The Soviet Jewry movement, particularly Jacob Birnbaum’s grassroots Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry here in New York, was not only about saving Soviet Jews but igniting a politically dormant American Jewry, guilt ridden about its sense of not having done enough in the 1930s and ‘40s.
In 1964, at the beginning of Birnbaum’s activism, it seemed either ludicrous or messianic that a handful of teenagers protesting on a Manhattan sidewalk could force the Soviet Union, then a superpower dictatorship to change its ways. But by the 1980s, those sidewalk rallies had evolved into 100,000 Jews gathering on “Solidarity Sundays,” and on Dec. 6, 1987, came the high-water mark of American Jewish activism: the greatest Soviet Jewry rally of all, a quarter-million Jews marching on Washington, coinciding with a Soviet-American summit. Today, of course, there are more than a million Russian Jews in Israel, and another 220,000 Jews in Russian-speaking households in New York, according to the new UJA-Federation of New York population study.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of that march on Washington, veterans of the Soviet Jewry movement have launched “Freedom 25,” to remind American Jews — and a younger generation of Russian Jews — of what American Jews and Russian Jews once did and can do again.
Freedom 25, co-chaired by Soviet Jewry advocates Daniel Eisenstadt and Michael Granoff, is a partnership of seven organizations — the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Agency, Orthodox Union, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish National Fund, JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) and the American Jewish Historical Society — along with former refuseniks, various communal leaders, and veterans of the grass-roots activist groups, Student Struggle (SSSJ) and the Union of Councils For Soviet Jews,
The announced goal is “to raise awareness” of the Soviet Jewry movement’s “epic tale,” while generating an online solidarity “march” of one million people, centering around the December anniversary of the Washington protest. The group is aiming to get schools, campus groups, summer camps and other institutions “to integrate the movement into their curricula and educational mission.”
Even in day schools, where activism on behalf of other Jews remains an exalted value, most students don’t know much, if anything, about the Soviet Jewry movement, says Glenn Richter, a leading figure in SSSJ and a member of Freedom 25’s advisory board. He noted that one particular day school student, whose father is associated with Freedom 25, was able to identify Rosa Parks and the basics of the civil rights movement but “had no knowledge at all of the Soviet Jewry movement.”
Many young Russian Jews here, added Richter, are unaware of how it came to be that they are living in New York instead of Novosibirsk. (Of course the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union played a major role in triggering emigration as well.) Richter says he was at an event for 250 young Russian Jews, and a speaker asked, does anyone know the term “refusenik?”
“Now remember,” says Richter, “these are the children of Russian Jews, or they may have even been born in the former Soviet Union themselves. Out of 250 people, one young woman raised her hand. One. We have a big job to do. If they can explore their own background, then maybe they could understand the solidarity of Jews, and the value of that.”
There is no inevitability to ignorance and apathy, as demonstrated by the evolution of the refusenik generation. At a recent dinner in honor of Jacob Birnbaum by the Russian American Jewish Experience, a Brooklyn-based association of Russian Jews, Natan Sharansky recalled that prior to 1967, “We knew nothing about our history, nothing about our Jewishness, nothing about our traditions.” Sharansky, by way of the gulag, now chairs the Jewish Agency, cosponsoring Freedom 25.
Yosef Mendelevich, who spent 11 years in the gulag and is now a rabbi in Jerusalem as well as a member of the Freedom 25 advisory board, recalls the Jewish isolation and ignorance of his Soviet childhood, before the movement’s great awakening that lifted him spiritually as well as politically. “I felt,” he said on a recent visit to New York, “as if it was me coming out from the kever,” the grave. “I feel like [Ezekiel’s] bones that came alive.”
“My generation will be passing from the scene,” says Richter, 67. “We have to preserve what happened that December day, what that movement and its values meant, the unprecedented unity and activism,” the love and obligation that one Jew instinctively felt for another Jew. In an era in which autonomy and individualism are so valued, Richer says there is a higher value, “acting as a Jew for other Jews.” As Jewish history unfolds, “as a Jew you have to ask, what is my responsibility, and how can I carry it out.”
Pamela Cohen, former president of the Union of Councils, says, “On our campuses, and in major cities, many young people are lost, without a strong Jewish identity. They actually remind me much of what Soviet Jews were like before 1967.”
One early part of the educational process is the publication of the first English-language edition of Mendelevich’s autobiography “Unbroken Spirit” (Gefen Publishing) 25 years after its Russian and Hebrew editions.
“Every step of the way,” says Richter of Mendelevich’s story, “Yosef questioned what he did, why he did it, and how that determined his Jewish identity. That way of thinking is transferable and inspirational.”
Mendelevich writes about how Sharansky’s cell was briefly opposite his, and if they spoke softly enough they could talk, “but it was better to sing. On Friday nights, after [what passed for] Kiddush and a meal, I would sing to dispel the loneliness. … ‘Do you hear me?’ I would sing?”
“’Yes, Yosef, I hear you,’” whispered Sharansky.
“Shabbat Shalom, Anatoly.”
“’Shabbat Shalom,’ came his lilting reply. Hearing this,” writes Mendelevich, “I felt the angels of Shabbat descend and dispel the loneliness.”
“What I try to say in my book,” says Mendelevich today, “is that it is a pleasure and a joy to be Jewish. Anyone who is looking for a joyful life, this is the way to do it. I was a dull Soviet citizen, I studied in the university like everyone else, but there was no meaning in my life. I found meaning in our Jewish clandestine group,” working for Soviet Jewry and emigration to Israel. “In the process I found freedom not only for Soviet Jewry but freedom for me, to feel myself strong, joyful, involved in life. It is a privilege to be Jewish.”
“We have to get back to the idea of the Jewish people as a collective,” says Richter, “with collective responsibility for Israel and each other, a sense of oneness with the land that the refuseniks were willing to go to prison camps for, and a oneness with the people of Israel. These stories have to be told, the history has to be shared, and the values passed on. That’s what Freedom 25 is all about.”