Preserving the flame of Judaism.
When Rabbi David Okunov got word in 2011 that a small shul on Coney Island/Brighton Beach needed help for High Holy Days services, he agreed to lead them. He arrived to find five individuals, including an elderly Holocaust survivor, in a dilapidated room.
A married father of two who also works with youth and young professionals at the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE) organization, Okunov discovered in the nearly abandoned shul a unique mission.
By High Holy Days 2012, the congregation was hosting 300 Jews, including 243 who are regular members of the Warbasse Jewish Heritage Congregation.
Today, under the leadership of Okunov and synagogue President Boris Shnayderman, the shul is warmly decorated with mahogany paneling and a beautiful Torah ark.
“Many people said, ‘Rabbi, you’re young. Why are you coming to such a place? It’s old and dingy,’” Okunov recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s see if people come. Then we’ll decide.’”
Okunov’s outreach is becoming the stuff of legend in the neighborhood. Congregant Mitchell Sudman, 68, described himself as a lifelong skeptic toward organized religion. When Okunov approached him, Sudman told the Rabbi to “go away.” Until he got to know Okunov. “He won me over,” said Sudman, who recently became bar mitzvah.
Okunov has initiated a Passover campaign and given away 700 packages of food with help from a donor. “Just the warmth and pleasantness of this man, his positive energy, it’s contagious,” said one congregant.
Family business: Preserving Judaism is Okunov’s family legacy. His father, Rabbi Mayer Okunov, is chairman of the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE) organization, which includes the first synagogue in the U.S. founded by refugees from the former USSR. His grandfather, Rabbi Dovid Okunov, taught and practiced Judaism underground in Communist Russia. In 1967, the elder Rabbi Okunov, who followed the teachings of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, fled the KGB and moved to Israel with his family, eventually settling in Brooklyn. In 1979, he was murdered during a robbery on a Brooklyn street. “Preserving and practicing Judaism was my grandfather’s mission; he wouldn’t give it up for anything,” says the younger Rabbi Okunov, who was born four years after his grandfather’s death, and is named in his memory.