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Bernie Dishler

Bernie Dishler was born in Philadelphia in 1939. He and his wife Lana were very active in struggle for the Soviet Jewry. Both of them were among the leaders of Soviet Jewry Council of Philadelphia. They visited the Soviet Union several times.
The interview was conducted by Aba and Ida Taratuta on 2004 in Jerusalem.

      Aba Taratuta: Would you please give us a bit of your background and that of your family?

      Bernie Dishler: My father was born in Biers in 1900. In 1905 his family emigrated to Philadelphia (USA). He met and married my mother, whose family came from Poland, in New York. My father became a paper-hanger because his father had been one before him and because they were told that in Philadelphia paper-hangers did not need to work on Shabbat. But, as he grew up he had to support a family and needed to work on Shabbat.

      Whenever he was not working on Shabbat, he went to Synagogue. We were not orthodox but kept a traditional Jewish home. My family didn't have much money but they always believed in "tzadaka" (charity). They were also not real activists but they did struggle to have their children educated. This was very difficult if you had to support a family during the big Depression of the 1930s.

      I was always active in Jewish affairs. There were groups that I joined as a teen-ager, which were not always Zionist but Israel became very important to us. I was 9 years old in 1948 so I remember the State of Israel coming into being.

      I then met Lana and we married in 1962. Her father was rather more of a practicing Jew, not really a Zionist but involved with various Jewish organizations. I was in the army for 2 years and afterwards we came back to Philadelphia and I set up a dental practice. I gradually became involved in Jewish organizations and in 1971 somebody from one of these organizations invited us to go on a mission to Israel. That changed my life and we became more active about Israel after that. I remember the first time I ever heard about Soviet Jewry; it must have been in 1973. When Kosygin came to Washington DC, there was a big rally which I also went to.

      A.T.: What organization arranged this?

      B.D.: It was an organization called "Brit Shalom" and it was a fraternal organization. They, among other things, built a house for wounded veterans, in Haifa, called "Beit Elohim", the ground-breaking for which was in 1971.

      A.T.: You joined an organization in 1973. Was that the same organization or a different one?

      B.D.: It was the same organization. In 1973 or 1974, two things happened. Firstly, I met a dentist, in my dentist supply company, who introduced me to a guy from Moscow, who was both a dentist and a recent immigrant. I asked whether I could help him and he asked for English lessons. He knew some English but not enough so, every Saturday, we would spend a couple of hours just talking and I learnt a lot about Soviet Jewry from those conversations. Secondly, a friend invited us to their home and they had friends who had just returned from a trip to the Soviet Union. They were Enid and Stuart Wurtman who told us their story and described whom they'd seen.

      A.T.: What was that dentist's name and where had he come from?

      B.D.: It was Mikhail Berman from Moscow. He was one of the lucky ones who got out early. I think he had a lot of good connections because he was the head of a Dental Clinic at the Academy of Sciences. However he did it, he managed to get out. After that meeting we were able to send money to refuseniks with the help of Enid and Stuart Wurtman. Maybe some of my checks reached you, Ida and Aba! Stuart Wurtman suggested that we each "adopt a family". Some of our friends contributed maybe $5 a month. I don't remember exactly but it was not large sums of money. We were sending ours to Oksana Chertin at the time but that didn't last long because the checks were either blocked or too heavy a tax was put on them. I reckon it was round about then that we decided that we too would visit refuseniks. Enid and Stuart went again, this time with Connie and Joe Smuckler so we also heard their story. I think that was in the summer of 1975. We made our first trip in December of 1975. We went to Leningrad and Moscow and by then we were "hooked"! The people whom we met then remained in our hearts and minds after we came back and so we became more involved in the Soviet Jewry Council of Philadelphia which was steadily growing in size. I got involved pretty early in the briefing committee - to brief people who were going. I did that and went on to do it for National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NC) at a national committee, and I was involved in that. The first trip was with Lana. The second trip I did with another man. I think it was in 1977 that I met you. It was in your apartment that I met the ship's captain from Riga.

      A.& Ida Taratuta: We can't quite remember his name; Abram something-or-other, but we are not sure.

      B.D.: Then in someone's apartment there were some Jews from Britain too. They asked me if I would take a tape, and give it to the US Consul, because the British would not accept it and it was his story of the ship's captain's Edelman from Riga. He was separated from his wife; his family was in the USA, and he was still in the Soviet Union.

      I.T.: That was wife and daughter.

      B.D.: At that time, during that same trip, I was in Moscow, when Natan Sharansky was accused. It was in that “Izvestia” article of March 1977. I went to see Volodya & Masha Slepak. There were crowds outside his apartment.

      A.T.: Did you have problems to get into the Slepak’s apartment?

      B.D.: I had no problems going in but on the way out I had that tape. I had taken my tape recorder and I had the tape in there, but it was disabled. The officials wanted to hear the tape but I was able to show that it wasn't working. They told me to go with them and I refused. So they took the tape, played it and returned it empty. That was the only time that I had any difficulty, and that was minor. I was only worried because of the plane; I did not want to see it leave without me.

      I went again in 1983 with Lana. In Philadelphia we spent a lot of time with briefing and trying to get people to go but we gradually became a little more sophisticated and we chose people who were Hebrew teachers, somebody who could give some good information, other than just news. We raised a lot of money to send people with a lot to offer. We sent some Jewish singers and various people like that. We remained active until 1990 - 1991.

      A.T.: What kind of activities and help in the US did you provide? Letters, for example?

      B.D.: We wrote a lot of letters. We also demonstrated every time a Soviet troupe would come to Philadelphia. We never told people not to go in, but we were there with information, telling them about 'the other side'. We always tried to do things that were a little dramatic without seeming too crazy. Once, a hockey team came over and we had a big hockey puck on which we'd written "The puck stops here". It was a play on words originating from the times of President Truman who said "The buck stops here", an expression defining the point at which responsibility came to rest. The whole idea was to attract the press and get them involved. Once, at a hockey game, we had a big sign in Russian saying "Svoboda (Freedom) and Free Soviet Jews" The Russian hockey team saw it and refused to come out to play until it was taken down. In this way it got a lot of publicity through the press. It was even televised and seen by friends of ours in the Soviet Union. They saw a lot of the things we were doing for them.

      At that time I was involved in the NC, on the board. We planned and talked about the relationship between government and power and how to put Soviet Jewry into the political agenda of the USA. I think that Morris Abram played a very important role in the final situation. He was chairman of the NC and also of the Presidents' Conference of Major Jewish Organizations. He was really, at that time, number one.

      A.T.: What about Jerry Goodman?

      B.D.: Jerry Goodman was the professional while Morris Abram was the volunteer, and he had very good connections with the government and with President Ronald Reagan and Vice President Bush. They were the guys in power at the time. He, Morris Abram, was then, I think, the Under-Secretary of Commerce. Morris used to, whenever they had meetings, give them lists of names and so forth. We always said that it was fine to put Soviet Jewry "on the table" concerning trade with the USSR, but that when it came to disarmament, it was probably not a good idea to mix the two because it could alienate the American people. Morris disagreed and said that every time Soviet officials meet with Americans, it should be on the agenda. And he was right. At that time, it was still Brezhnev in power. Then, when Gorbachev took over, they wanted disarmament agreements, the SALT Agreements, if you remember. We always had Soviet Jewry on the table, and I think it made a big difference.

      A.T.: Was your work in Philadelphia independent or a part of the NC?

      B.D.: We had an interesting situation. When the Wurtmans were still in Philadelphia (they made aliyah sometime earlier on), they were part of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry (UCSJ). In l974 or l975, the United Jewish Federation, the UJF community in Philadelphia, suggested that we join forces. It had a small committee, but once a year they had a big Simhat Torah rally and march. It was great, but that was mainly what they did. If you wanted to go to the Soviet Union and meet people, they did not know how to set it up.

      So we joined together, and we were one of the few cities in the country that belonged to both organizations. We paid dues to NC. We paid dues to UCSJ. What started happening was that UCSJ did not trust us.

      Gradually we became more involved with NC. We still had contact with the UCSJ through Pam Cohen, its president. She would call me and ask whether we had someone going to the USSR and explain that she had something to send in, such as medicine, but that was our main contact.

      A.T.: I understand that the Union of Councils were independent and were able to do whatever they wanted to do.

      B.D.: Yes but we tried to listen to them. The two groups sometimes had a little difference in philosophy. UC supported dissidents and NC took their cues from Israel. Israel said to keep away from the dissidents. So we tried to do this. We used to go to Sharansky and say: 'stop this'. He did not listen.

      I.T.: It seems that you were the greater activists. Would that be right?

      B.D.: Yes, I agree. I think that was because we did so much traveling. The more we traveled, the more people joined us.

      A.T.: What sort of connections did you have with the Israeli Lishkat ha'Kesher (LK).

      B.D.: We gave them information although they never gave us any. They were always very insistent on secrecy and were concerned that we used the telephone too much. Sometimes they would send people from Philadelphia, and we didn't even know about it. Occasionally, when these people came back, they became involved with us. It seemed to us that their missions were a little crazy. They would take one small item that was very important to one person only and that would be their mission. They did not do anything else. Then they saw what our people did, how many people they met, and they felt a little cheated.

      A.T.: What can you tell us about your wife and her background?

      B.D.: Her grand-parents were born in Poland but her parents met and were married in Philadelphia. Her grand-father on her mother's side died very young, so her mother did not have an easy life. Her father was the one who was very involved in Jewish organizations. He died very young, at the age of 50.

      Lana was always involved. Of course, we had young children at the time. When we made our first trip in 1975, our daughter was 5 years old, and our son was 2 years old. In the early years, Lana had a major job to do but she was still involved. As her time became more available, she also became chairman of the Philadelphia group for 3 years, following my 3 year stint as chairman, which shows how involved she was. In fact, in 1987, I think that was the year of the March on Washington, she was the chair in Philadelphia to mobilize people. They did a very, very good job. We had maybe 200 busloads of people, from Philadelphia alone going to Washington DC.

      A.T.: How religious a background did Lana have? Did her family background provide her with Jewish education?

      B.D.: Her family was not as religious as my family. When we got married, she said she'd keep a kosher home. That was a requirement.

      A.T.: And your children? Were they involved?

      B.D.: During briefings, and so forth, the house was Soviet Jewry. We always had meetings in our house. We had briefings in our house. We had debriefings. When somebody came back, we would always have the whole committee, maybe 8 or 9 people would come to listen to those who came back. So the kids knew a lot about it. Maybe they knew too much. Maybe it invaded their lives too much. They are not active now.

      I.T.: That is understandable.

      A.T.: How many times in all did you visit the USSR?

      B.D.: Three times.

      A.T.: Did you have problems?

      B.D.: Not really and certainly nothing serious. They inspected our luggage and looked at the books. We just gave the standard answers.

      I.T.: Do you maintain any connections with former refuseniks whom you helped?

      B.D.: Yes indeed. We see Oksana Chertin occasionally. We hear from her too. In the early years, we saw them more. We saw them here, in Israel, when they were in Ra'anana. We saw other people both here and in Toronto. We used to see them in the early years.

      And Kosharovsky too. I stayed in touch with him for a long time. Sometimes when we came to Israel, in earlier years, we would try to get everybody together, and we would have meetings, and so forth. It doesn't happen so much any more.

      I also see Boris Kalendarov. He is a patient of mine. So, naturally, I see him.

      I see Slepak's son. He has just moved to California, but when he was in Evan's Park, a suburb of Philadelphia, near me, I would see him.

      A.T.: What do you think about the Soviet Jews who went to America rather than Israel?

      B.D.: It's very interesting, you know. This whole story of 'neshira' (not going to Israel) was a big issue for us because my first involvement was with a family which was in Philadelphia. We stayed involved with them. Actually, he did end up coming to Israel.

      As our movement became stronger, it became more of an issue. Some people felt very strongly that absolutely everybody must come to Israel, with no alternative. It was a challenge for us. We hired, in Philadelphia, two organizational psychologists and we spent a whole weekend together, the entire committee. We went away for a week-end. The psychologists worked with us the whole time, trying to come up with a mission statement to clarify what our purpose was. We never resolved it completely, but it made it a little easier to work together.

      For most of that time, I stayed away from the Soviet Jews in Philadelphia. They were there, but we had other things to do which were more important.

      But then, in the 1990s, when there was nothing more to be done against the authorities to "rescue" people from the USSR, because freedom to emigrate freely had finally been granted, we started getting involved with the Jews who were still there for whatever reason. We felt strongly that, because they were still there, we should bring Judaism to them. It would have been all too easy to have left them to assimilate and forget their heritage.

      A.T.: Don't you think that it may have been a good thing for some of the Russian Jews to settle in America?

      B.D.: I think it added a lot of Jews to the existing population. There are some who, like Boris, who have become very involved. He is religious. He is involved with Jewish organizations.

      A.T.: I cannot understand which Soviet Jews chose to go to the USA.

      B.D.: America, to a large extent, appealed to some of the well-educated, healthy ones. People who were not so healthy came to Israel, a lot of them, a lot of them because America was not interested in them. From the United States' stand-point, the Jewish immigration was very helpful. A lot of good people in the sciences came there so I think it was a very good thing. It was helpful. As I say, I don't know what percentage is involved in the Jewish community. Most are not but there is a percentage that is. In fact, the group in Philadelphia has adopted Kharkov. A number of them were from Kharkov. They raise money. They have a pharmacy in Kharkov where they help to pay for medication for poor people who cannot afford it.

      They are doing something. They are involved a little bit. Most don't help financially although some have done very well financially. But for some reason they are not donors.

      A.T.: Who are the people in Philadelphia whom you know to have been involved in the Soviet Jewry movement?

      B.D.: Of course, Connie&Joe Smuckler, Lorna Edelman. And, of course, the Wurtmans before they went on Aliyah. There were also Dan Siegel, Martha Aronship, Lou Gantman, Judy Shapalo, the Brodskys.

      I.T.: I've heard that there is also somebody involved with dogs.

      B.D.: Yes, Norman Leventhal. Do you now what he does here? He has a guide-dog center for the blind. Bobbi Morgenstern used to make certain kinds of necklaces; that was her specialty. Every woman who went into the Soviet Union from Philadelphia had one, even the Catholic nun Sister Gloria Did you, Ida and Aba, ever meet her?

      A.T.:I am not sure. Do you remember any especially interesting cases?

      B.D.: Of course, the Sharansky case was the biggest one.

      I.T.: Did you know him before his arrest?

      B.D.: We met him for the first time in 1975 when he took us to several refuseniks who didn't speak English. Then, actually, in 1975, his wife Avital came to Philadelphia right after we came back and we saw her there.

      Kosharovsky was also somebody with whom I was personally very involved. I met him during the first trip. He told me the story that he was out driving, and was arrested when he came back. That was during President Richard Nixon's visit.

      I am a driver. In those years I used to do a lot of racing, so I would wear his name on my shirt. Sometimes I would enter him in the race, and would try to get a story to the press that he was not allowed to attend. We sent him an invitation for the race, but they wouldn't let him come. We always looked for ways to get this sort of publicity into the press, to make people aware of what was going on.

      We were involved with a number of people, the Chertins, for example. Fortunately they got out quite early on.

      A.T.: How did Soviet Jews assimilate into American society?.

      B.D.: I don't have to tell you. It is a difficult transition . Some people do better than others. Many found that, from the point of view of their professions, that the younger they were, the easier it was to adapt.

      I am in contact with a family in Philadelphia. He was a physician with a PhD and worked at a high level in Kiev. His wife is a dentist. Neither of them works in their professions. He works transcribing medical information, a very lowly job. For a while, she worked for me as a dental assistant. I gave her a job because I wanted to, but it was not really a good idea. Many people are unable to find work in their own fields. Some of the people, in their 50s, came and were never able to do anything with their skills. On the one hand it was a tragedy but on the other hand, they and their children were free.

      A.T.: What sort of activity exists today?

      BD: There is no longer a Soviet Jewry Council. We were part of the Jewish Community Relations Council. It was a way that the Jewish Community was organized, so we were part of that. That still exists, but the Soviet Jewry Council does not. Most of us got involved in other things. I, for example, became involved in the Jewish Federation and that is where I spend a lot of time. Just this year I became chairman of a committee called 'Partnership 2000'. We are connected with a community in the south of Israel, in the Negev. They assigned a lot of cities to this program. It's not necessarily to give money, although we do raise some money for them. It is more to connect people. We, in America, feel that the younger people especially do not have the same sense of connection to Israel that we do. It is similar to the Soviet Jewry movement - if you know somebody, and you have a connection personally, you feel differently. It is not just a country. It is where people live. So we do a lot of connecting. Every time we have a group coming from Philadelphia to Israel, they spend a day in this community. They tour, meet the people and always have home hospitality where one or two couples will go to someone's home for tea for an hour or so.

      Those are the sort of things we do. Netivot is the name of our city. We exchange groups of children. Children from Netivot come in groups to Philadelphia and groups of children from Philadelphia then go to Netivot. We have young professionals who do the same sort of thing. I am chairman of that committee now and I enjoy it.

      A.T.: Have you got connections with Rita Eker's 35s in London and Glenn Richter's Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry?

      B.D.: Yes. In 1976, in Brussels, we went to the Brussels Conference, and we met the members of the '35s'. We always had some loose connection. We did not really have many things that we could do together, but we would frequently have international meetings, including here in Israel. That was really the only connection we had; not really very strong. I think they may have done some things with us, such as profiles, biographies of refuseniks and things like that.

      I must tell you about the Student Struggle. We were involved with the campus life in Philadelphia. There are several universities and, when they had activities and events, we would help them. We also, sent students from the universities to the Soviet Union. In fact, interestingly, about 2 months ago, I got a call from a guy called Goldberg. He's from the New Yorker magazine and its Middle East editor I wondered what he could want of me. He told me that I sent him to Russia when he was a student, and he needed his briefing report as he was writing a book. I looked for it but couldn't find it. I gave some to you, Aba but we haven't got his. He was a very interesting guy.

      Then, about a week or two later, there was an Op-Ed piece in New York Times by him. It was an interesting article. He was saying that the orthodox rabbis in the United States should come out strongly for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in order to protect him from the many orthodox rabbis here, in Israel, who were saying that we should get rid of him, to kill him even. It's really a concern. He quoted Sharon as saying that he has more protection now from Jews than he ever had from Arabs and that he needs more security around him now. It was good that he, this New York magazine reporter, had stayed involved in the Jewish community. He said that he didn't know whether his trip to the Soviet Union had anything to do with it but he's remained involved and that's the main thing.

      We knew Glenn Richter. Whenever we had a NC board meeting, Glenn Richer was always there together with Jacob Birnbaum from SSSJ. We had some contacts but I think that the SSSJ mainly had contacts with UCSJ.

      A.T.: Why do you think that we refuseniks knew so much about Glenn Richer and not about Jacob Birnbaum?

      B.D.: He worked behind the scenes. But at National Conference he, Jacob Birnbaum, was very vocal. In fact, some of the chairmen did not treat him really well because he spoke his mind. This was an organization of very "proper" people and Jacob was not proper. He was more passionate.

      I do not know if you can remember Eugene Gold, Aba. He was chairman of National Conference, maybe sometime in the 1980s. He was a former District Attorney of New York and he did not like Jacob. Every time Jacob got up to talk, he, Eugene Gold, would tell him to shut up. They were a good group, even the JDL, which caused a lot of trouble but they were there too. That was the Jewish Defense League of Meir Kahane. The JDL was very unorthodox in their thinking. I remember one time there was a Russian ballet, and they threw mice on the stage. That is the kind of thing that they did. It was counter productive we always felt. That is why we never told people not to go to the Russian concerts. Even then we always dressed nicely and didn't look like bums. We felt that culture is separate; we shouldn't get involved in cultural activities. We always tried not to offend people because we wanted their support.

      But the JDL's, style was to offend people. They spoke: 'in your face' (direct and aggressive, whether you like it or not). I remember years and years before that, I had met Kahane, and spoke to him about not only Soviet Jewry, but just the whole issue. At the time, he was "protecting" poor Jews, which is why he had these militants around him. I told him that what he was doing was admirable but he attracted people who are not necessarily good people. He said that they would change and that he knew what he was doing, but their guys were not exactly right.

      Now I think it is all I wanted to say.

      A.&I.T.: Thank you a lot.

Transcripted by Donna Wosk (Israel)

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