(lubavitch.com) Some 10,000 visitors descended on Staten Island's South Beach this past Sunday, for the annual Staten Island Russian Fest. Browsing the booths of ethnic foods, arts, crafts and entertainment, many paused at the Chabad stand, where a dozen rabbinical students were on the ready to shmooze, answer questions and share a mitzvah.
Sponsored by Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (F.R.E.E), the booth drew a crowd throughout the day, counting more than 100 men and boys who chose to wrap tefillin—some who did so for the first time.
"The interest here is great," Said Rabbi Dovid Okunov, Program Director for F.R.E.E. Fair goers perused Russian language Jewish literary works available for purchase.
"Many people who stop by are surprised to see the variety of material available on various Jewish topics." Of particular interest was the Jewish Russian Calendars published by F.R.E.E., which many in the community have come to depend on for scheduling celebrations of Jewish holidays.
Venues such as the Russian Festival have proved an invaluable aid in reaching out to Russian Jews.
Of the estimated 700,000 Russian-Jewish immigrants in the U.S., about half live in New York. The majority still live in such areas as “Little Odessa”, in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. But, says Arkady Friedman, Executive Director of the Staten Island Community Center and one of the event's organizers, approximately 30,000 have moved to the more suburban Staten Island in recent years.
David Weprin of the New York City Council , was at the booth.
"It's so critical that we empower others, be it culturally or spiritually, to get involved in community life," said Weprin, who is running for NY City Comptroller.
"In my work with the Russian Jewish Community, I've seen that increased exposure to our heritage by organizations like Chabad, results in increased involvement in the community at large."
This community, after 70 years during which Russian Jews were denied a traditional Jewish education and the opportunity to identify Jewishly, still lags. In an American Jewish Committee study, 41% of Russian Jewish immigrants polled in New York and Philadelphia said religion is not very important in their lives. Only 13% of Russian-Jewish Americans surveyed were synagogue members.
"There is a need to reach out to them and help them make up for lost time," says Rabbi Okunov. "That's what this is all about."