Education, brit milah programs, summer camps – just some of the ways the people at F.R.E.E. helped Russian immigrants integrate and become successful.
More successful than sending the boys to camp in the Catskills was our Russian-language library. The librarian was Chana Lieberman, who happened to be the daughter-in-law of the last rabbi of Minsk before the war. Her father, Berel Yaffa, was one of the leaders of the Lubavitcher chassidim in Samarkand. The library was open every Sunday morning with a stock of about 200 books that had been brought to the U.S. by the immigrants themselves.
We had many different people volunteering to take on various important projects. For example, Marvin and Riva Shlanger took upon themselves the responsibility of preparing the immigrant kids for their bar and bat mitzvos. The kids came to their house, and were taught what they needed to know. At the appropriate time, we would arrange the bar or bat mitzvah, mostly free of charge. We made the celebrations for each child individually, with music, good food and a truly festive atmosphere. The parents and grandparents were very grateful to us for bringing the Torah spirit into their lives.
A complex but rewarding project was arranging wedding ceremonies for young couples who wanted to marry, as well as for those who already had a civil marriage but never stood together under the chuppa. On one occasion, we made chuppas in a hotel for thirty-six couples who had not had the chance to marry halachically. We prepared the brides for the wedding, and made sure to make the celebration a lively and happy occasion.
We also offered a job service. There were many middle-aged Russian women who could not learn enough English to resume their previous careers. People called us requesting babysitters for their children, and we sent them these Russian ladies. The children they sat for, mostly from religious young families, spoke Yiddish, and now they were learning to speak Russian. Many of the Russian babysitters remained good friends with the families they had serviced, long after they were no longer needed as babysitters. This meeting between East and West, which bonded Jews who had been isolated from each other since the rise of Communism, was taking place all over the world.
Other volunteers included Mordecai Baum, who befriended the new immigrants, and Avrohom Chesney, who served as F.R.E.E.’s bookkeeper, taking care of the finances.
With the help of Victor Root, we opened up a resale store where we sold furniture and household goods. People donated their furniture and clothes, some of which we sold for profit to fund our programs, and the rest we gave away to immigrants who needed the items. Eventually, our organization became well known throughout Chicago and attracted many volunteers.
A special woman, Marilyn Handwerker, was instrumental in getting the Hadassah Women’s Organization to collect household goods for us. She spent much of her time and energy in helping the Russian immigrants. She lived in the affluent suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, and prevailed on the people in her area to donate clothes, household items, and furniture, much of which she stored in her garage. She inspired the local synagogues to make a yearly toy drive. Beautifully gift-wrapped, the toys were given to the Russian children for Chanukah. She would drive around with the goods she had collected, and deliver them. Once, she even received a baby grand piano and gave it to a Russian Jewish lady who was a professional pianist.
Marilyn and her husband Sy had cousins still in Russia, in Briansk. They devised an ingenious way to meet up with them. They joined a cruise, and arranged to meet the cousins at one of the checkpoint docks, where the ship would stay for several hours. Six busses came to the dock to pick up the tourists. As each bus arrived, the tour guide called out: “Are Marilyn and Sy Handwerker on this bus?” Finally, Marilyn and Sy were found on the sixth bus, and thus the cousins were able to meet. All the people on the bus applauded as they witnessed the meeting of the cousins.
Once, a Russian immigrant woman appeared in my office looking for me. She had a piece of paper with the names Sy and Marilyn Handwerker written on it. When I addressed her in Yiddish she was so excited; she hadn’t spoken Yiddish in fifty years! She was trying to find her relative, Sy Handwerker. I was happy to bring them together. This woman had been a judge in Russia. It was surprising that she identified as a Jew, as anyone with a high position in Russia would usually hide his or her Jewishness.
Another incident that comes to mind involves a professor who had worked in Washington for the government, and then came to live in Chicago. One Shabbat he came to the B’nei Reuven synagogue, and happened to see that F.R.E.E. had arranged a bar mitzvah for a Russian boy. The professor was so impressed with our work that he called me after Shabbat and said he would like to host a Russian family for a Shabbat meal. I gave him a family’s phone number, and a grandmother and granddaughter came to him for Shabbat lunch. The professor was very emotional when he called me afterwards. “Do you know whom you sent me?! Do you know WHOM you sent me?!” It turned out that they shared relatives; the professor’s first wife (she had passed away and he had remarried) had been related to the guests!
The story of one particular Russian immigrant stands out in my mind. This was a girl who was originally assumed not to be Jewish. At the beginning of our work with the Russians, most of the children were enrolled in the Jewish day schools. Every day as I drove my kids to school, I would see Inna walking to public school, and wondered why she hadn’t been placed in any of the day schools. I made a call to Rabbi Isaac Mahevsky from the Associated Talmud Torahs who was responsible for enrolling the immigrant kids into the Jewish schools and asked what the story was. He said that they had discovered she was not Jewish.
I can’t explain it, but somehow I felt that this girl did indeed belong in a Torah-true Jewish school. This feeling didn’t let me rest; it kept gnawing at me. Eventually, I found out that it was Inna’s grandfather, her mother’s father, who was not Jewish. With this discovery, we offered Inna a paid position to become a junior counselor in Gan Yisroel girls’ camp. She had no idea that we were the ones who supplied the salary. Her mother had passed away, and her father had remarried. We persuaded her to study in high school in New York, and offered to pay for it. It took time for her to adjust to Crown Heights. Soon after she arrived, she sent me a letter in which she wrote: “You sent me to Jew town.” The Kotlarsky family opened their home and their hearts to Chana, as they now called her. Eventually, she settled in well and was happy to be in Crown Heights. Inna went on to marry a Lubavitcher chassid and has raised a beautiful chassidishe family.