How To Reinvigorate Activism For A Unified Cause

How To Reinvigorate Activism For A Unified Cause

Shaul Kelner
Shaul Kelner

Usually, the only students in my college classroom who have heard of the movement to free Soviet Jewry are those who have already taken classes with me. You might think that Jewish students whose parents came from the USSR would know of it, but typically it comes just as much as a revelation to them as to everyone else. To be fair, when I show the “Weekend Update” sketch on “Saturday Night Live” where the perennially agitated hard-of-hearing news commentator Emily Litella asks “What’s all this fuss about Soviet jewelry?” I have to explain who Gilda Radner was. But they get the point. The Soviet Jewry movement was fodder for “SNL.” It was a big deal.

“American Jews forgot to tell their children,” Natan Sharansky lamented in these pages the other week (Between The Lines, June 14). An icon of the Soviet Jewry movement, the imprisoned refusenik who became a government minister in Israel bemoaned our failure to pass down the story of our role in one of the great human rights triumphs of the 20th century. He is right. And what a loss this is, because it is a story worth telling. Here was American Jewry at its best. Galvanized to stand proud as Jews and change the world for the better.

But the problem is bigger than Sharansky lets on. Not only have we forgotten to tell, we have also forgotten how to tell. Activists for Soviet Jewry became experts in consciousness-raising. We have forgotten what they knew.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, if it felt like the movement was everywhere, that’s because it was. Activists knew that to build a mass movement they would have to tell the story of Soviet Jewry at every turn. From synagogue and summer camps to Hadassah chapters and Hillels, there was not a Jewish institution that activists did not try to mobilize. In each place, they tailored their approach, taking up the existing culture of the institution and adapting it to raise awareness.

How might we recover their lost expertise? What might it look like to dust off old models of mobilizing and update them to pass down the memory of the movement? Here are three possibilities to get the thinking started:

1) Go back to camp. In 1981, Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry created a simulation game for summer camps: “The Exodus Experience.” It was one of many such games. The campgrounds were transformed into a Soviet cage. Campers took the role of Jews trying to emigrate to Israel, running the gauntlet of Soviet bureaucracy. Counselors played KGB, with the power to arbitrarily arrest. Only a lucky few campers made it to Israel (the pool) where they enjoyed chocolates while the rest of the campers learned the meaning of the word Kafkaesque.

Camps today could revive the simulation to teach about what it was like to be in Jewish camp during the era of the Soviet Jewry movement. When I reproduce the simulation with my classes, my students marvel that learning about anti-Semitism and oppression could actually be made fun. They squirm at the ethics of enjoying it but acknowledge its power to get people emotionally engaged.

2) Reclaim Simchat Torah. From the Matzoh of Hope to the Unlit Menorah to the 9th of Av Protest Fast, Soviet Jewry activists left no holiday unmobilized. But the festival that it claimed as uniquely its own was Simchat Torah — the one day in the year when Jews in the USSR would gather by the thousands to dance outside synagogues and affirm their Jewish pride. Around the world it became a time to celebrate Soviet Jews.

It would take nothing elaborate to make an old-new tradition in American synagogues. Simply reserve one of the seven hakafot (circling the synagogue with the Torahs) to jointly honor members from the former Soviet Union and the activists who worked for their freedom. This will likely prompt children to notice and ask, as they do on Passover, why are we doing this? And then you can tell your children on that day, this is because of what we did to bring Jews out of Russia.

3) Use Twinning on Soviet Jewry Movement Shabbat. Some of the movement’s most effective education was done through the synagogues. Anyone who attended a bar or bat mitzvah in the 1980s remembers how they did this. The children taught the adults, who were a captive audience.

Soviet Jewry committees in each synagogue paired the congregation’s 13-year-olds with Soviet Jewish “twins” the same age. The American b’nai mitzvah would write. Sometimes the pen pals wrote back. If they didn’t, well, that was a lesson in Soviet censorship and anti-Semitism.

At the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony itself, an empty chair on the bimah would symbolize the absent twin. The Soviet child would be called to the Torah, underscoring that they were unable to be present and respond. The American child would then recite the blessings on the twin’s behalf. In the sermon, the American b’nai mitzvah would tell the assembled about the tribulations faced by the twin’s family. Also, about what they learned about the meaning of being a Jewish adult, responsible for the welfare of other Jews. Also, about the blessing of American freedoms.

That was then. To adapt it for now, let us declare a Soviet Jewry Movement Shabbat, to be observed annually. In each synagogue, teenagers would be twinned with elders from the congregation — immigrants from the USSR and locals who were activists in the campaign to free Soviet Jews. In these relationships, the stories of the movement would be passed down. On the Shabbat itself, as each teenager is called to the Torah, each elder fills one of the empty chairs.

Just as twinning in the 1980s empowered youth to teach the adults, the ones speaking from the pulpit on Soviet Jewry Movement Shabbat would be the teenagers, teaching the congregation what they learned from their twins.

It would be a powerful moment in Jewish unity if all synagogues agreed on one date. I propose the Shabbat of Parshat Terumah, the Torah portion that was read when Natan Sharansky walked free in February 1986. It is a parsha that typically comes in Adar, the month when we celebrate diaspora Jews thwarting a government that tried to destroy them. It is also appropriate to commemorating a mass mobilization. Terumah opens by declaring that the sanctuary will be built with the gifts of every person whose heart is moved to give. In 2020, Parshat Terumah will fall on February 29.

For this to happen, there is one other thing we must recover from the Soviet Jewry movement: synagogue Soviet Jewry Committees.

After the exodus from the USSR, the various Soviet Jewry committees disbanded. It is time to reconstitute them as Soviet Jewry Movement Commemoration Committees. Former activists and ex-refuseniks can be joined by their children and grandchildren and anyone else who wants to honor their labors.

The Soviet Jewry movement did not just happen. Activists worked to create it. Likewise, commemoration will not magically appear on its own. If American Jews are to pass down the legacy of this heroic chapter in their history, those who care will need to start organizing again.

Shaul Kelner teaches sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. He is writing a book about how the Soviet Jewry movement developed its tactics.

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