Two Torah scrolls, kept hidden through the years of communist rule in Russia, were restored use and to their new home, Sunday, October 24. A gala procession escorted the precious Torah scrolls through the Russian community of Brighton Beach to the Hebrew Alliance F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe) Synagogue at 2915 Brighton 6 Street. F.R.E.E. is America’s largest religious organization devoted to aiding Russian Jews.
The parade began at Coney Island and Brighton Beach Avenues. Borough President Marty Markowitz, presented Rabbi Hershel Okunov,, Vice President of F.R.E.E., with a Proclamation, proclaiming Sunday October 24, 2004, “Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, Torah Ceremony Day in Brooklyn, USA”.
“Brooklyn is privileged to have people like Rabbi Okunov, and house organizations such as Lubavitch and F.R.E.E. Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe,” Markowitz said.
Curtis Sliwa and his Guardian Angels attended the parade, as did Concilman, Mikail Nelson, (of the Brighton Bech area. “The city needs more of such events,” he said, adding that he always looks forward to the opportunity to “dance with the Torahs in the streets.”
Other prominent members of Brooklyn’s Jewish community, among them Rabbi David Hollander, had the privilege of carrying the Torah under an ornate bridal canopy. Rabbi Hollander, an activist for Jewish causes, recalled the mission to Russia he undertook years ago at the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
For thousands of Russian Jews in Brighton Beach, “the open demonstration of love for the Torah is a triumph over the tyranny of religious persecution suffered under communism,” said Rabbi Okunov.
The Torahs were carried under a canopy, to torches, song, Russian dances, banners and live music.The international award-winning boys choir, “M Generation,” performed to a large crowd of participants and spectators.
The smaller of the two Torah scrolls, about 150 years old, was donated by the Dovidov family in honor of their father, Abraham Dovidov, the sexton of a synagogue in Riga. When the Nazis invaded, he fled to Russia with the Torah scroll, taking it out only for prayer services on the Shabbat and then hiding it.
After the war, he returned to Latvia which remained under Soviet domination. He continued his practice of taking out the Torah scroll only for Shabbat services, and hiding it during the week. When he passed away, his children brought the Torah with them to the United States.
The Schuster family donated the larger scroll, which traveled a similar dangerous path through post-Holocaust Europe before arriving here.
According to Rabbi Okunov, more than $10,000 was raised to repair the scrolls. Every letter on the handwritten parchment has to be perfect in order to be used in the synagogue.
When the parade arrived at the Hebrew Alliance – F.R.E.E. Synagogue, the five Torah scrolls already in the ark were carried out to greet the new arrivals. During the Jewish holidays this year, nearly two thousand worshipers heard the Torah read from these scrolls, —testimony to the revival of Jewish life among many disaffected Russian Jews whom F.R.E.E. has helped return to their traditions.
Rabbi Mayer Okunov, Chairman of FREE, reflects that before communism, “Russia was the big center of Judaism, America, much less so.” This was reversed with communism, he says, when American Jews took up “the traditions and kept Judaism alive.”
F.R.E.E. – Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe was founded in 1969 at the directive of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, as the Chabad Lubavitch Russian Immigrant Program, led by a group of young “partisans” and fellow Soviet refugees.
Since then, F.R.E.E.’s unique approach has found a path to the hearts and souls of tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Jewish families, by providing free bar mitzvahs, summer camps, kosher food, Jewish education and circumcisions on boys and men who were forbidden to have them in the former USSR.
F.R.E.E.’s outstanding success has become the worldwide model for aid organizations serving Russian Jewish families around the globe.