One day before the massive pro-Israel rally in Washington, some 2,500 Russian-speaking immigrants in a Brooklyn neighborhood put on their own show of solidarity.
In Brighton Beach, protesters held up signs in Russian and English and chanted pro-Israel slogans as they listened to rabbis and politicians. They then marched in the shadow of the overhead Q train tracks from Brighton Beach Avenue to a candlelighting vigil.
It was the first of two events planned in the heavily immigrant neighborhood as Russian-speaking Jews, many of whom have relatives in Israel, begin to activate on their behalf.
"The Russian-speaking community has grown more and more politically active as it has matured," said Leonard Glickman, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "They are no longer content to stay on the sidelines."
Although overtly political, Sunday’s rally sponsored by a group under Lubavitch chasidic auspices also had clear religious overtones. Rabbi Hershel Okunov, founder of Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, led the mostly secular, elderly crowd in chanting the Shema and portions of the Hallel prayer, recited on holidays and on the first days of each month.
FREE was founded in the 1960s at the behest of the late Lubavitcher rebbe to spread Jewish observance among Soviet emigres.
At the Hebrew Alliance of Brighton Beach synagogue, where the candlelighting was held, Rabbi Okunov called on those in attendance to increase their observance of the commandments to give charity and post mezuzahs in their homes. Charity collection boxes earmarked for FREE were distributed.
At the rally, speakers included conservative talk show host Curtis Sliwa of WABC (770 AM) and elected officials including Rep. Anthony Weiner, state Sen. Carl Kruger, City Councilman Mike Nelson and Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz, all of whom represent districts that include Brighton Beach.
Also addressing the crowd was Galina Gurov, an immigrant from Minsk, Belarus, to Israel who lost her brother, Arkady, 38 and a father of four, in a Purim terrorist shooting in Jerusalem.
"The turnout is great," said Eli Reznikov, 30, a computer programmer born in St. Petersburg and now living in Crown Heights. "We need to have more demonstrations like this."
Dina, a Moscow native who declined to give her last name, marched alongside her son, who was holding a poster calling on Yasir Arafat to "Be a Man, Blow Yourself [Up]. Don’t Use Children."
"I lived in Israel. I know what a terrorist attack is," said Dina, who witnessed the aftermath of a Jerusalem shooting spree in 1984. "I know what it is to feel absolute despair. I am so happy to see us united. When we stand together, nobody can hurt us."
Israel has placed no limitations on Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union, so many immigrants who came here during the 1980s have relatives in the Jewish state.
Avram Gershkovich, 25, also from Moscow and a student at the Shaarei Emunah yeshiva in Bensonhurst, said he often calls relatives in Haifa to check on their safety after each bombing.
"I feel tremendous concern about my relatives," he said.
The second event is an April 28 rally at 11:30 a.m. and sponsored by HIAS, the daily newspaper New Russian Voices and the Brooklyn Community Civic Organization. In addition to supporting Israel, protesters will call on the United States to ease immigrant restrictions imposed after Sept. 11, enabling more emigres to leave former Soviet lands.