Glenn Richter, together with his mentor and source of inspiration, Jacob Birnbaum created in 1964 The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, a famous grassroots organization, one of those which stood at the forefront of the American Jewry Movement – the movement which was soon to play so tremendous, and to a certain extent, so decisive a role in the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry. This interview was held by Aba and Ida Taratuta in New York in September 2005.
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in New York city. My wife's background is totally different. When I ended my first year in college in 1963, I became involved in the American civil rights movement. As I was too young to go to Mississippi or Georgia, I worked in the office of an organization call SNCC, which was then known as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (after that it got violent). At that point it was non-violent and adhered to the principles of Martin Luther King. In college I also belonged to Hillel, the Jewish students' organization, and also was involved in the civil rights organization on campus.
At Queens College, my major was political science. I remember reading as part of my interest in political science a January 1963 article by Moshe Decter, "The Status of the Jews in the Soviet Union" in Foreign Affairs magazine. Foreign Affairs was and remains today one of the most prestigious political magazines. Decter had managed to put together, with only statistical analysis, information about the condition of Soviet Jews. Decter could be asked whether or not the "Lishka" [the Lishkat Hakesher created by the Israeli government] or the precursor to the Lishka had supplied him with information. Decter had been an editor of a left-wing American political magazine. He had always been interested in the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union as a lone voice. He was speaking out when nobody else was. In the late 1950s he was writing material about Soviet Jews in a left-wing American magazine, and nobody was listening.
I met young Jewish men and women who were interested in civil rights. Several of us got together and decided that if we can act on behalf of other people, why can't we act on behalf of our own. At that time, there was very little information available, almost nothing. We just knew that Jews couldn't get matzah.
We met in late 1963 or early 1964 at a gathering of an organization called the American League for Russian Jews. The group was one of the very first public organizations for Soviet Jews. It was comprised of people who were Zionist Revisionists, those who followed Jabotinsky. Some had gone through the Shoah and felt they needed to do something for Soviet Jews. Four of us met over there, including Jacob Birnbaum. Birnbaum was older, had experience, had lived as a young child in Germany in the early 1930s, had seen what the Nazis were doing, had helped Jewish refugees after the Shoah, and had helped rescue Jews from North Africa to Israel in the 1950s. We felt that something needed to be done on the student level.
I need to provide a bit of pre-history. In 1962, three young men decided also that they needed to do something. The group included Bernie Kabak, who lives in my neighborhood and married one of the assistants to the great Senator Jacob Javits. Senator Javits was the first politician to think of a link between trade and immigration. In 1964 it was hard for Jews to think about going out and demonstrating, but in 1962 it was almost unthinkable. Jews just didn't do it; it was "pas nisht". Yet they called a demonstration in Spring 1962 at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations. I remember that students from Yeshiva University's high school attended this demonstration. Subsequently, the school sent a letter to their homes that your child was absent from school without a reason.
Later, by 1964, Yeshiva University became the center of student activity for Soviet Jewry, but you can see how really primitive things were in 1962. And that was only a one-time demonstration. But there's more to the story which Bernie Kabak can relate to you. I'm not going to tell you about the phone call he got in the middle of the night and what happened, and about the demonstrators' conversations with the Soviets.
Back to the Spring of 1964. We four were involved in the civil rights movement. Another student, Arthur Green, was a Conservative rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The fourth was Jimmy Torczyner, who today is a professor of sociology.
Birnbaum had already been going around at Yeshiva University - he lived a couple of blocks away - and had been talking to students, trying to interest them in the issue. We called a meeting for April 27, 1964 at Columbia University. It was an incredible meeting; perhaps 200 students showed up. We discussed what should we do? We decided to demonstrate.
Now today you sneeze and you demonstrate. But at that time, you just didn't. How were we going to find participants? We ran around New York City for three days handing out flyers on university campuses. We deliberately planned our demonstration for May 1st, May Day 1964. We got over one thousand students marching for four hours in silence outside the Soviet Mission to the UN.
Why in silence? Because we said that if Soviet Jews are silent, we should be silent - and that's the last time we ever made that mistake. We didn't know exactly what to do. Our only reference points were tactics from the American civil rights movement. This was before the American anti-Vietnam War movement. This was even before 1965, 1966, when books by Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence and Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died created the feeling of guilt for not doing anything during the Shoah. We didn't know that we should ask questions of the previous generation about the Shoah and what they did or didn't do. We just didn't know that yet.
So many students came out to demonstrate not because we were so brilliant. It was because a lot of Jewish students looked at the American civil rights movement, had good Jewish feelings, wanted to participate but you just didn't go out and demonstrate. But here came something Jewish - Jews in Russia didn't have matzah - demonstrating was something to do, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, 1000 students come out. It was really a miracle. Inside the hearts of these students was a terrific feeling that they wanted to do something, and we provided a Jewish way for them to do it.
Incidentally, there's a funny story about that demonstration. There was this guy, Tuvia, who was a "ger", a convert to Judaism. He had a very distinguished beard and a lovely hat. I told him, "to the media you look like the stereotypical Jew, so I bet your photograph will be in the newspaper". Sure enough, his photo was on page two of the New York Times the next day.
We decided to continue to demonstrate, given that our first effort was so successful. So we held demonstrations every few weeks. After several months, we decided that perhaps we should create a movement, some sort of structure. We had meetings to consider what to do next. Moshe Decter spoke to us because he was the only source of information we had. Jacob Birnbaum thought up the name "Students Struggle for Soviet Jewry" and he had made a rubber stamp with that title. I told him I thought it would sound better if it said "Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry". So I took a razor blade and cut off the final "s". So now we had a little stamp that said Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. We worked out of Jacob's apartment near Yeshiva University.
This was before the era of the internet or fax machine. We just had a phone and the mail. But as time went on you could see how, as people heard about us, as people visited their friends and told them about the issue, as we got mail and phone calls, that the net expanded out north, south, east and west across the US and into Canada. We put together material, and somebody gave us an office near the southern tip of Manhattan.
So we started to create the elements of an organization. I think I may have heard my colleague Henry Gerber say to people that we're not interested in creating another organization. Rather, if you're active within your student group, your Hillel, whatever it is, fine, create a Soviet Jewry interest group within that organization. You already have the structure set up and don't have to build one from scratch.
That's how we kept on enlarging the circle. How did we get money? Basically, at our meetings, we said we needed money and passed the hat. People threw in dollar bills. For example, my wife Lenore, who had been at the very first demonstration, gave $100 three years late. $100 forty years ago was a lot of money. And for her, it was an extremely large amount because she had to arn it all by herself while taking a very heavy load of courses at Stern College, Yeshiva University's women's division. Her family couldn't pay her college tuition, and she had six jobs, though not all at the same time, to work her way through college.
We had a young man several years later named Larry who said, I'd like to travel around the country to go to different college campuses to generate interest in Soviet Jewry. We said, great but we don't really have too much money to give you. Larry said it didn't matter. He went around the country, slept in university dormitories, hitched rides on the road, but in between, where there was farmland, slept in barns. But to Larry the most important thing was to spread the issue. This is the kind of individual who became attracted, those who felt this was something important to do.
By 1965, 1966, something happened, the publication of Elie Wiesel's The Jews of Silence and Arthur Morse's While Six Million Died. The books spoke of the silence of American Jews during the Shoah. When I talked to my parents, they said they didn't know about the Nazi murder of Jews, and when did learned of it, they felt powerless. The American Jewish community didn't feel they had enough power to do anything. But we were a different generation. We didn't have the psychology of the Shoah generation.
And now we in the Soviet Jewry movement suddenly had this guilt we could throw at people. We could say to students, our parents' generation was silent during the Shoah, but now we can't be silent. And to some of those who belonged to the American Jewish "establishment" organizations we said, well maybe your organization was silent during the Shoah, but you can't be silent now.
Wiesel was beginning to become known as a writer, and this slim book of his, The Jews of Silence, had an enormous effect on the grassroots.
In the late 1960s the American anti-Vietnam War movement developed. As with the civil rights movement, it's wasn't considered great for young Jewish men and women to just go and burn American flags or do crazy things like that. To some groups of American students we provided a Jewish activist alternative. We didn't get lots of extra people that way, but we did borrow some ideas from the anti-war movement as we did from the civil rights movement. We largely created our own tactics, our own way of doing things.
The psychology of the anti-war movement was to question your elders. This served us very well because some of our students would go and conduct "shvitot", sit-ins at the offices of big American Jewish organizations saying, "you need to create a budget and staff to help Soviet Jews".
Meanwhile, from the same month we began in April 1964, there had been on paper, an "establishment" organization called the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. It consisted of one staff person, the late Abe Bayer, zichrono livracha, who was lent from another organization. Abe had a very nice letterhead, and Jewish organizations were putting out news releases about certain things they were doing for Soviet Jews. Bnai Brith even had a rally in Madison Square Garden around 1966, which was terrific. But mostly it was still pretty silent on Soviet Jewry in the American Jewish community. We'd feel we were hitting ourselves against the wall when we talked to big Jewish organizations. They wouldn't provide a budget or provide a real staff for this cause.
Why? Because at that time the American Jewish organizations took their direction from the Israeli government on issues regarding Jews in other countries. That only changed after the Yom Kippur War when American Jews saw that the Israelis weren't so brilliant after all. The Israelis saw their enemies surrounding them but didn't strike first. At that time, the Israelis were saying "sha still", be publicly quiet on the issue of Soviet Jewry.
Leonard Schroeter wrote The Last Exodus, one of the earliest histories of the Soviet Jewry movement. He describes how some Latvian Jews met Prime Minister Golda Meir to urge her to speak out for Soviet Jews. They'd come on aliyah with great difficulty. Golda Meir said to them, "put seven locks on your mouths", meaning, don't speak publicly about the issue. And that was basically the psychology of many American Jewish organizations of that time, some better, some worse.
What we wanted was not just for us as students to do something, but to get these big American Jewish organizations that had the money, and we thought the power, to act. I'll never forget being at a meeting, maybe in 1965 or 1966, of these organizations in the fanciest room of the fanciest hotel in New York City, the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They met to declare that they didn't have money to help Soviet Jews! I said to myself, something is wrong. So what we did was spend some of our energy trying to get these organizations to move. And we spent the rest of our energy doing what these people weren't doing. There were good and bad stories. Some people were acting, and others weren't. But as a collective, the American Jewish community wasn't unitizing the power it had.
What changed matters? The Leningrad Trials of December 1970. Leading up to that, Golda Meir in 1969 read in the Knesset an open letter from Georgian Jewish families. Why did she go public? Perhaps Golda Meir, Nechemia Levanon and Shaul Avigur determined that the Soviets weren't really going to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel broken after the 1967 Six Day War. Maybe something just got Golda in her kishkes. But her reading of the letter in the Knesset really broke the wall of official silence in Israel.
Privately, there had been some initiatives in Israel. Ann Shenkar, who lived in Givataim, spoke out and got out documentation from the Soviet Union. She was incredible. There were a few other people, but were very lonely voices. The Israeli government, through the Lishkat Hakesher, certainly had much information, but was doing little publicly with it. Some of it trickled out in a very limited circulation magazine, "Jews in Eastern Europe", edited by Emanuel Litvinov in London. What was published was incredible, given how little elsewhere was available. Hundreds of copies would be shipped to the United States, and we in SSSJ would grab every copy we could from the Israelis at their consulate, and hand them out. But we realized that there had to be lots more material that the Israelis weren't distributing, and there were only a limited number of copies of "Jews in Eastern Europe" and we had to hand out. And this was not a time when many people were getting out of or traveling to the Soviet Union.
When the Leningrad Trials began in December 1970, you had in place SSSJ, who were the activists, the Jewish "establishment", and coming in from the sides, the Jewish Defense League. In 1969, Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of JDL, announced that his group would get involved in protests for Soviet Jewry. JDL began a year before as a defense of Jews in Brooklyn, but Kahane was looking for bigger things. We he recognized a vacuum on the Soviet Jewry issue, he went right in. The vacuum was there because the Jewish establishment wasn't doing much. Kahane realized that he could probably do meshuga things and get attention.
In December 1969, there was a meeting of Jewish establishment organizations at Yeshiva University to talk about what they should do for Soviet Jewry. More talk. I attended the meeting with a person who's today a widely read author and commentator on television and radio, Dennis Prager. Dennis was our student spokesman, and he was wonderful. He asked to speak. He told these Jewish organizational leaders that if they didn't speak out on behalf of Soviet Jews, they'll have people coming in and filling the leadership vacuum. The establishment people looked at him like he was a meshuga. He became so frustrated that I recall that he came back to sit next to me and started crying in frustration.
Three weeks later, on Chanukah 1969, the Jewish Defense League started its activity for Soviet Jews. By 1970, a year later, during the Leningrad Trials, the JDL was already in the streets, demonstrating. After the first Leningrad Trial, I think the Lishka had a change of heart and decided public action was necessary. So the Lishka gave money to create a National Conference on Soviet Jewry and a New York Conference on Soviet Jewry. The Lishka also funded the 1971 international Brussels Conference on Soviet Jewry, which my wife Lenore and I had the privilege to attend. There, we met Jewish students from around the world, and created even better connections. It was good stuff for us.
I think the Leningrad Trials and Brussels Conference were the turning points for the American Jewish community. We at SSSJ had already been working for seven years, and our voices were heard a little bit. We were still traveling around, still trying to explain to people that there was a problem about Soviet Jews. But we didn't have a "hechsher", a seal of approval. That changed in 1971, and we really started moving.
In the middle of 1971, some friends of mine who were a few years older decided that they wanted to hold a rally for Soviet Jews in Madison Square Garden, the biggest auditorium in New York City, with 20,000 seats. Nobody told my friend that they'd be crazy to try it. They wanted to do it, so we said fine, let's do it. So these people borrowed money to rent Madison Square Garden. At that point, the New York Conference on Soviet Jewry was being formed, and we wanted the "teudat hechsher" of the Jewish establishment. So we got them to use their name as a co-sponsor. But my friends who live near us are the ones who really put the event together. They worked from their kitchen table for a half year while holding their own jobs. The husband, Azriel Genack, was a physicist and his wife Ahuva a university math instructor. But every night, except for Shabbat and holidays, their kitchen table would become the central office to organize the rally. The rally was really a grassroots effort. Two weeks before the rally you couldn't even get a seat, for which you paid five, fifteen or twenty dollars.
Different politicians participated, including Senator "Scoop" Jackson and then-Congressman Gerald Ford. Ford became Vice-President of the US, then President when Nixon resigned, and ended up signing the Jackson-Vanik amendment into law, very reluctantly. It's interesting that these two political leaders "met" when they both spoke at the Soviet Jewry rally at Madison Square Garden in December, Chanukah, 1971.
The highlight of our rally was Ruthie Alexandrovich from Riga. Ruthie was among those arrested and sentence during the Leningrad Trials. By the end of 1971 she'd already been released, and went to Israel, and came with her mother Rivka to our rally. Ruthie was the living proof that if you yelled and screamed enough and made a tumult, put pressure on Congress and the Kremlin and White House, you could get someone out from the Gulag.
Another important moment in the American Soviet Jewry movement was the creation of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews in 1970. It was a confederation of independent and semi-independent local, grassroots, adult Soviet Jewry groups. Some of these groups began early on, such as Lou Rosenblum's Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism, which preceded SSSJ in 1963. Hal Light began activity in San Francisco in the late 1960s with encouragement from SSSJ. When Lenore and I drove around the country giving speeches on Soviet Jewry during the summer of 1971, we ended up in San Francisco. I remember visiting Hal in his office, talking and encouraging him. We also went to Si Frumkin's house in Los Angeles to meet with him. Enid Wurtman's group in Philadelphia was semi-independent, one foot in the Jewish federation and the other foot out. And we in SSSJ just continued to do what we were doing.
Let's go back again for some historical background. Another big thing for us in SSSJ was the "milchemet sheshet hayamim", Six Day War, in 1967. Not only did it create a psychological change in American Jewish students, but created a change in the Soviet Union as well. It created the pressure that led to letters and appeals and demonstrations.
In the beginning of the 1970s, perhaps 1972-3, the lines started to solidify between the American Jewish establishment and we of the non-establishment. We were still fighting the establishment to do more for Soviet Jews, but we realized that we couldn't expend as much energy because we needed to develop our own lines of information into the USSR. So, where we could create alliances with the establishment we did. The relationship with the Lishka was off and on, like an electrical switch. Some weeks they were good to us and give us information, and some weeks we weren't good boys and they wouldn't. So we and the Union of Councils for soviet Jews developed alternative sources of information through tourists and phone calls. Natan Sharansky in Moscow was one of the people we kept in touch with, for example.
In the late 1970s we began working with the Hillel Foundations. We had unofficial relations with Jewish student groups in many universities. But we then created an alliance with the Hillel Foundations so that together we could take students to Washington DC to speak with members of congress and to lobby, follow up, and push for certain legislation.
The boundaries between the American Jewish establishment and non-establishment Soviet Jewry activists further grew with the debate over the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Senator Jacob Javits had originally developed an idea about linking US-Soviet trade and Jewish emigration from the USSR. The American Jewish establishment wasn't so happy about it. One of the great leaders of the Jewish establishment was Max Fisher from Detroit, who was a good friend of President Richard Nixon. And Nixon wasn't going to jeopardize his detente with the Soviet Union by having a Jewish problem interfere. Nixon's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, back up Nixon's attitude.
Things came to a head when some Jewish establishment leaders went to Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson to try to tell him to stop advocating for the Amendment. Jacob Birnbaum and I happened to be at a meeting of the establishment National Conference on Soviet Jewry before these individuals went to Washington to see Jackson. The story is that Jackson and his assistant Richard Pearle threw them out of his office. At least, that's the story. But by the end of 1974 the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was passed by Congress.
In 1973 the Kremlin increased emigration to try to kill off the Amendment. Although this was an era without faxes or the internet, we on the activist side were in constant contact with people in Washington if need be. The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and we would get hundreds of people to phone or send telegrams or letters overnight to congressional offices to constantly push them.
When President Gerald Ford signed the bill which included the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in January 1975, it emphasized the differences between the American Jewish establishment and independent Soviet Jewry activists. The establishment began running large rallies in New York, where Malcolm Hoenlein ran the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry. The Conference had the money and connections to turn our SSSJ springtime demonstrations into huge Solidarity Day rallies at the United Nations. We could get 2-3000 students and others, but when the Conference got pushing, they got 20-60,000 people to come out. They had the money and staff, "teudat hechser", and could help organize people and pay for busses. When they wanted to do something, they could. I think our goals were probably largely the same, but we certainly had differences in style, how we could accomplish our goals.
The Jewish Defense League basically was finished with Soviet Jewry by 1973-4. The JDL came apart because it was infiltrated by the FBI and New York City police. But the JDL had created a baseline for certain types of activity. The police didn't like the JDL at all. Rabbi Kahane used to go with his guys and try to radicalize our students. He'd come in back of our demonstrations and push our innocent students into the police lines and horses. We had meetings with Rabbi Kahane to see if we could get him to behave a little bit. I remember that after one meeting we though we had some "heskem", agreement, about what he'd do and not do. But Meir looked at us and said, "you know, I'm not bound by any of my promises to you". And we'd just negotiated for two hours! But that was Kahane. After 1974, when Rabbi Kahane had already gone on aliyah, the JDL structure fell apart and its real activity for Soviet Jewry dissipated.
We continued our activities. By the 1970s we had people traveling to the Soviet Union to get information out, which we used to influence Congress, intervene for refuseniks and Prisoners for Zion, and use in projects like bar/bat mitzvah "twinning" programs. SSSJ and the UCSJ did many similar things. We'd run a program and the Union would pick up the idea, or vice versa. SSSJ produced lists and lists of thousands of individual refuseniks and many individual stories. We wanted our target audiences to link themselves with specific Soviet Jews.
We also published books of photographs of refuseniks. One of our volunteers, Alan Miller, had a near photographic memory. He was able to create these lists and photo books and sort them out in his mind. We probably got 90% of the information right. We'd spread lists of refuseniks around the United States: lists of refuseniks to phone, to write to, students to "twin" for a bar/bat mitzvah. We published lists by categories as professions, age, and the like, anything to create links from the US to individual Jews over there. We didn't want travelers to see Soviet Jews as a big mass, but to see individuals and to hear individual stories.
We'd try to recheck and update our lists, and link them with photos of refuseniks in the USSR and some who reached Israel. In this way, our audiences would see faces and faces. Understanding the plight of Soviet Jews through individual stories was really our "shita", our approach.
We'd either get an English translation of appeals or translate them ourselves from the Russian. We'd try to disseminate these appeals to show that the writers are individuals like ourselves and that in many cases, thank God, our grandparents came to the United States but theirs weren't so lucky and stayed in what became the Soviet Union. This activity continued through the 1980s.
There were also problems with "noshrim", the "dropouts", those who had exit visas for Israel but who opted to immigrate to other countries, like the US or Germany. We at SSSJ largely tried to keep out of the issue of "neshirah" We felt it was a fight that nobody would win. At the same time, we felt that our movement probably created more students who went on aliyah than most Zionist student organizations. We never said we were a Zionist group as such, but many of our student said that if we're fighting for Soviet Jews to go to Israel, it would be hypocritical of us not to go. So they picked up and went. Stuart and Enid Wurtman of Philadelphia are good example, though they were no longer students, as are Pam and Lenny Cohen of Chicago, who now spend much time in Israel.
We tried to keep out of the battles about "noshrim" between Israel and the American Jewish establishment. We were more concerned with trying to keep the pressure on regarding the linkage between American trade with the USSR and freer Jewish emigration. In 1979 the Kremlin increased emigration to knock out the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It didn't succeed but we had to work very, very hard to keep the Amendment where it was. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, emigration was very low, but he realized that he needed to show some emigration to get some American money. So he began increased the Jewish exit rate. We kept on screaming, no, no, not enough.
But tension continued between the UCSJ, along with SSSJ, versus a large part of the American Jewish establishment. The UCSJ had people lobbying Congress and the Administration every day.
As more Jews emigrated, including refuseniks and some of the Prisoners of Conscience, also called Prisoners for Zion, it was another victory for us. We'd show the emigration as a victory. We told both our friends in the USSR and our supporters, this is a result of what you're doing. Emigrants were not just high profile cases.
An increasing number of Soviet Jews were coming to the US. We tried to remind students in American communities where Soviet Jews arrived that these Jews weren't automatically going to act as free people, or run to the nearest synagogue, that work had to be done with them. Certainly some of these Jews began going to Jewish schools, synagogues, and became part of the Jewish community.
In the late 1970s to mid 1980s one of our major campaigns was to free Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. At the time of his arrest, the Lishka told his wife Avital and her brother, this is the punishment Sharansky gets for playing around with Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents. We of SSSJ, the Union of Councils and other goodhearted people really spent a very large amount of time helping Avital because we realized her story was so compelling. By emphasizing her and Natan's stories we could explain a lot in our campaign to free Soviet Jews. We carried on campaigns for hundreds of refuseniks and prisoners, but Sharansky's was the most important. Avital would never, ever rest. She was driven, always had to do more and more.
Sylva Zalmanson of Riga was one of those sentenced in the Leningrad Trials. When she got out of the gulag a few years later, then from the USSR to Israel, she also demonstrated very passionately for the release from prison of her husband Edward Kuznetsov, her brother and friends who were part of her group. But the issue of Soviet Jewry was then less prominent and her efforts got less publicity.
Henry Gerber mentioned in his interview the Magarik family and the efforts of the father for the release of his son. But the Sharansky story remained the standard, the big issue, because it exemplified our campaign for Soviet Jews' freedom. The downside was that if a Sharansky or other high-profile refusenik got out, some people would say, well, then the problem is all over. Our response was, no he was a symbol for everyone else, not just for himself.
By the mid-1980s we and other Soviet Jewry activists spent much time working with the US Congress. SSSJ had both high school and university students visit members of Congress. Students made phone calls to refuseniks and families of prisoners, and some traveled to the Soviet Union. We were in regular contact with some of the people who went to the USSR through the Lishka to visit refuseniks. The Lishka told travelers never to contact anyone else, and only take directions from them. However, if Lishka traveler "aleph" would recommend "bet" and "gimmel" for Lishka-sponsored trips to Russia, "aleph" might tell "bet" and "gimmel" privately, "after you get your contacts from the Lishka, why don't you call SSSJ and see if they can give you some more information?" So we'd often get phone calls from young men and women who'd say, "I can't tell you how I'm going, but...." We'd respond, "we already know". The students would tell us they're visiting cities like Chernovitz, Kishinev, places that nobody generally goes to, and request whatever information we could give them. Upon their return, they'd very quietly give us copies of their reports, and we'd use that information. We felt that if these reports went only to the Lishka, they go into what we called the "black hole" of the Soviet Jewry movement. In physics, the black holes in space are where everything goes in and nothing comes out.
Throughout all this time Nechemia Levanon and his Lishka were, it seems, good to us one week and bad the next. When Menachem Begin was elected in 1977, the Lishka was good to us for two wonderful weeks. Nechemia and his guys believed that they were going to be thrown out on their heads. We got whatever information we wanted. But when Nechemia realized that Begin was going to keep him in his office, the door shut again. It was a fascinating exercise to watch.
The most important Soviet Jewry rally, and one of the biggest, was in Washington DC in December 1987. The short history of it is that Natan Sharansky wanted a big rally in the nation's capital on the eve of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev's visit, and the American Jewish establishment told Natan it couldn't be done. Sharansky realized that if he came to the US and traveled around to different communities, his own fame would get people to listen to him. He utilized that, and we of SSSJ and the independent Soviet Jewry activists helped him as much as we could. We helped him travel and to build up awareness until the Jewish establishment could no longer ignore the pressure from many different Jewish communities. So the establishment relented, and announced the Washington rally.
It may not have been the kind of rally we and the non-establishment wanted, but at least it was something, and involved American Jews from around the US. Before the rally we were told, don't have signs which link American-Soviet trade and Jewish emigration. So of course we made hundreds of such signs. We gave one to former Prisoners for Zion Yosef Mendelevich. Yosef wasn't going to let anyone take away that sign from him because he understood what it meant. So there are famous photographs of Mendelevich, at the head of the march to the rally, in the streets of Washington, with one of our signs.
The rally was both a high and low point. A high point because even Vice-President (and later President) George Bush was persuaded to appear on the stage to speak. It was a low point in the sense that after that rally, which had tremendous power, the American Jewish community seemed to go to sleep on the issue. Within two years, by 1989, the doors of the USSR were beginning to open a little. By 1991, the Soviet Union went out of business. After that December 1987 rally, it appeared as if American Jews couldn't believe their success, it was almost too good to be true. Congressmen would speak about the issue to Jewish groups. In the years leading to 1987, they would speak first about Israel, then Soviet Jews. But by 1986 and 1987, the Soviet Jewry issue would be first, then Israel. American Jews never utilized the power they achieved from that 1987 rally. When members of Congress saw that American Jews were coming to them less and less with Soviet Jewry issues, they spoke about it less. Politicians almost always want to be re-elected. They'll talk about what their constituents want to talk about. They may not do anything, but at least they'll talk about it.
By 1990, we already saw that the doors were really opening and the Soviet Union beginning to implode, to crumble from within. We decided that our organization, SSSJ, after 26 years, had begun to achieve what we set out to do. We wanted to be different from most other Jewish organizations. We didn't have big salaries, or hardly any salaries. We wanted to be one of the few Jewish organizations that actually said we accomplished what we set out to achieve and stop.
Personally, by 1990, I needed money to live on. It wasn't too easy. My wife Lenore worked as a teacher. In January 1990, I stopped my full-time work with SSSJ after 26 years. We kept the organization going officially for about another year, and in 1991 put the organization in cold storage. We decided that if we needed the name, we'll pull it out but other than that, we basically closed up our operation. The Soviet Union officially dissolved at the end of 1991.
We told people that the game had changed; we weren't talking about refuseniks and Prisoners for Zion, but about Jewish education of Soviet Jews in the former USSR, Israel and United States. We said that if you want to spend your time, energy and money, you have to turn it towards Jewish self-awareness. That's why we backed some terrific student efforts that emerged here such as Yeshiva University Students for Soviet Jewry, which later renamed to Yeshiva and University Students for Soviet Jewry. That group of students, now over 10 years old, still sends students into the former USSR to organize, teach, run summer and winter camps - "chinuch" and love of "yahadut".
Whenever necessary, we take the SSSJ name out of the refrigerator, cook it up a bit in the microwave and use it again. There are many, many stories that we haven't covered, of course, but you have a sense of our work. How many students did we have? Perhaps 5000 on our list. How large a budget? I believe our highest yearly budget was $180,000 for an international operation. (Ironically) Big, big money! It wasn't easy financially.
We always had people who were willing to help out. As early as 1974, Morrie Schapira helped develop the New England Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry when he was a student. He later became chairman of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. He and I went for the first time to the Soviet Union in 1974. I remember sitting in Masha and Volodya Slepak's apartment in Moscow with Professor Alexander Lerner and others. We said that the thing we were most proud of is not just the fact that we're helping you, the refuseniks in the USSR, but that we're making a change in young American Jews. We made these young Jews think about their own Jewish identity as a result of helping other Jews. As a result, a good number of these young American Jews made aliyah and developed a much deeper Jewish self-awareness.
I think we helped create a change in the American Jewish community because we were the post-Holocaust generation. We weren't afraid to speak out. We created models of activity which we originally took from the civil rights and anti-war movements, and fashioned them as our own. These models are still today the standard of the American Jewish community. If you don't like something, you go out and demonstrate, protest, write letters, try to influence, go to Washington, speak with members of Congress. It's not like nothing like this ever happened before, but many of these activities didn't occur in that form or intensity.
I believe we showed that you can push the American Jewish community and get some reaction. For many young Jews this was their answer to the silence of their parents' generation during the Shoah.
Besides the types of protest and pressure which have become a norm in the American Jewish community, we also did "meshuga", a bit crazy things. For instance, we demonstrated in Red Square in 1988, led by our national chairman Rabbi Avi Weiss. This occurred when President Ronald Reagan went to Moscow to meet in a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. Our first chairman was Rav Shlomo Riskin, who today is the rav of Efrat in Israel.
The American Orthodox Jewish community had different approaches to the campaign for Soviet Jews. There's the modern Orthodox, equivalent to the "dati leumi", of which I'm a member. "Hareidim" are represented largely by Agudat Israel. The Chassidic group which worked for Soviet Jews were Chabad-Lubavitch. We never expected them to come out and demonstrate with us because we they had been active within the USSR since the 1950s. One aspect of the Chabad effort is Chamah, down in lower Manhattan, made up of wonderful guys who had it out from Russia. They maintained Judaism when they were there, and continued to help once they left. We helped smuggle their material on Judaism into the Soviet Union.
Agudah was not really active for 20 years, until about 1984. There were individuals like Rav Pinchas Teitz who created individual relationships with certain Soviet officials to send in matzah and siddurim, but as a group, Agudah's silence for 20 years was a real bother to us. Their leaders were often rabbis who'd gone through the Shoah. Some lived under communism. Their mentality was that of Eastern Europe, not to stir up the big Russian bear, that putting pressure on the Kremlin would kill Jews.
In the mid-1984 Rav Mordechai Neustadt and others began to send emissaries and Jewish material into the Soviet Union. They began to do some of what Chabad had for many years. We said to Agudah people, we don't care if you don't come to our demonstrations. If you don't believe in demonstrations, fine. But at least say tehilim (Psalms) in your yeshivas or synagogues, do something to show your link with Soviet Jews. It can't be "shev v'al ta'ashe klum", sit and do nothing. Sit and do something.
Within the modern Orthodox community, the individual to whom everyone looked was Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, "zichrono l'vracha", of blessed memory. I've already mentioned that Yeshiva University was a hotbed of our activity, and that YU had the rabbinical school where many young rabbinical students and rabbis were very interested in helping Soviet Jews. When they asked the Rav about public protests for Russian Jews in about 1964, the Rav told them, I determine that I'm not the one to tell you what to do, but my "psak", my decision is that you should ask the people who are the experts in the area whether pressure and demonstrations work. So, of course, they found the right people who said yes.
Here's an insight into the Rav's thinking. In 1968, my wife Lenore and I had the opportunity to drive the Rav to Boston. He lived in Boston and commuted to New York to give his "shiurim". Because of an air controllers' strike, he couldn't fly had to return to Boston by bus. We were on the bus to spend a Shabbat speaking at a local synagogue. The bus broke down, and we ended up renting a car and drove the Rav to his home. It enabled us to have a couple of hours of private discussion with him. He told us that he always felt guilty for not speaking out more during the Shoah. I think that his "psak" to his students - and by extension the modern Orthodox Jewish community - on acting publicly for Soviet Jews, was to allow them to do what he knew should be done. He didn't say to them, go out and demonstrate. But by saying, check with the experts in the field, in political science, to see whether pressure works, he in effect gave his support.
The Conservative movement didn't have these problems. Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel was very supportive of the Soviet Jewry movement almost from the beginning. He was involved in the American civil rights movement, and marched with Rev. Martin Luther King. One of my friends Hillel Levine, now a professor, kept pushing him to be active for Soviet Jews. In fact, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the headquarters of the Conservative movement, gave us space for an office for several years after we could no longer maintain the space we had in lower Manhattan.
The Reform movement didn't have a problem because in their world you don't have to ask a rabbi a question, but do what you feel is right. There it was a matter if they were going to act, not an issue of "halacha", Jewish law.
Chassidic groups other than Chabad didn't appear to us to be really doing anything for Soviet Jews. But when the USSR collapsed, Chassidic groups like Carlin-Stolin returned to areas where they'd been active, such as the Ukraine.
Our movement got students and adults together, and anyway, our students became adults with families in a few years. Through SSSJ and the UCSJ we succeeded in finding commonality among people who'd otherwise never talk to each other. American Jewry is splitting and splitting; we found a way to unify it. At one table, I could sit with students from left to right, politically and religiously. We could sit with members of the Jewish establishment. We'd disagree quite a bit, but we'd be together with people who otherwise wouldn't talk to each other. I had hoped this new modality in the American Jewish community would continue, but largely it hasn't. This is one of the "chisronot", one of the things we've lost, our ability to work together on many other issues.
You asked how many times I visited the Soviet Union. The first was with Morey Schapira in 1974. It was made pretty clear to us that we wouldn't be able to get in for a while. The next time I could get in was 1988, when several of us went with Rabbi Avi Weiss and we demonstrated in Red Square. I was able to enter again in 1989 and 1991, then a couple of times after the USSR went out of business.
In 1988, we flew first to Leningrad. It was May. You, the Taratutas, had left for Israel a few months before. We saw old-time "otkazniki", refuseniks and in one of our adventures, created a flying wedge to get a refusenik into a Leningrad hotel to see Zubin Mehta, director of both the Israel and New York Philharmonic orchestras. This refusenik's sister was in the Israel Philharmonic. Mehta spoke out on this refusenik's behalf, and she got an exit visa to Israel.
We flew on to Moscow.
Before going to Moscow, President Reagan had been in Helsinki, Finland. We were there, too, demonstrating, and had told members of the foreign press traveling with the President that we'd be in Red Square on a certain day at a particular hour. We stood in Red Square, and suddenly opened up our bags, displayed our banners, put on "tallitot" and blew a shofar. A whole crowd of Russian citizens gathered around, as well as the KGB. Foreign journalists were photographing and videotaping us. A foreign journalist went to a Russian citizen in the crowd and asked what he thought about these Jews demonstrating. This citizen yells at the reporter, what about the Jews? What about my problems? I haven't worked in 5 years. Within a couple of minutes a grey KGB car pulls up, this guy is thrown into the car and taken away.
We realized this is incredible: just as we always said that our brethren in the Soviet Union were protected because of the publicity we gave them, we were protected demonstrating in Red Square from these big, huge KGB guys because the Western press has their cameras stuck on us.
After 20 minutes, the foreign press started drifting away, as they already had their sensation. Without the protection of the foreign press, the KGB guys came closer, so we ended our demonstration. One huge KGB guy pretending to be a reporter sticks a little tape recorder under my mouth and says: "Who sent you? Who paid for you?" Some of the real foreign reporters were behind him. They mouthed to me from behind his back, "KGB, KGB". So I told the fake reporter, no we decided to come by ourselves, we're Jews and we felt so moved by the plight of Soviet Jews, and many Americans feel just as strongly about the problem as well.
A few hours later, we were in front of Dom Spasso, the American ambassador's residence, demonstrating where President Reagan was meeting with refuseniks and dissidents together. This big monster from the KGB is there again. He looks at me waves. I wave back. We were again protected by the presence of the foreign press, and I know if they weren't there this KGB agent would have squashed me to about a half meter high.
I had to accompany one of our guys back to the airport to return to Leningrad because he had a problem with his ticket. But Rabbi Weiss and the four other guys went to the Lenin Library to demonstrate with the refuseniks. That was a place where the refuseniks often demonstrated for exit visas to Israel. The KGB was getting sick and tired of us and the refuseniks at that point, and they came and began beating up the refuseniks. They didn't care too much about the foreign press by then. A van with a Canadian television crew comes zooming up to Rabbi Weiss and our guys. A cameraman yells out to Rabbi Weiss, come on, jump into the van and we'll save you! So our guys jump into the van and it pulls off, away from the KGB.
In December of that year, Gorbachev comes to the US to address the United Nations. Rabbi Weiss and a whole group of students are out there demonstrating as Gorby is about to speak. Rabbi Weiss is explaining to the students the story of what we did in Moscow and what happened at the Lenin Library. Lying on his back in the middle of our group is a Canadian TV cameraman. As Rabbi Weiss starts relating the story of the Canadian cameraman who shouts, Rabbi Weiss, come on, jump into the van and we'll save you, this cameraman, lying on his back and videotaping us, looks up and says, Rabbi Weiss, I was that cameraman. It's a great story. It's hard to believe, but these things really happen.
The Moscow demonstrations gave me a real understanding of everything we'd been fighting for. Our publicity and pressure created some form of protection for the refuseniks and Prisoners for Zion to the extent that the Soviets thought it would be easier to kick Jews out and perhaps get American trade credits in the process, which they ultimately didn't. They didn't get the trade credits even though there were all sorts of battles within the American Jewish community whether the US should drop the Jackson Amendment. We in SSSJ and the UCSJ screamed not to because we believed that tomorrow the Kremlin could just turn around the shut the doors to emigration.
It's fascinating to me that wherever I travel in the US, Europe or Israel people always come over who were involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. It shaped their Jewish identity and sense of commonality, and they and I remember this clearly even 30, 40 years later. It's utterly amazing.