Kennedy seen as giant on domestic issues, Soviet Jewry


U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is being remembered in the Jewish community for his huge impact on domestic issues such as education and health care, but also as a giant in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Kennedy “was one of the earliest, strongest champions on behalf of Soviet Jewry,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “He was always proactive and didn’t wait for NCSJ and other organizations to come to him—he was always looking to see where he could make a difference.”

In his 2006 book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” Natan Sharansky specifically mentions Kennedy as the first Western politician to meet with refuseniks “in a midnight meeting that was kept secret from the KGB until the very last moment.”

And Levin noted that whenever Kennedy met with Soviet officials, in Washington or in the Soviet Union, he would bring lists of those he wanted to see released.

“He never forgot we were talking about individuals and families,” Levin said.

Kennedy also will be remembered as a strong champion of Israel. Jewish organizational officials noted that he was a stalwart supporter of foreign aid, opposed arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, and was a strong backer of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also publicly rebuked President George H.W. Bush when he linked settlements to U.S. loan guarantees for the emigration of Soviet Jews, and was a leading voice in speaking out against the Arab boycott of Israel.

Israeli official rushed to praise Kennedy, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the senator “an American patriot” and “a great friend of Israel,” according to media reports.

And Israeli President Shimon Peres said Kennedy’s death was “a very big loss to every sensitive and thinking person the world over.”

“Kennedy was a clear friend of Israel the whole way, and in every place that he could help us he did help,” he added.

The late senator drew praise from a broad range of Jewish organizations, including both the Orthodox Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They noted that he had worked on a vast array of domestic issues over his 47 years on Capitol Hill, from religious liberty bills such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to his efforts on children’s health insurance.

In a statement, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Nancy Ratzan, said: “We were honored to work by his side on so many critical issues: Family and Medical Leave, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, the Americans with Disability Act, hate crimes prevention, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, health care, the increase in the minimum wage, and numerous judicial nominations—to name a few.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement that the “greatest tribute” to Kennedy would be to enact comprehensive health insurance reform.

“On the little stuff and the big stuff, he was always there for us,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Boston JCRC. “There wasn’t an issue he wasn’t on top of.”

Lighten Up


With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early ’90s, the story of Soviet Jewry’s battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."

Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early ’70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book’s title.

Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."

This very thought is found in this week’s Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah … from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.

In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah’s lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one’s light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.

Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.