Jacob Yaakov Birnbaum, widely recognized as the founder of the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States, was remembered last week as a “hero of biblical proportions,” someone who “put his life on the line in this struggle.”
Birnbaum, from his apartment in Washington Heights, led the grassroots effort that helped win freedom for millions of Jews locked behind the Iron Curtain, and mentored a generation of young American Jews who would become prominent communal leaders.
He died April 9 in New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center after an extended illness. He was 87.
At his funeral the next day at Lincoln Square Synagogue, Rabbi Saul Berman, of Columbia University’s School of Law, said of Birnbaum: “Since the time of Yetziat Mitzraim [the leaving of Egypt], I don’t think that I can conceive of anyone who, upon his appearance before HaKadosh Baruch Hu [God] after his death, would be able to say that he has saved the bodies and spiritual identities of three million Jews.”
Birnbaum died a few days shy of the 50th anniversary of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), the group he founded on April 27, 1964. For seven years, until 1971, SSSJ (known as “Triple-S-J”) was the only full-time operation working to free Soviet Jewry.
In his eulogy at the April 10 event, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said, “Jacob never got the credit, recognition or the thanks he deserved. When the establishment finally responded and set up a National Conference on Soviet Jewry, he was offered neither a job or even support for SSSJ.”
Birnbaum’s early tactics were to appropriate the images and jargon of the left; he used words like “struggle,” “the movement,” “the establishment,” and SSSJ held its first rally on May Day, the Soviet workers’ holiday. Birnbaum, a deeply religious man, also invoked the spiritual power of traditional Judaism, speaking of “redemption,” “Let My People Go,” “Let My People Know” (for Jewish education for Russian Jews), while using liturgical phrases such as “Leil Shimurim” (the Passover “Night of Watching”) and “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.” Birnbaum used the images of prophetic inevitability — such as circling the Soviet embassy in a “Jericho March” culminating with the blowing of shofars — certain that he was on the right side of history.
At a time when the Soviet Union was a Cold War totalitarian colossus, Birnbaum feared that after 50 years of Communist repression, Soviet Jewry was on the verge of extinction. He believed that persistent demonstrations would force Soviet Jewry onto the American political agenda. In 1974, his efforts led to the passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that denied “most favored nation” status for trade to countries that restricted emigration and human rights. Birnbaum’s work inspired Soviet Jewish dissidents; their defiance inspired non-Jewish dissidents, and pressured Soviet leaders.
Years later, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said that President Reagan raised the plight of Soviet Jewry in every meeting the two held.
Birnbaum’s followers were so immersed in the struggle that they were able to identify Jewish prisoners in the gulag by face and name. Placards with their names and photos were “seated” in empty chairs at Passover seders, and carried in every demonstration.
Two of the most famous prisoners, Natan Sharansky (now head of the Jewish agency), and Yosef Mendelevich (now a leading rabbi in Jerusalem), sent messages from Israel to Birnbaum’s funeral.
Rabbi Mendelevich e-mailed, “I am crying. My brother Jacob Birnbaum passed away. My dear brother, the flaming Jewish heart! … This special man, the giant of spirit and love who couldn’t rest while his brethren in Russia were in danger. … He rose and he appealed to the Jewish nation. He was the first. He started the offensive.”
Rabbi Greenberg described Birnbaum as a “hero of biblical proportions.” He said he received a call from Sharansky that morning comparing Birnbaum to Nachshon, the legendary Israelite who was the first to jump into the Red Sea, daring the sea to drown him, forcing God’s hand, so to speak. From that one leap of faith, said Sharansky, everything followed.
From the beginning, Birnbaum had no problem attracting the loyalty of young people, even pre-teens, although Birnbaum, at 37 in 1964, was two or three times their age, an austere Theodor Herzl look-alike with a British accent and a beard when no one else had one.
Other organizations had “young leadership” divisions, but none like Birnbaum’s. Among the future leaders he mentored at SSSJ, while all were still in college or at the dawn of their careers, were Shlomo Riskin, SSSJ’s first chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, Charles Sheer; Dennis Prager, Joseph Telushkin and Avi Weiss, later SSSJ’s national chairman.
Glenn Richter, recruited out of law school, was a veteran of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or “Snick”) before becoming SSSJ’s national coordinator. Yitz Greenberg was a young Fulbright Scholar when he met Birnbaum in 1962, and joined SSSJ in 1964. It was Birnbaum who suggested to a rising singer, Shlomo Carlebach (their grandfathers were friends in Europe) that he compose music to Am Yisroel Chai for a SSSJ rally. Another early SSSJ activist was Art Green, who went on to lead the Reconstructionist seminary.
Rabbi Telushkin told The Jewish Week at the funeral that when he was co-chair of SSSJ at Yeshiva University in the mid-60s, “Yaakov insisted that we install a telephone (when almost no one had one) in our dorm room, so he could speak to us almost every night about what we were doing. To Yaakov, nothing was minor. Everything that had to happen, relative to the movement, was always major.
“In 1975, when Dennis [Prager] and I wrote ‘Eight Questions People Ask About Judaism,’” said Rabbi Teluskin, “we referred to Yaakov and Glen Richter as two modern-day saints. Nothing has happened since then to cause us to re-evaluate that.”
Rabbi Greenberg pointed out, “Once people got turned on by Yaakov, they kept moving into other areas of activism on all sorts of other issues.”
Hoenlein, now executive vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in his eulogy how he remembered his first meeting with Birnbaum in 1964: “I went to his apartment in Washington Heights as a college student living and studying in Philadelphia. That meeting changed me and my life. … He gave me materials, ideas and instructions.”
A few years later, Hoenlein was leading the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry. “Our mutual respect, my appreciation for his unique status, including his saving refugee children in World War II, and my recognition of him being the true father of the Soviet Jewry movement,” always kept the two men close, he said.
Birnbaum once said, “Malcolm had a hard time because the establishment really hated me. Malcolm had to disassociate himself, somewhat, from us wild guys, but we remained good friends.”
Birnbaum, said Hoenlein at the funeral, was “a single-minded defender of Jews and Jewish interests.” He taught a generation “to protest, to speak up, but always with Jewish dignity and self-respect.”
Born in Germany in 1926, Birnbaum was only 6 when the Nazis came to power and he escaped with his family to England. Starting at age 19, he worked with young Eastern European Jews during and after the war, and then with North African Jews. Birnbaum would speak of those dramatic years with British nonchalance: “I brought out many young people when bombs were going off, and all that, you see.” He later became a community leader in Manchester. Those were the days, Birnbaum once told The Jewish Week, when his worldview was taking shape. “I was looking for signs of renaissance, among Jews, among Christians, whomever. My philosophy was that all patterns of living were disintegrating, and disintegration would come to the Soviet Union, too. You couldn’t do anything but plant points of ferment,” said Birnbaum, “and you hope the ferment spreads.” “He was our hero,” Rabbi Greenberg said in his eulogy. “He led the fight. He put his life on the line in this struggle. He was the hero of the second greatest Jewish victory in the last century — in the last 2,000 years — after the State of Israel, the redemption of Soviet Jewry.”
In 1971, Birnbaum met the woman he was to marry, Freda Bluestone, when he recruited her to help with photography for a demonstration.
Birnbaum is survived by his wife, a sister, Eva Guttentag, and brothers Eleazar and David Birnbaum.
On long walks with her husband-to-be, Freda would tell him that she liked “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “Ah!” he replied. “You would have liked Jabotinsky!”