Remembering Vladimir Slepak, a Heroic Refusenik

One of the most important figures in the Soviet Jewry movement has died. Vladimir Slepak, one of the earliest refuseniks and one of the last to be given permission to leave for Israel, died quietly in New York on Thursday. He will be buried in Jerusalem on Monday. 

In the pantheon of human rights figures, Slepak has an exalted position. A successful Moscow engineer who lived in a mid rise apartment building on Gorky Street, walking distance from the Kremlin, Slepak risked everything when he decided to apply for an exit visa to immigrate to Israel. Thus, he became a refusenik—one of the early ones—for 17 long years. He lost his job, experienced perpetual harassment, and was ultimately tried and convicted on bogus charges that sent him to five years in exile before finally being permitted to leave for Israel in 1987. 

His journey to the homeland began many years earlier when he complained to a relative about one of Stalin's many roundups of Jews on trumped up spying charges. The explanation he got in response was that if you roundup 100 Jews and one of them is a spy, it's better arrest all of them and get one spy than not to arrest them and to let one go. That warped logic didn't sit well with the young Slepak who found this to be a classic violation of human rights. 

Like many Soviet Jews, he rediscovered his Jewish identity after the Six Day War. He came to understand that he could never realize the full Jewish experience in the USSR where studying Hebrew, eating Matzah on Pesach, or reading Jewish literature could land you in Siberia. So, he began his long journey to move to his ancestral homeland. 

He spoke English well enough to attract many visiting American and European Jews who travelled to the Soviet Union to lend encouragement to the growing refusenik community. He was a source for many western journalists. He spoke by phone to Soviet Jewry activists, myself included, around the world before the Soviets shut off his phone. 

While Slepak was a proud Zionist, he had close relationships with the non-Jewish human rights community in the Soviet Union. He was a friend of Andrei Sakharov and others who sought to infuse democratic principles into that autocratic society and maintained an ongoing relationship with them. Indeed, when Slepak was on trial, Sakharov attempted to attend his trial in an effort to highlight Slepak's plight. 

>Throughout his long and difficult journey, Volodya, as he was called by his friends, never lost his sense of humor.  In the documentary film, “Refusenik,” he tells the story of the time he asked a Soviet emigration department official why he was being denied an exit visa. The official said, “Because in your line of work, you have access to many state secrets.”  To which Slepak replied, “That's absurd. Everyone in the West knows that we are 15 years behind them in these areas.”  To which the official replied, “Ah, that's the secret.”  

I met Slepak for the first time in 1974 when The late Si Frumkin of Los Angeles, Dr. Lou Rosenblum of Cleveland, Bob Wolfe of Miami, and I travelled to Moscow and Leningrad for six days to meet with the refuseniks.  In Moscow, a large group of them–a who's who—gathered in an apartment to meet with us. Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Professor Alexander Lerner, Slepak and many others were there. It became clear that the person for whom they all had the greatest respect, and in whom they had the greatest confidence in judgment, was Vladimir Slepak. 

He gave us a clear and brilliant assessment of the plight of Soviet Jewry as of that moment. He asked for more outspokenness from the Western Jewish community; more activism on our behalf, and more pressure on the Soviet government. In particular, he and the others urged our support for the Jacskon-Vanik bill in Congress which tied Most Favored Nation status for the USSR to the emigration of Soviet Jews. In the American Jewish community, some questioned the wisdom of that bill fearing it would do more harm than good to the refuseniks and other Soviet Jews. Slepak asked us to disabuse the skeptics of that reticence. “We are asking for support of the Jackson Amendment,” he said. “We are willing to take the risk, what risk are you taking?”  To those of us who wanted more action, not less, that was what we were waiting to hear. The message was clear. 

In the years that ensued, Slepak became one of the symbols of the Soviet refusenik community. He was a courageous, wise and humble man. He was loved by all who knew him. We were all guided by his pronouncements and requests. 

I've met many people in my day who have made a difference for the Jewish community and the world at large. No man sacrificed more, and did more for human rights, than Slepak. When “Refusenik” was premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival, I travelled to Israel for the event. Slepak was understandably featured prominently in the film, and I wanted to be there as his story and that of the others was told on the big screen. I met Volodya and his wife and human rights partner, Masha, in the lobby of the theater. We embraced and shed some tears. Never has a Sh'hechiyanu” meant more to me than it did on that night. I asked the film's producer, Laura Bialis, to take a picture of me and the Slepak's, which she did. That photo hung in my office where I could see it and be reminded of true courage every day. 

Slepak has not been well for a while. Three years ago he moved from Israel to New York to be closer to his family. His passing was not a surprise, but it leaves a great void in our world. He will be laid to rest in Israel—in Jerusalem— for which he longed so much. 

For me, Volodya was the personification of the reason we all fought for Soviet Jewry's freedom. We were fighting for him and, through him, for the rest of them. He will be missed, but what he taught us as Jews and as citizens of a bigger world is eternal. 

Impact of Soviet Jewry drive still resonates in U.S. today

When Jacob Birnbaum began knocking on dormitory doors at Yeshiva University in the spring of 1964, he only half-believed anyone would answer.

The young British activist had come to New York to mobilize a grass-roots campaign to draw attention to the plight of 3 million Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain — a cause that was being largely ignored by the world Jewish community.

He turned first to the Modern Orthodox campus with its high concentration of Jewishly committed students.

“New York City is the largest center of Jewish life in the world, and from New York we could generate pressure on Washington,” explained the now-80-year-old Birnbaum, who still lives in New York and was honored recently by Congress for his key role in the Soviet Jewry campaign.

“The goal was always Washington — first to convert the Jewish community and then convert Washington,” he said.

His door knocking launched a national student movement, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), whose first public effort was a May 1, 1964, demonstration outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations. More than 1,000 students from Yeshiva, Columbia, Stern College and other campuses marched, demanding freedom for Soviet Jews.

The protest became a movement, and the movement swelled into a worldwide outcry that 25 years later not only ripped open the Iron Curtain, leading to the largest Jewish exodus in history, but also contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, cemented the role of human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy and heralded the emergence of a strong, independent American Jewry able and willing to speak out for its oppressed brethren around the world.

“It was probably American Jewry’s finest hour,” said historian Henry Feingold, author of a newly published work, “Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, the American Jewish Effort 1967-1989.”

While debate continues as to the role the Soviet Jewry campaign played in bringing the Soviet Union to its knees, virtually no one disputes the impact it had on the American Jewish community.

The movement galvanized American Jewry, producing many of today’s top Jewish leaders and a public relations-savvy Jewish voice in Washington.

Haunted by the memories of American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust and emboldened by Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War, the activists vowed never again to ignore Jews in danger.

“This was something we talked about, that we’re not going to stand by and let this happen the way we did in the Holocaust,” recalled Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who was a young Orthodox rabbi in 1964, when he became involved with the SSSJ.

While many of the initial activists came from Modern Orthodox circles, they were joined by other young Jews, excited by the civil rights and anti-war struggles, who now applied the energy of those movements to a Jewish cause, many for the first time. That synthesis set the tone for many of the Jewish and Israel-oriented organizations of the 1970s and ’80s.

Many of today’s communal and religious leaders cut their teeth in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was a student at UC Berkeley in 1969, when he attended his first Soviet Jewry rally. It was “transformational,” he said, leading to his active involvement and later decision to become a Reform rabbi.

“My formative years coexisted with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War,” he said. “My activism was motivated by my sense of Jewish values, but I didn’t feel confident in my own grounding in Judaism, so I entered rabbinical school.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early ’60s, active in civil rights and the anti-war struggle. He said the Soviet Jewry campaign helped him connect those two parts of his identity, “the caring for people and their release from oppression and the Jewish issue — this was something that affected Jews in a very personal way.”

In 1973, he and his wife visited “refuseniks” in Ukraine, one of many American Jews who over the course of the movement secretly carried names, phone numbers and packages to Jews denied permission to leave the Soviet Union.

“It was a formative experience for us,” he said, echoing Kahn’s words.

Birnbaum’s notion of a public, ongoing grass-roots campaign to free Soviet Jewry did not immediately catch fire with the American Jewish establishment. Through the 1960s, the SSSJ labored in virtual isolation on the American scene, holding rallies and demonstrations in New York, Boston and a few other cities organized by a handful of core activists. The Jewish mainstream favored quiet diplomacy over public protest, and the ultra-Orthodox feared the campaign would jeopardize their underground religious activities behind the Iron Curtain.

Israel, of course, had been conducting its own secret operation on behalf of Jews within the Soviet Union for years through Lishkat, the Israeli government’s Liaison Bureau. And the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism was created in 1963, although it remained fairly quiet until it was later renamed the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and went on to play a strong role in pushing Washington to back the Soviet Jewry campaign.

It was Israel’s stunning victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War that really catalyzed the movement, lighting a fire under young Jews both in America and in the Soviet Union who previously had not expressed their Jewish identity.

For the first time, large numbers of Soviet Jews began applying for exit visas — they were refused — and large numbers of American Jews began clamoring on their behalf.

“The campaign was already by that time quite visible and active,” said Mark Levin, who was a young teenager when he joined his first demonstration in Lafayette Park across from the White House in 1969.

“The difference is, after the Six-Day War, you didn’t find as many Jews hiding their Jewish identity,” said Levin, the longtime director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “The Six-Day War and the struggle for Soviet Jewry together redefined the type and level of activism in the American Jewish community.”