In Memory of Micah Naftalin

Pamela Cohen
December 28, 2009

It all began in the autumn of ’86 after the annual meeting in Washington. We were restaffing the Washington office. We brought on Scott Cohen to act as temporary director. I had worked with him when he was chief staff person for the Senate Foreign Relations committee under its chairman, Chuck Percy, from Illinois. In fall Scott helped me begin the search for a permanent director. Those of you who were around then remember directors revolving in and out the office in those days. After all we were a tough group with an enormous challenge and our best resource were our activists, all council chairmen themselves, who made up UCSJ’s board.

Our “wish-list” made the director’s role impossible for anyone to fill. We wanted someone strong, but not too independent; a powerfully strategic thinker, someone who would be able to articulate and sell our program to the highest levels, who really wanted to build the identity of UCSJ, not his own resume; someone who had our world outlook, who believed in the power of the grassroots and what we were fighting for and someone who could work with our board, handle the direct mail campaign, instigate a development program, manage the budget and fiduciary responsibilities, represent us on the Hill, State Department, and White House where he would forge and foster important relationships, who could write and oversee our publications, organize our national meetings and conferences, and handle the media so we could get our story out into the press…..and, oh, by the way, did I mention we didn’t have much money for salary?

I’ll spare you the line-up of smooth, smart looking, overly-confident-bordering-on-grossly arrogant people who came through. It was months of meeting people who had either peaked in their twenties or who were looking for a springboard to something greater. We didn’t see UCSJ as a springboard to anything other than free emigration for Soviet Jews.

Scott was at his desk in our D.C. office. At the doorway appeared a man, a big man in blue rumpled shirt with lots of notes in his shirt pocket, an open warm smile, kind eyes, and maybe a little spot on his tie. He kind of eased back in the chair next to me, he might have taken out a cigarette, peered out over his glasses, and we just started talking. He had been working with Eli Wiesel on the Holocaust Council, had previously practiced law, done some work for a Congressman, and was ready for change. He was at ease, thoughtful, funny, clearly smart and when I described what we did, just seemed to “get it.” I explained that UCSJ, though it had to run as one, was less an “organization”, more a strike force, like Peter Bergson’s committee. Was he familiar with the committee that tried to save Jews during the holocaust but was sabotaged by the establishment? When he told us his mother’s involvement with Bergson…. it was almost a “done deal.” One last question: Could he handle the strong personalities on our board? He quipped, “You kidding? You ever worked with holocaust survivors?”

Micah. In truth, he was everything the movement needed him to be and what we all needed him to be. He was undefeatable. He traveled to Vienna for a CSCE meeting immediately after his mother’s shiva. He traveled to Russia though weakened by chemotherapy. He was a consummate listener who grasped the core of complex issues and formulated strategies to deal with them. Remember the Russian loan guarantees?

He was a superb advocate and consummate negotiator. In the worst of situations, he negotiated, patiently picking his way, point by point until he managed to turn things around. In ’89, hours before he was to leave for Moscow for the UCSJ “annual” meeting, the Soviets at the Washington Embassy called him in. They were closing down the meeting and none of our 83 delegates were going to be let into the USSR. It was over. Micah pulled it off. He assured them we would remove the word “annual” on all publicity and materials and we were off.

Micah always “pulled it off.” It was never too late, he was never too busy, he always found the time, energy, resources to do whatever was needed to mount a response to the crises that perpetually took place in the USSR. Nothing was ever too hard.

He touched and changed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people who are now here, in Israel, and throughout the former USSR . I write in an avalanche of memories of what he did and what he accomplished, the people he helped, the lifelines he created. He fought for prisoners-of-conscience, Refuseniks, the right to leave a country and to return, the right to identity, and continually against the ominous currents of anti-Semitism and fascism in the former Soviet territory.

He forged organizational relations and built coalitions.

And through it all, he was optimistic and undefeatable, superbly undefeatable, like a big sturdy engine that just steadily keeps rolling down the track, never disappointing people waiting at the station.

Perhaps that’s what makes this all so very hard.

Micah Naftalin: May your memory be a blessing for all of Israel just as your life was.