Presented here is a short history of the beginning of the F.R.E.E. organization in Chicago. F.R.E.E. is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch network, and deals with the resettlement of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
This account was written by Reitza Kosofsky, the initiator and main activist of F.R.E.E. in Chicago, who found herself becoming deeply involved in the historic challenge facing the Jews of the free world at that time: reclaiming the Jewishness of those Jews exiting Russia. Covered is the period from 1973 until 1981, at which time Rabbi Shmuel Notik arrived and took over the directorship.
For much of the past century, freedom was a distant dream for Jews living in the Soviet Union and its satellites. In the early ‘70s, the Iron Curtain lifted, and a significant number of families were given permission to leave.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, spoke publicly about the influx of Soviet Jewish refugees, and the importance of helping them with their spiritual and material needs. The Rebbe’s words were heard in Chicago, and the women of N’shei Chabad under the leadership of Rebbitzen Chaya Sarah Hecht, the head shlucha, made a welcoming gathering for five families who had just arrived from Minsk. The American women presented the Russian women with silver candlesticks and encouraged them to light them for Shabbat. Rabbi Tzvi Shusterman delivered a talk in Yiddish, as that was the only common language shared by most of the participants.
After that gathering, Rebbitzen Hecht contacted the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordecai Aizik Hadokov, and asked how to proceed. Should N’shei Chabad or another already existing organization work with the Russian Jews? The Rebbe’s answer was clear: a new organization should be created to service the needs of the new immigrants.
At the time, I was a stay-at-home mother of a growing family. I had a nursing infant, and had just married off our eldest daughter to a Russian-born Lubavitcher. I was inspired by the Rebbe’s call to action. Because I spoke Yiddish, it was only natural for me to become involved with the Russian Jews who were settling in Chicago.
On our next trip to Crown Heights, I went to see the newly opened synagogue and center for Russian immigrants. The name F.R.E.E., which stands for “Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe,” was chosen by the Rebbe. I met with the founders of the center, brothers Meir and Hershel Okunov, who gave me permission to use the same name for our work in Chicago. Meir, who would be celebrating his wedding two weeks later, joined my family for the 15-hour drive from New York to Chicago in order to help us get started. He told me how to introduce the basics of Jewish life to Jews who had grown up in an atheistic environment.
We started out small, but as the trickle of immigrants grew to become a tidal wave, F.R.E.E. also grew and expanded. That first year we made a Chanukah party in the home of Victor and Rita Katz. By the following Chanukah, we had to rent a hall! We organized communal Pesach sedarim led by Chabad yeshiva students. Most of these young men had grown up religious in the Soviet Union, learning Torah and keeping mitzvot despite the danger of being arrested. Now, they turned their selfless devotion for Yiddishkeit towards running sedarim for others, giving up their opportunity to spend the Passover holidays in New York with the Rebbe.
It was the second year of my involvement with the Russian Jews, in 5734 (1974), a few weeks before Pesach. I was sitting in my car on Devon Avenue, and my kids had gone into the kosher candy store. I was contemplating and worrying about the communal Pesach seder. The year before, about 175 immigrants had participated and now I had 300 newly arrived Russian Jews eager to experience their first seder in freedom. How would I manage it? At that point, a former neighbor passed by, stopped and asked me how I was.
I could have sufficed with the usual “Fine, Baruch Hashem” but instead I blurted out, “I’m running a seder for 300 Russian Jews, and I have no funds for it. How can we make a seder without food?!”
The man hesitated for a minute, and then exclaimed, “I will help you!” It turned out that he, Tzvi Kurs, was the president of the Chicago Maos Chitim Committee. Every year the committee would distribute 1,500 boxes of matzah, wine, chicken, gefilte fish, and other seder items and necessities for Pesach to families in need. From that year on, the Maos Chitim Committee provided for the communal sedarim. Working together with the committee, we set up a system by which families would be interviewed by volunteers from their own community to determine the extent of their Pesach needs.
There was a flood of immigration when the U.S.S.R. began letting Jews out, and the friendship and help for the Russian Jews who came to our city began to fall on my shoulders. When I had originally taken on this project, I thought that only a few families would be arriving in Chicago; however, they came in droves!
In the beginning, I handled all the F.R.E.E. work from my kitchen. I would hold my baby in one hand and the frying pan in the other, balancing a telephone on my shoulder, helping people from my kitchen “office.” One day, I got a call from Joseph Zaretsky, an officer of Congregation Bais Medresh HaGadol Keser Mariv. He offered us the use of the vacant classrooms in the Hebrew school at the back of the synagogue free of charge. With the new place, we were able to begin the formation of a working organization.
We continuously saw how the Almighty blessed our efforts. Someone taught me how to apply for the first $5000 grant that I got. In addition, CETA, a government program that was created to train the unemployed really helped. Through it, we were able to take on eighteen trainee office workers. Through this program, we were able to employ people who otherwise may have had difficulty in finding suitable work.
Marvin Schreiber was an expert in preparing grant proposals. His hard work paid off, and we received grants. We then were able to have a secretary, run a domestic job service, and hire a driver to transport Russian immigrant children to the Jewish day schools. We arranged for people who spoke Russian to tutor the children, especially in the Hebrew language and Jewish/religious subjects.
A friend who was a public school teacher, Abe Wolburg, told us that the Jewish Federation social workers were enrolling the Jewish immigrant children in the neighboring public schools. We asked Rabbi Hodakov how necessary it was to enroll the children in Jewish schools. The answer: as important as saving lives.
We immediately let the Russian Jewish community know that we would provide a day school education for their children. It was really hard to get the Russian kids into the existing Jewish schools because they would accept only a few new kids at a time. So we opened our own school in our office with thirty children! We had two talented teachers, one for Jewish studies and one for secular, both with the same name, Miriam Rabinowitz. The school lasted for twenty years. Those children who didn’t come to this school were persuaded to enroll in the Jewish Community Center Sunday School, so at least they would receive some level of Jewish education.