. At the end of the Seder which he conducted for 200 people, he announced that the following night, there’d be a second Seder as well. “I did not know how I would possibly make a second Seder—I obviously couldn’t go out and buy anything, and there was absolutely nothing left from the first Seder. But the Rebbe said there had to be a second Seder.”

Fortunately, there are many shuls on the Upper West Side, and the following day, Hershel went “from shul to shul in the area, collecting wine, matzah and food. I told everyone that I had to conduct a Seder that night, and needed whatever they could spare.”

If Hershel thought there’d be a small crowd, he was greatly mistaken. Three hundred and eighty people showed up.

“We managed with the food I collected, and the guests stayed on singing and talking until very late at night.”

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