Last week we focused on how F.R.E.E. began the process of educating the refugees it came into contact with. However, the people at F.R.E.E. set about making life more fulfilling for the refugees, in many other ways as well.
Many of the Russian immigrant men and boys were anxious to undergo circumcision. It was amazing to witness this after so many years of the religious suppression that existed under Communist rule. At first, F.R.E.E. undertook the responsibility to arrange circumcisions. Over a period of forty years, hundreds of men and boys underwent kosher circumcisions. At first, Rabbi Avrohom Chesney of F.R.E.E. arranged and supervised them. Later, Rabbi Naftali Hershcowitz, under the supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Notik, took over. The doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago (a Jewish Federation institution), together with the noted mohel, Rev. Noah Wolff, performed the circumcisions. Chicago was unique in that its federation funded the Brit Milah program, while in other cities F.R.E.E. had to pay for it on its own. As more immigrants arrived, other mohelim and religious doctors joined the team, among them Rabbi Mordechai Turkeltaub and Rabbi Moshe Kushner. The observant doctors and mohelim worked efficiently, on a few patients each time. Dr. Philip Zeret, head of surgery at Mt. Sinai, and Dr. Chaim Hecht arranged the logistics.
Dr. and Mrs. Hecht were very involved with welcoming the Russian teenagers in general and introducing them to the warmth of their Shabbat table. They also opened their home to Rabbi Betzalel Shiff, his wife Mira, and their son Yossi, who came from Israel to work for the organization. Dr. Hecht was instrumental in bringing Rabbi Shmuel and Shterna Notik to Chicago to take over the directorship when the organization began expanding.
At one point, we notified the Lubavitcher Rebbe that many Russian refugees had to wait for their circumcisions to take place. On Erev Yom Kippur before Mincha, Rabbi Hadokov called us with an answer. He said that he had received instructions from the Rebbe to tell us not to let the immigrants wait. Thus, several times we arranged to use the hospital for an entire day, enabling as many as twenty or more circumcisions to be performed.
Mottel Kanelsky, himself an immigrant from a Lubavitcher family, was instructed by the Rebbe to arrange circumcisions as quickly as possible. Who would have thought that after just a few years F.R.E.E. would be given the responsibility for carrying out thousands of circumcisions of men and boys of every age?
When Russia began allowing Jews to leave, the American Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund made an agreement with the U.S. government that the latter would grant financial help for resettlement. In each city the Jewish Federation provided Russian-speaking social workers to aid the incoming immigrants. They also provided money and direction.
At first, the Jewish Federation of Chicago suggested that F.R.E.E. was duplicating its work and that we should close shop. Martha Binn, our representative to the Federation, succeeded in convincing it that we were not competing with their services, but rather complimenting them. Her confident demeanor and professional approach gave weight to her request that the Federation recognize and acknowledge the work of the religious organizations and give them their support.
Martha also did fundraising for our cause. She made call after call, not getting discouraged by nasty comments like: “What? It’s you again?” I would often consult with Martha; I would call her “my lawyer.” She would point out issues and analyze possibilities from a different vantage point. She was dedicated to our cause, passing up lucrative job offers to stay with the organization.
Once we asked Rabbi Oscar Fasman, president of the Hebrew Theological College of Chicago (aka Skokie Yeshiva), to accompany us to a meeting with the Federation to lend prestige to our organization. He told the members of the Federation committee that our work deserves its support. The impact of his words bore fruit and funding was increased. When F.R.E.E. opened a school on the premises of the Machziki Hadas Synagogue, it prompted the Federation to open a proper school as well.
Eventually, the Federation began receiving good reports from the immigrants themselves, after which they started working together with F.R.E.E. to the benefit of all. This was the beginning of a warmer rapport between the Federation and the Orthodox community, and a new era of cooperation between the general Jewish community and the religious community which continues to this day.
One Shabbat, as I was reading an article in the weekly Jewish journal, the Sentinel, written by Boris Smolar, the head of the JTA, I found myself reading my own words! Smolar was commending the Federation for all it was were doing for the Russian immigrants, such as arranging circumcisions, funding day camp and English lessons, providing vocational guidance services, etc. Half the article was copied from a grant proposal I had written to the Federation requesting funding for these programs. Mr. Smolar didn’t realize that a nursing mother was running these activities!
Many of the refugees were broken and nervous, since they had to leave everything behind and begin life anew. Many of them were highly educated in their fields, but found it hard to get jobs in America. Many who wanted to learn English turned to us. The local city colleges provided us with a program to teach English as a second language (ESL). Not only were the classes free of charge – students even received a stipend. Our offices were filled with people eager to learn. In addition to learning English, the students would hear short talks on Jewish topics, upcoming Jewish holidays and the like.
With the help of another government incentive, we organized a summer school for older teenagers who were interested in learning the Hebrew language. Chava Cooperman, daughter of Rabbi Yitzchak Zilber and daughter-in-law of Rav Yehuda Cooperman (the founder of Michlala Jewish College for Women), taught these young people to read and write Hebrew. These programs and government grants always became available just at the right times. I really felt that Divine Guidance was helping us every step of the way.
As the refugee population grew, we realized that we could reach more people through a Russian-language newspaper. Chuck Novak helped put together the first few issues of “Gazzette Sholom” which is still being published forty years later. Each issue is eagerly awaited by Russian-speaking Jews around the U.S. The newspaper benefited greatly when the Russian-born Lubavitch couple, Rabbi Betzalel and Mira Schiff, joined our organization. Betzalel became editor of the newspaper, organized concerts and Yom Tov celebrations, started a Russian-language radio program, and helped fundraise. He was like a father to the Russian Jews, and he and his wife dedicated themselves day and night to bring awareness of what it means to be Jewish to people who had grown up under the influence of communist propaganda. Although Betzalel was young, he was well-respected. After a few years, he and his wife returned to Israel, where he continued to work with Russian Jews.
We organized and ran a day camp for the immigrant children, in collaboration with Chabad Gan Yisroel. Most campers paid very little or went for free. Nowadays, when my son meets up with Russian Jews who grew up in Chicago, my son will say, “I bet you went to my mother’s camp.” They often did. One year, I managed to raise a substantial amount of money (I used to sit in my backyard with my baby and fundraise by phone), so I decided to send some Russian kids to overnight camp in Parksville, New York. We sent them by car, a fifteen-hour drive. It didn’t quite work out. The boys complained to their parents that they were homesick, so I had to fly them all back to Chicago early. That was the end of that experiment.
To be continued…Reitza Kosofsky