Soviet Jewry movement marks two milestones

Chanukah celebrates the triumph of our forefathers who sought religious freedom. To commemorate the holiday, President Bush hosted Jews from around the world who had

experienced religious persecution, including several former refuseniks, to celebrate religious freedom. The following evening, in the U.S. Capitol, senators and representatives commemorated the struggle of Soviet Jews and the activism of the world Jewish community on their behalf.

It was so rewarding to see the leaders of our great nation joining together to recognize the struggle for religious identity against overwhelming odds, as exemplified by Chanukah and the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

This year marks two significant milestones for the Soviet Jewry movement:

  • The birth of the mass movement for Jewish identity and emigration from the U.S.S.R. ignited 40 years ago with the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War.
  • The 20th anniversary of Freedom Sunday, when 250,000 Americans marched on Washington to “Let my people go!” The Soviet Jewry movement was proof positive that a group of determined people has the power to force a compelling moral issue front and center on the agendas of the United States and the entire world.

Freedom Sunday in many ways marked the culmination of the most successful mass advocacy effort ever undertaken by American Jews. That success enabled the emigration of more than 1 million of our brethren, which has, in turn, transformed Israeli society.

Significant, although less visible, is the vitality of Jewish life for the more than 1 million Jews in the former Soviet Union today. This unanticipated rebirth has been enabled by our strong and successful relationships, and its sustainability requires our continued attention and support.

For me personally, this year has brought both memories of the past struggle and increased understanding, involvement and amazement at what we and our Jewish brethren are currently accomplishing.

In October, I led a National Council of Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) mission of 13 to Ukraine and Russia, including eight of us from Los Angeles. One afternoon included a tour of important sites of the refusenik movement.

On that day, we were accompanied by former prisoner of Zion Yosef Begun, one of my heroes, who was exiled and imprisoned for teaching Hebrew and for his desire to emigrate to Israel, which was refused for 17 years.

Begun now lives in Israel but returns periodically to Russia to pursue his commitment to Jewish education. This time, he was attending, as did our group, a Limmud educational conference, where 700 young Jewish adults joined together for an exciting weekend of study and Jewish immersion.

One of our mission participants, Steve Greenberg, while chairman of United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership in 1984, wore a bracelet bearing Begun’s name. Greenberg presented this bracelet to President Ronald Reagan at a Young Leadership conference.

Reagan placed the bracelet on his wrist and proudly raised his arm before 2,000 young American Jews. Reagan subsequently mentioned the bracelet to Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and ultimately returned it to Begun, when they met following his release years later.

This exemplifies the ongoing commitment of the United States to our efforts to permit Jewish life to flourish. Last month in Rostov, Russian officials jailed 15 American and other Western yeshiva students for minor visa violations.

Alerted by NCSJ, U.S. Embassy officials immediately flew from Moscow to Rostov and within 24 hours, obtained the students’ release and safe passage.

Many former Soviet Union nations are supportive of efforts to ensure the benefits of an open society for their Jewish communities. Our mission visited Kiev immediately following parliamentary elections in Ukraine, where there have been a number of recent anti-Semitic incidents. Immediately after our visit, President Viktor Yushchenko publicly instructed law enforcement authorities to investigate these incidents, to prosecute where appropriate, to engage in preventive measures in the future and to create a hate crimes unit in the Ukrainian security services.

We visited synagogues, community centers, schools and organizations, some of which receive support from world Jewry, but many of which are supported by indigenous leadership. While Jews and Jewish life are succeeding, there is concern for the future.

This history is a powerful reminder that “all Jews are responsible for one another.” Begun told us enthusiastically that he was able to endure refusal, prison and exile because he knew that he “was never alone.”

We will continue to ensure that the 1.5 million Jews in the former Soviet Union are not alone, that they will be able to develop their Jewish lives productively, in a safe environment. Even as we celebrate the history and the success of a historic movement, we remain mindful of our continuing role. The opportunity is a privilege, and we are honored by our responsibility.

Ed Robin was elected Chairman of NCSJ at the December 2006 NCSJ Board of Governors meeting. He is a long-time supporter of and activist in the Soviet Jewry movement. He has served as Vice-Chair of the United Jewish Fund and is active in many other local and national organizations. Mr. Robin is also a founder of the North American Jewish Forum.