Baltimore — The Jewish federation movement, like much of the organized community, has put great emphasis in recent years on youth, trying many ways to attract that elusive segment of the community.
But the most dramatic session of this year’s General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America, held here this week, was a discussion between two men, one 84 and the other 64, about an event that took place almost 25 years ago.
Elie Wiesel, the voice of the Holocaust generation and Nobel Peace laureate, and Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who symbolized the struggle for aliyah and human rights, sat together at a plenary on Monday afternoon and reflected on the significance of the Dec. 6, 1987 great march on Washington. More than 250,000 people took part in the rally credited with helping to open the floodgates of emigration from the Soviet Union.
The historic event, the largest American Jewish demonstration of its kind, was the culmination of a two-decade struggle.
During their one-hour conversation, moderated by documentary filmmaker Laura Bialis, the two iconic figures recalled how “students and housewives,” not establishment organizations, sparked the Soviet Jewry movement dedicated to allowing Jews, long persecuted for their religion in the Soviet Union, to go free.
Sharansky was imprisoned for more than nine years for the “crime” of insisting on his basic human rights; Wiesel, after visiting the Soviet Union in 1965, wrote a book about his experience, “The Jews of Silence,” which he said referred not to the Jews behind the Iron Curtain, banned from practicing their religion, but the Jews of America, whom he felt were not doing enough on behalf of their persecuted brethren.
It was the grass roots of the community that sparked the movement, which later was adopted by an American Jewish establishment that, Wiesel suggested, felt guilty for its failure to save more Jews during the Holocaust.
“They discovered what we discovered — their identity,” said Sharansky about the early leaders of the Soviet Jewry cause in the U.S.
Wiesel agreed: “It was the young people, not their parents,” who were drawn to the cause, “following a sense of history.”
As leaders of the 1987 rally, less than two years after Sharansky’s release from prison, they recalled the deep skepticism of Jewish leaders, who insisted that a December event outdoors — it was timed to coincide with the Washington meeting between Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan — would not draw more than 17,000 people.
Sharansky noted that he felt “vindicated” and “inspired” on seeing the huge crowd that gathered on that cold, clear December day.
And Wiesel asserted that those who were there shared a rare feeling “that you are not alone, that there was a sense of history about you, always remembering Jewish history,” adding “with it you can never fail.”
But even as the two men celebrated that long-ago triumph, they expressed disappointment that the unity and passion of the American Jewish community has not been duplicated for other urgent causes since then, and openly wondered why.
Sharansky said it was “a great tragedy” that many young people today are simply unaware of the Soviet Jewry movement and its success. In a later interview with The Jewish Week he acknowledged that he couldn’t understand why the parents, who took part in it, did not share the history with their children. “It is a big loss in our Jewish education.”
(A coalition of nonprofits and Jewish organizations called “Freedom 25” is working on events and curricula to call attention to and coincide with the 25th anniversary of the rally, Dec. 6.)
Wiesel said that advocacy is just as important today, noting that “Israel is still threatened” and needs the support of diaspora Jews “more than ever before.”
Support for Israel was one of the themes running through the three-day GA this week, attended by some 3,000 lay leaders and Jewish professionals. Two of the four “tracks” of sessions and workshops dealt with Israel: B’Yachad focused on strengthening Jewish identity and global peoplehood, and Arevut concentrated on issues involved with supporting Israeli civil society. The other two tracks were Tzedakah, caring for the most vulnerable, and Kehilla, developing leadership and community.
One session featured rabbis from the different denominations talking about how they approach the “challenge” of discussing Israel in their congregations.
Rabbi Heshie Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, an Orthodox congregation, said that while he has problems with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for being too rigid on conversion and in other areas, he tries to keep this criticism confined to Jewish settings.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that “steering clear of complex challenges” doesn’t help people draw closer to Israel. Avoidance is not engagement, he said, while concluding that divisiveness within the Jewish community has reached a low point. “We have to figure out a new way to do this,” he said of communal conversation on Israel.
He sought to do that, in part, in his role as scholar-in-residence at the GA, speaking at both the opening and closing plenaries.
Calling for an expansion of the boundaries of klal Yisrael, or Jewish unity, he noted that “alarmingly, the discourse about differing views on Israel poses a grave challenge to our community.”
He asserted that “Israel must not be a partisan issue” and that “Jewish leaders need to be bold and outspoken in restoring civility in our discourse.”
The same holds true, Rabbi Jacobs said, of “women’s rights and religious pluralism in Israel.
“So long as Israel remains the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams, the Zionist dream of the ingathering of the exiles in a Jewish state for all Jews cannot be fully realized.
The question raised by Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky — why hasn’t this generation of American Jews taught its children about the struggles and success of the Soviet Jewry movement — resonated in the question being asked by both synagogues and federations today:
“Why aren’t our young people more like us” in joining congregations and organizations? Rabbi Jacobs asked.
The blame is ours, he said. “We have not shown [our children] compelling, vital Jewish institutions that are vital to their lives.” He said they are “hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives” and “too many of them assume they will not find what they are seeking in the organized Jewish world.”
“Programs or gimmicks won’t engage them; substance will. That’s what they hunger for.”
The key, Rabbi Jacobs said, is tikkun olam, repairing the world, as “the largest gateway” through which Jewish lives, now and in the future, can be built.
He and others noted the most recent example of noble volunteerism: the invaluable repair and rebuilding work undertaken by JFNA, local federations, and numerous other Jewish organizations for the many thousands of Hurricane Sandy victims.
Each generation, it seems, finds a different cause, a new source of inspiration, an alternative to its parents’ ways. But if its actions are rooted in Jewish history and identity, the eternal mandate to repair the world will be carried out.