On Sunday, December 21st, the first night of Chanukah, hundreds braved the bitter cold to attend the Groundbreaking Ceremony of the new JRCC (Jewish Russian Community Center) that will, G-d willing, be built at the site of the current F.R.E.E. Center/Hebrew Alliance synagogue in Brighton Beach, New York.
F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe), founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1969 in Crown Heights, opened a branch in 1988 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn due to a significant wave of Russian immigration. Rabbi Hershel Okonov, Shaliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and executive director of F.R.E.E. who currently represents Chabad-Lubavitch in the Brighton Beach area.
The new JRCC will cater to the needs of Russian Jewry of all ages. To date, F.R.E.E. houses a preschool, day school, Hebrew school, and teen clubs. It also conducts three daily services, Shabbat and holiday services, Bar and Bat mitzvah lessons, adult education, brisim, chuppahs, M-Generation Boys Choir, holiday programs and much more. The new building will include a state of the art school facility for the constantly expanding elementary and preschool, a Kosher café, a Judaica store, a gymnasium, a fitness room, multi-purpose rooms for extra-curricular activities and many new and exciting programs.
The Groundbreaking Ceremony began at 5:30 p.m. in a giant outdoor heated tent with seating, with Russian TV and newspaper reporters in attendance. The Master of Ceremonies, Mr. Gennady Katsov, Russian radio talk show host of 620 AM, greeted the crowd followed by the Rabbi of the Hebrew Alliance Synagogue, Rabbi David B. Hollander. Mr. Issac Lieberman, Vice President of the Hebrew Alliance Synagogue, read a personal letter of greeting and blessing in Russian from Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief Rabbi of Russia. Rabbi Lazar pointed out that "…the JRCC will be our response to the atrocities in Mumbai (India)."
Dignitaries in attendance were Brooklyn-Borough President Marty Markowitz and State Senator Carl Kruger. Borough President Markowitz, who had visited the Rebbe on numerous occasions, expressed his admiration for the work that F.R.E.E. does in Brighton and exclaimed "…if there is going to be a Russian Jewish community center built – where else should it be built other than right here in Brighton Beach , Brooklyn ?" Senator Kruger warmly greeted the large crowd and vouched to help make this dream a reality. Both dignitaries were presented with a Community Contributor Award by Rabbi Hershel Okonov.
Rabbi David B. Hollander began the actual groundbreaking. He was followed by Rabbi Hershel Okonov, his sons, Rabbis Avrohom and Dovid Okonov, and son-in-law Rabbi Choni Goldman. The building committee, community political leaders and various activists took part in the groundbreaking as well. The groundbreaking concluded with three students representing the Mazel Day School. Rabbi Hershel Okonov was honored with the placing of the cornerstone while Chazzan Meir Sitrit sang 'Shehecheyanu'. The beautiful groundbreaking ceremony was followed by a presentation from the boys choir M-Generation led by Choir-Master Boris Rukiter.
Guests then proceeded into the synagogue for the annual Chanukah Lights dinner. The focal point of which was the exciting new building project. The beautiful dinner reception began with a menorah lighting ceremony led by Rabbi Hershel Okonov.
Mr. Yakov Fridman and S&S Iron Works Company received the Menorah award presented by Rabbi and Mrs. Dovid Okonov, youth directors of F.R.E.E. of Brighton Beach. Mr. Fridman is the architect who designed the giant 29 foot permanent menorah that stands in the center of Brighton Beach in front of the Washington Mutual Bank. S&S Iron Works Company had donated the steel and their shop-space to work on this prominent project. Rabbi Okonov explained that the erection of this Menorah ten years ago to date was a Chanukah miracle in itself, as a result of the joint effort of both parties who created this giant steel Menorah in just five days rather than the usual two to three weeks!
Mrs. Irina Goloborodsky spoke about the impact F.R.E.E. has had on her and her immediate and extended family. Guests then made a L'chaim toast to the success of the new building project and continued to enjoy a delicious meal with entertainment by M-Generation.
Special guest speaker Rabbi Shmuel Butman, director of Lubavitch Youth organization, greeted the crowd in Russian and English and spoke passionately about the immense need for this project. Finally, the Lamplighter Award was presented to Mr. and Mrs. Ilya Gotlieb and Mr. and Mrs. Yuri Zhuk for being dedicated supporters of the community. The awards were presented by Rabbi and Mrs. Avrohom Okonov, associate director of F.R.E.E., and Rabbi and Mrs. Choni Goldman, educational director of F.R.E.E..
The successful dinner concluded with a beautiful medley of Jewish songs from M-Generation and spontaneous dancing. The event also included a special children's program, which offered arts and crafts, baking, the re-telling of the Chanukah story and special menorah lighting.