Jacob (Yaakov) Birnbaum, founder of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, may have been the greatest Jewish liberator since Moses. We needed a “struggle,” not conferences or committees. A poor but regal European refugee in New York, he wanted to pull off a prison break for the ages, springing almost two million Jews from the Soviet Union dictatorship after decades of persecution and prison camps. Leading refuseniks such as Yosef Mendelevitch credit Birnbaum with inspiring activists inside the Iron Curtain. In New York, he ignited Jewish student activism unmatched before or since, mentoring dozens to positions of influence and leadership.
Last Sunday, 187th Street and Cabrini Boulevard in Washington Heights was renamed in his honor: Jacob Birnbaum Way. It was there, until his death in 2014, that he lived with his wife Freda in a modest apartment lined with books, clips, files, papers, and pilgrims wanting his wisdom. From there, he masterminded everything from street demonstrations to Congressional battles for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, linking Soviet trade to emigration and human rights.
He proudly emulated his grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, the first to organize Jewish students (1883) and coin the word “Zionism” (1890); he was also secretary-general of the First Zionist Congress (1897). In 1965, Yaakov Birnbaum inspired Shlomo Carlebach to write the anthem, “Am Yisroel Chai,” for the “Jericho March,” with students circling the Soviet UN mission here with shofars. Birnbaum told The Jewish Week, years later, “I was looking for signs of renaissance.” After the Shoah, before the 1960s, “My philosophy was that all patterns of living were disintegrating,” in Russia, too. He imagined the return of the Lost Tribes, the Georgians, the Bukharians, the mountain Jews, the Moscow Jews. “You can’t do anything but plant points of ferment,” he said, “and hope the ferment spreads.”
Cabrini is a one-way street; so was Birnbaum: determined, defiant, impossible to discourage. Other city streets are named for Jews, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Natan Sharansky, even a bridge for Ed Koch. Birnbaum may be the most obscure, even if so inspirational. Perhaps, it was said at the naming, someone will look up at the Jacob Birnbaum Way sign, and then look up who he was. Imagine.