Museum of Cold War Artifacts Gets New, Bigger Home in Culver City


The Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City is tucked away in an anonymous office park. But crammed inside the nondescript warehouse is the largest collection of Cold War-era artifacts and artwork outside of Europe, from hand-painted kitchenware and children’s toys to surveillance equipment and busts of Stalin and Lenin.

The name Wende (pronounced “venda”) means “turning point” or “change” in German and refers broadly to the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The museum is undergoing its own transition, as it moves to a larger permanent location nearby, the former National Guard Armory building. A ticketed gala and a free community open house is scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 18-19.

Justin Jampol, the Wende Museum’s executive director, founded the museum in 2002 when he was 24. A native of Los Angeles, Jampol graduated from UCLA and has a doctorate in modern European history from Oxford University. In the mid-1990s, he recognized the need to preserve Soviet-era materials for research and educational purposes. After the Cold War ended in 1991, people were eager to get rid of their belongings. Historical markers and statues were toppled and vandalized, archives were destroyed, and photos and film were allowed to decay. Jampol began traveling to the Eastern Bloc to collect artworks, clothing, restaurant menus, home movies and chunks of the Berlin Wall.

The grass-roots effort soon expanded into a museum and research institution consisting of more than 100,000 artifacts that tell the story of life behind the Iron Curtain. The museum’s location in Los Angeles proved to be an asset, said its chief curator, Joes Segal. Being far removed from anti-Soviet sentiments helped them secure the personal papers of East German state leader Erich Honecker and a huge archive of documents from the border guards of Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin.

“All these people realized that in Germany itself these materials would be interpreted in a very political way,” Segal said. “So the geographical distance was to our advantage.”

With the museum’s move to a larger location, the public will be able to see more of its collection, which the museum’s leadership hopes will help raise the museum’s profile in L.A.’s cultural landscape.

“It hasn’t been a public-facing institution, which is why, while we are renowned within the field, the public knowledge of the museum is significantly less now than it will be when we’re in the new space,” Jampol said.

The Wende Museum’s new home will include two exhibition spaces, to be changed three times a year, as well as a permanent exhibition space. It will also have a gift shop and coffee stand, and an outdoor sculpture garden with a fountain and movie screen.

The building also has a Cold War legacy, in what Segal calls “a paradox of history.” As the Cold War was escalating in 1949, the armory was built to withstand Soviet bombs in the event of World War III and has two above-ground nuclear fallout shelters.

The new location’s inaugural exhibition, “Cold War Spaces,” explores private, work, border, secret, outer, utopian and changing spaces of socialist cultures. Objects include a 1970 poster of a Soviet moon rover, a top-secret map of divided Berlin, surveillance equipment and a model of the Sputnik satellite.

The museum’s recently launched discussion series, “Art-Past-Present,” will continue in the new space, as well as experimental collaborations with artists and research institutions.

“What we try to do is use the Cold War past as a kind of treasure trove to think about the present,” Segal said.

Other upcoming exhibitions involve collaborations: with the Getty Research Institute, for a show on Hungarian visual culture; with the Wellcome Library of medical history in London, for a show called “The War of Nerves” about the psychological history of the Cold War; and with the University of Bristol in England, for an exhibition on Soviet hippie culture.

Besides acquiring rare and threatened objects, the museum also collects the stories behind the objects. The museum’s Historical Witness Project began as a series of recorded conversations with collectors who have donated items to the Wende and has expanded to include oral and written testimonies of scholars, artists, filmmakers and everyday citizens of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The Wende Museum also produced a documentary directed by Mark Hayes called “From Red State to Golden State: Soviet Jewish Immigration to the City of Angels.” It follows several Jewish families that left the Soviet Union to build new lives in Southern California during the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the community is centered in West Hollywood, which has the second-largest concentration of Soviet Jewish immigrants outside of New York City. The film premiered in 2013 to a sold-out audience at the Autry Museum of the American West.

Several objects in the Wende Museum’s collection have a link to Soviet Jews. One such object is a small Soviet-Russian photo album from the city of Birobidzhan, the capital of Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the former U.S.S.R. The album, issued in the 1950s by the communist youth organization, showcases photos of buildings in the community.

Other objects include two Bukharan Jewish family portraits from 1957 and from 1966, and a silver Russian Kiddush cup with an embossed pattern depicting a village, homes and gardens.

Segal said collecting Jewish artifacts has been challenging “because those materials tend either to stay in families or are sold or donated to Jewish institutions.”

In 2014, Taschen Books published Jampol’s 904-page encyclopedia of The Wende Museum’s East German collection called “Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts From the GDR.” The massive tome includes a 56-page facsimile of a German Democratic Republic family scrapbook documenting their real and imagined travels in East Germany and elsewhere.

The Wende’s highest-profile installation was staged in 2009, when, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jampol brought 10 segments of the original wall from Germany and placed them along Wilshire Boulevard, directly across from LACMA. Notable graffiti artists took turns decorating them in front of an audience of thousands.

“The museum,” Jampol said, “has become a kind of matchmaker for people of all walks of life and diverse interests to try to find the connective tissue between the historical collections and their own personal interests.”


The Wende Museum of the Cold War reopens Nov. 18-19 at the former National Guard Armory building at 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City. For more information about the ticketed gala and free community open house, go to wendemuseum.org.

Potentially exculpatory testimony unsealed in Rosenberg spy case


Newly unsealed court records may provide fodder for those who believe Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed.

Rosenberg and her husband, Julius, who were Jewish, were famously put to death in 1953 in Ossining, New York, for conspiring to share atomic secrets with the Soviet Union.

The potentially exculpatory material is in testimony by Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass that was unsealed Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. Greenglass, who died last July at 92, was the lead witness in the McCarthy-era case against the Rosenbergs.

In the 1951 trial, Greenglass said he shared information he had obtained from the Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the Manhattan Project with the Rosenbergs and that he saw Ethel Rosenberg transcribe the information on a typewriter in 1945.

In the newly released 46-page transcript of a grand jury hearing on Aug. 7, 1950, which is believed to be the last material from the case to have remained classified, Greenglass made no mention of his sisters’ typing and said he had never discussed spying with her.

Greenglass, who was indicted as a co-conspirator, served nearly 10 years in prison, then changed his name, The New York Times reported.

Tracked down decades later by a New York Times reporter, Greenglass said he had lied on the witness stand to save his wife from prosecution, according to the Times.

Greenglass said in the 1950 testimony that while his brother-in-law urged him to stay in the U.S. Army in order to “continue giving him information,” he never spoke to his sister about the topic.

“I said before, and say it again, honestly, this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all,” he said.

After Greenglass’ death, the Rosenbergs’ sons, according to the AP, issued a statement saying that David and Ruth Greenglass had passed atomic secrets to the Soviets, then “pinned what they did on our parents — a calculated ploy to save themselves by fingering our parents as the scapegoats the government demanded.”

A rodent flight


We flew what the 1989 Soviet press branded a rodent flight. “Rats run for their lives when the ship is sinking,” the newspapers mused, “much like those of our citizens who have decided to abandon the Motherland when the country is going through difficult times.” The difficult times were the turmoils of Gorbachev’s glastnost and perestroika and rats were the Jewish passengers of every flight on the Moscow-Vienna route. In those days the Austrian capital served as the first stop on Soviet Jewry’s emigration itinerary.

To the crew of our plane we probably looked like the very picture of rodents. Emigrating under a strict limit of two suitcases per person and with knowledge that our journey could last months, we’d filled whatever plastic bags we could find with the clothes, memorabilia, and canned meat that didn’t make it into our luggage. On boarding we crammed them into overhead compartments like rats’ close relatives, hamsters, stuff their cheeks. Whatever didn’t fit overhead, we wedged under and between the seats. Our flight attendants wrinkled their noses and shook their heads. They prided themselves on flying a route that had previously only carried members of the Politburo, select Soviet intelligentsia, and the informers accompanying them. Catering to escaping Jews with smoked sausages in washed-out plastic bags wasn’t why they paid top-level bribes for their positions.

We were used to the loathing. In the year leading to this flight we spent our weeks gathering paperwork, requesting permissions, and filling out the forms that would become part of our application for an exit visa. Corridors of Soviet bureaucracy—never an atmosphere for deep, tea-sipping friendships—brimmed with resentment the Soviet peerage harbored towards Jews. This resentment resulted in documents annulled for a missed comma, hunts for paperwork that didn’t exist, and chiding lectures reminiscent of early Communist-era films on Bolshevik’s moral superiority.

“Which division were you in?” My grandfather was once asked by a grey-haired OVIR (Office-of-Visas-and-Registrations) clerk as he stood in front of the clerk’s desk after three hours on his feet waiting in the queue. Dedushka was wearing the only suit jacket he owned, the jacket decorated with his World War II medals.

“269th airborne,” he responded.

The clerk put down the piece of paper my grandfather handed him and leaned back in the chair.

“How can you?” he asked.

“How can I what?”

“How can you leave?” the clerk said, his heavy glance resting on my grandfather’s medals. “After fighting for this country, how can you leave it? And go to live among the enemies?”

Dedushka pulled over the only chair that stood near the opposite wall.

“What’s your surname, Comrade?” he asked the clerk after he sat down.

“Krasnov,” the clerk responded.

“Mine is Brushteyn,” my grandfather said. “And my name is Israel. With names like these I am better of living in the land of the enemy. ”

The clerk emitted a long sigh. Then he shifted his eyes towards the paperwork in front of him. The audience was over.

My grandfather’s candor earned him a scolding from my grandmother who feared that if orthographic mistakes were enough for OVIR to reject a document, criticizing the state could probably qualify us for the status of refusniks—Soviet Jews whose exit visas were denied for no apparent reason. And even though refusniks made news on the Voice of America, attracted the attention of human rights organizations, and garnered fame among their peers, we had no interest in joining their ranks.

Several months after dedushka made a solemn promise never to speak his mind again within the borders of the Soviet Union, we opened our mailbox to find a note from the OVIR. Our solicitation to emigrate had been approved. We spent that evening raising shots of vodka to the moment when neither our last names nor things we said would beget the anxiety so familiar to a Soviet Jew. For me that moment commenced when the pilot announced our descent into Vienna. I glued my nose to the window lifting my glasses just enough to make an already weak prescription stronger so that I could see the city as soon as the plane pierced the cloud cover. But the flight attendant didn’t share my enthusiasm. “All blinds must be closed on landing,” she barked and began walking through the aisle to ensure that we followed her order. I lowered my shade, but as soon as she cleared our row I raised it. There was no way I was going to miss my very first sighting of the West.

All through my childhood and adolescence I, along with my friends, daydreamed about the life beyond the Iron Curtain. Soviet media treated us to a constant stream of reports about starving people, exploited masses, and bulbous capitalists with vampire tendencies. Yet all we saw were the Levi’s. Segments in which the press preached the values of Communism while keeping their cameras focused on the homeless outside of the White House achieved the opposite of what propaganda intended. It showed us that even people without a home had jeans.

And then there was the smiling. The selected few of our countrymen who had a chance to travel outside of the Warsaw pact states often brought back booklets with photos of well-dressed, smiling people. Because the concept of a department store catalogue didn’t exist in the Soviet Union we saw those booklets as representations of life in the West. With reverence we passed them around and gawked at the glossy paper and at how happy everyone seemed to be. No one ever looked as delighted in the Soviet Union. We concluded that if that many people had something to smile about, life must be much better outside of our Communist paradise.

 “Shut it!” The flight attendant was back and now stood in front of our row drilling into me with her dark eyes.

“But it’s only a sliver,” I protested. “Please.” 

“No,” she hissed.

My mother elbowed me. “Just close it,” she mouthed.

I complied while at the same time fighting both the tears and the desire to swear with an expletive I’d have never before dared to use with an adult. My mother noticed my reddened eyes and whispered: “We are almost there. Don’t worry, you’ll see it soon. Just hang in there a little longer.”

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thought that ten minutes from now we would land, leave this plane—the last bastion of Terra Sovietica—and be rats no more.

When the aircraft came to a complete stop the crew disembarked even before we had a chance to collect our plastic bags. They gave us no instructions nor was there a KGB organizing committee to guide us as would have been normal on any other flight full of Soviet citizens going to the West. With zero experience of airports that didn’t work according to Communist party orders we descended into the cold October air and stopped at the foot of the stairs, clutching our bags and looking around for someone to tell us what to do.

Five minutes later with no help forthcoming, an émigré with a Russian fur hat perched on top of his head and another one in his plastic bag spoke up.

“I think there is supposed to be someone from Sokhnut meeting us here,” he said. Sokhnut, the Jewish Agency for Israel, met every plane arriving from Moscow to Vienna.

“There should be,” someone echoed him. “But where?”

“There’s some guy standing over there,” a third émigré said, looking behind the plane.

We turned around to look. A man in a dark coat and shoes that were too light for Vienna’s cold weather stood there beating one foot against the other.

“Let’s go then,” the émigré in the fur hat said.

We picked up our bundles and started excitedly towards the man. Finally, we hoped, there was someone to instruct us.

But he wasn’t there to give us instructions. He spoke only one word and asked only one question of every family unit that approached him.

“Israel?” he asked in heavily accented Russian and, upon hearing the answer, gesticulated to the left or to the right. Those who answered in the affirmative—a small minority—went to stand on his right and the rest were directed inside the airport.

Back in Moscow we had heard of this step of the immigration process. Because USSR and Israel had no diplomatic relations, there was no direct flight between the two countries. Thus Soviet Jews, allowed by the authorities to emigrate only to Israel, had to fly through a third country. While an inconvenience to those going to Israel, this diplomatic raft became a loophole that Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) exploited to help the Jews who wanted to go to the United States. HIAS chose Vienna for its offices and, thus, the Austrian capital became both the transfer point where Israel-bound émigrés switched flights and the place where US-bound émigrés could announce their intention without the fear of being locked up in Lubyanka.

We knew our answer already a year ago when we decided that emigrating to America would give my father, an oil and gas engineer, more chances at employment. We also hoped that starting our lives anew would be an easier task with family near by. My grandfather’s nephew, Victor, had emigrated to the United States ten years earlier and promised advice, support, and general handholding during first years of adjustment. So when our turn came to answer the man’s question, we said No. He lost interest in us immediately and we followed other discards inside the airport.

Because of the catalogues with well-dressed people, I’d put a lot of thought into choosing the clothes for my first travel to the wondrous West. I wore a pair of jeans my father brought me from Poland years ago, a leather jacket Victor sent to my grandfather (ignoring that the sleeves were much too long for me), and I had my lucky scarf. Yet when I walked inside that airport I immediately wanted to hide. Compared with the glitz of shops selling goods at prices that approached the cost of a used Lada and with people garbed in the equivalent of what those shops sold we looked destitute. Our clothes, our shoes, our plastic bags, and even our glasses screamed outsiders. Passers -by stared and for the first time since we conceived, planned, and implemented our escape from Soviet reality I felt doubt. Could I ever become part of this highly groomed society? Would they accept me? Or would I remain a rat here too?

When we picked up our luggage we discovered that my father had been wise to bribe the Sheremetievo airport luggage handlers in Moscow. Our bags arrived intact while other people’s suitcases were slashed open with contents, mostly food, missing. Yet even with the smoked sausage safe inside, our excitement had ebbed away as soon as we were directed outside and sent to wait behind the corner, away from regular passengers for our transport.

We stood at, and eventually sat on, the curb for five hours. Hungry, thirsty, and cold under the drizzle that intermittently changed from rain to snow, we wondered if we’d been forgotten. With no one to call and no idea on how to buy water or food, those of us whose luggage had survived the trip, opened their suitcases and shared the food we’d packed. I bit into a stalk of smoked meat and looked around. I no longer had to close my eyes and imagine the West. I was in the West. And I was eating my food like a rat. 

The van to collect us finally showed up at dusk and brought us to a small boarding house in the center of Vienna. We dragged our suitcases up three flights of stairs to our room, dreaming of quietness after an arduous day.  When we got there we opened the door to find six single beds. Three of them looked like they were occupied.

“There is no way this is happening,” my father said as soon as he stepped inside. “Who do they think we are?” It was one thing for an intelligentsia-bred family to give into desperation and eat sausages outside without a knife and fork. It was completely another to room with strangers in dorm-like conditions—especially for an educated Soviet professional the rank of my parents.

My mother pursed her lips, scandalized. We didn’t hope for Intourist-style accommodation—Soviet hotels for foreigners with upgraded furniture, working hot showers, and old ladies on each floor responsible for distributing toilet paper and collecting intelligence. But the least we expected was privacy. Even kommunalkas, USSR’s communal apartments that often housed five families under one roof, always allotted a separate room for each family.

“I am going to speak to the reception downstairs,” my father announced, the pallor of his skin matching the walls.

Five minutes later he was back. “There are no other rooms,” he said. “None.”

My mother looked around. “Maybe it’ll be okay?” she said.

The sigh my father emitted was so deep that it sounded more like a last breath. “It’ll have to be,” he said. “We don’t have a choice.” And he threw the bag he was carrying onto an empty bed.

My mother nodded and began to unpack. I followed suit.

Our first day in the West—the land for which I held so much hope—was coming to an end. I may have left behind the rodent epithet and landed in a place where jeans filled the streets and people smiled. Yet it turned out that crossing the border wasn’t enough to belong.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and an artist living in Madrid. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog. 

Students get a history lesson on Zev Yaroslavsky’s contributions to Soviet Jewry


Last week, the power elite of Los Angeles gathered at Walt Disney Concert Hall to pay homage to retiring L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Children sang. Cellists performed. Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reminded the thousand or so friends of Yaroslavsky who assembled that Yaroslavsky was Jewish and a friend of Israel, a fact that escaped the notice of the others recalling the retiring supervisor’s numerous accomplishments in public life.

A couple of years ago, while I was teaching at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, Yaroslavsky visited the campus to offer a lesson about Los Angeles County government for the students in an Advanced Placement American Government class. The work he spoke about to those students included many of the concerns his friends and colleagues spoke of in Disney Hall: transit, homelessness, preservation of open space in the Santa Monica Mountains, reforming the Los Angeles Police Department, supporting L.A. County’s fine-arts facilities — including the John Anson Ford Theatres, Disney Hall, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hollywood Bowl.

Many of the AP Government students who met the supervisor were also my students in a senior seminar titled “Contemporary Challenges of the Jewish World.” My sense of what constitutes “contemporary” is pretty elastic, as most of the cases come from the last half of the 20th century. Shortly after Yaroslavsky’s visit, my students were analyzing the effectiveness of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a measure that denied trade benefits to the Soviet Union so long as it denied Jews (and other prisoners of conscience) the right to emigrate freely. Because the Soviet Union had dissolved 20 years before I taught those lessons, and the rescue of Soviet Jewry had never been part of these students’ personal experience, I showed them “Refusenik,” a 2007 documentary about the effort.

The film portrayed a 22-year-old Zev Yaroslavsky visiting Jews in the Soviet Union. It showed a young Yaroslavsky holding clandestine meetings with Soviet Jewish activists. It also portrayed his efforts to smuggle Jewish religious books and articles to the people he visited.

As would seem only reasonable, Yaroslavsky and the people interviewed in “Refusenik” tended to support the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It took some deep digging to find sources contending that Jackson-Vanik, though based in motives we could all support, might have been counter-productive.

Knowing that their teacher would not have presented a topic in which there was a clear “right answer,” the students explored a number of approaches to the challenges facing Jews who sought to live in Israel —or anyplace else — where they would be free of the constraints on Jewish practice that they experienced in the pre-glasnost USSR. The students worked through some of these problems in chevruta, then brought their conclusions to a discussion by the class as a whole.

Before the class discussion went very far, one young student, who spoke only once or twice a semester, raised her hand. “Is that young fellow in ‘Refusenik’ the same person who spoke to our AP Government class? The name is the same.”

I assured her it was the same person. Older, thinner (thanks to his running habit), grayer, but the same person.

“That young guy had some serious cojones,” she said. Nineteen heads nodded in agreement. Including mine.

Normally I would not have been eager to have a student make a reference of that sort — though I suspect the Spanish teacher may have taken some comfort from it. But the consensus ruled the moment. That’s the story that wasn’t told to the thousand friends of Yaroslavsky at Disney Hall. Happily, some of our children know it and can be uplifted by the example of that young man’s efforts on behalf of our people and his lifelong dedication to tikkun olam.


Neil Kramer is dean of faculty emeritus at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills.

Jacob Birnbaum, founder of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, dies


Jacob Birnbaum, who helped launch the movement to free Soviet Jews, has died at 87. 

The founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was a native of Germany who escaped with his family to England after the Nazis came to power and later moved to France.

Upon moving to New York in 1964, he set out to mobilize students to call on the Kremlin to stop the oppression of Soviet Jews, believing that Soviet Jews should not have to suffer the way Eastern European Jews did under the Nazis.

In April 1964, he held a student meeting at Columbia University in New York, and on May 1 of that year, more than 1,000 students from Yeshiva University, Columbia, Stern College and other campuses demonstrated outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations calling for freedom for Soviet Jews.

The protest would spark a worldwide movement that led to the largest Jewish exodus in history and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives honored Birnbaum for his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews.

The real threat to Ukraine’s Jewish community


After years of fighting against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and later in an independent Ukraine, the Ukrainian Jewish community is now confronting a new threat. This threat comes from an unprecedented effort by the Russian government and others to paint a false impression of the state of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.

The recent claims of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and of pervasive neo-Nazi ideology in the protest movement and the newly formed government, exaggerate the effect of the crisis in Ukraine on its Jewish community and misstate the facts.

The concerns about the safety of the Ukrainian Jewish community are real. Since the beginning of the unrest in the country in November, four members of the Kiev Jewish community have been assaulted, a synagogue in Zaporizhia was firebombed and a synagogue in Simferopol was vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic symbols.

The two most recent incidents took place in Kiev in recent weeks. The director of the Ukrainian branch of Hatzalah emergency services was attacked by two unidentified men who shouted anti-Semitic slurs, stabbed him and inflicted other injuries. The next day a Jewish couple was assaulted close to the Great Choral Synagogue in the Podol district of Kiev.

Several local Jewish community leaders, however, suggest that these incidents were most likely provocations designed to incite unrest and discredit the new Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian Jewish community is as concerned about provocations by pro-Russian groups, and Russia’s destabilizing role in Ukraine as it is about homegrown anti-Semitic groups.

Contrary to the allegations of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, there is no pattern of violence against members of the Ukrainian Jewish community. Moreover, the Ukrainian authorities swiftly responded to the most recent incidents and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice. Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, met with the leadership of the Ukrainian Jewish community and vowed to increase security measures for Jewish institutions.

The Ukrainian government’s guarantees to the country’s Jewish community are important to help alleviate concern about the presence of some radical elements in the opposition movement and the new government. But while the presence of the Svoboda party, the Right Sector and Spilna Sprava is alarming, radical and neo-Nazi ideologies do not represent the Maidan movement as a whole.

Although the Jewish community had been divided in its opinion of the movement, many Ukrainian Jews participated in the protests against what they believed to be a corrupt and criminal government.

Ukraine has a complicated past, and an even more complex history of ethnic relations. Since Ukraine’s independence, anti-Semitic sentiments have been used during elections and crises as a political tool to influence public opinion.

Similar attempts to use the Ukrainian Jewish community as a pawn in the bigger political game are occurring now.

To respond effectively to the crisis in Ukraine, the international community needs to be well informed and rational, distinguishing facts from rumors and innuendo. It needs to impress upon Ukraine’s new government that it is responsible for guaranteeing the safety of Jewish institutions and preventing legitimation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

It must also recognize that Russia’s attempts to undermine the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy not only undercut Ukraine’s ability to stabilize the domestic situation, and to address the looming economic crisis and general security concerns, but also affect the Ukrainian government’s ability to combat anti-Semitism and ensure the safety of Jewish institutions.

The efforts by the Russian government and others to perpetuate a myth that anti-Semitism is an integral part of the new Ukrainian government’s agenda are alarming. The United States and others need to send a strong message that just as anti-Semitism and xenophobia are unacceptable, the cynical exploitation of concerns about these issues in order to advance a political agenda also will not be tolerated.


Mark Levin is executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

Ukraine’s Jews again caught between a rock and a hard place


Shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union, I received an invitation to participate in a conference in the newly independent Ukraine. The organizers asked me to appear on the country’s version of “Good Morning America,” watched by millions of citizens. The anchorwoman interviewed me for nearly 15 minutes, in the 7 a.m. slot, neatly sandwiched in between a Bugs Bunny cartoon and the national weather. 

Having arrived at the studio while it was still dark, it was only when I left the TV station that I noticed I had been interviewed a few feet from the site of the infamous Babi Yar massacre, where, in one week during September 1941, at least 34,000 Jews were mass murdered in the ravine by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. I confronted the head of the conference and said, “I never would have agreed to be interviewed in a building that literally stood astride where so many of my Jewish brothers and sisters were murdered. I would have demanded a different venue!” I will never forget her response: “My dear rabbi, what difference does it make? Here in Kiev, every second stone is dripping with Jewish blood.”

We are now witnessing the latest round of violence and tragedy in Ukraine. And, not for the first time, hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps as many as 400,000, find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

To be sure, the Jewish community has not been center stage in the epic struggle between opposing forces. The just-deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, represents the still-powerful pull of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin has always made it clear he will not accept a Ukraine that is tied to NATO or the European Union. So far he’s used the economic carrot of cheap oil and other incentives, but possible military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, with its significant Russian population, cannot be dismissed.

On the other side are Ukrainian activists who rallied around a Euro-centric vision of the future. Anyone and anything insisting on a link to Moscow and the memories of 70 years of tyrannical Soviet rule is out of the question. Unfortunately, among the masses of people who braved beatings, bullets and death, were members of the nationalist Svoboda Party, which has neo-Nazi roots, and some of whose leaders have openly expressed anti-Semitic views.

Jews have not been a key target in this historic confrontation, though after last month’s serious beating of two Jews, and the escalating violence on the streets of the capital, Kiev’s chief rabbi has called on the city’s Jews to leave. Now comes word that on Feb. 23, unknown perpetrators hurled firebombs at the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev. Not surprisingly, Jewish institutions are bolstering security, and it has been reported that some public events have been canceled. One can only wonder what kind of Purim awaits our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ukraine.


Flowers at the site where anti-Yanukovich protesters were allegedly killed in recent clashes in Kiev. Photo by David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Simon Wiesenthal always said, “Where democracy is strong it is good for Jews, and where it is weak it is bad for the Jews.”

Historically, Jews in Ukraine have suffered disastrous losses during times of upheaval. During the Cossack uprisings of 1648-57, led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, between 15,000 and 30,000 Ukrainian Jews out of a total population of 51,000 were murdered or taken captive. The organized violence against the helpless and impoverished Jews in Ukraine in the 19th and early 20th centuries literally spawned a new word in the lexicon of hate: pogrom. Many of our grandparents fled Ukraine during that time, arriving on America’s shores penniless, with little more than a dream of a safe haven. During the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War (1917-22), another estimated 30,000 to 100,000 Jews were killed in the territory of what is now modern Ukraine.

The total civilian losses during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in World War II is estimated at 7 million, with more than 1 million Jews shot by Einsatzgruppen killing squads and Ukrainian collaborators in Western Ukraine.

I am afraid my academic hostess in Kiev more than 20 years ago wasn’t using hyperbole when she spoke of a blood-drenched Jewish history in Ukraine. We can only hope and pray that calmer heads will prevail and that the forces of democracy and inclusion will win the day there. In the meantime, today’s Ukrainian Jews have an option their forefathers could only dream about. Israel is but a nonstop flight from Kiev. Look for those flights to be extra crowded in the days ahead.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The Mensch List: Bearing witness to Russians’ Holocaust stories


For the past seven years, Leon Shkrab, 67, has volunteered every week at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, conducting intake interviews in Russian with Holocaust survivors who are applying for Holocaust reparations through the representation of lawyers at the pro bono law firm.

For Shkrab, nothing could be more important. 

“By letting them tell their stories, I am bearing witness to their suffering,” Shkrab, who worked as a paralegal but is now retired, said during an interview at Bet Tzedek headquarters in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

Born in the former Soviet Union after the end of the Holocaust, Shkrab — known to his friends as Leo — did not personally witness the horrors of the Shoah, but as an attorney and a Jew he experienced anti-Semitism firsthand in his homeland. That knowledge, coupled with his language skills, make him perfect for interviewing Russian-speaking survivors during the claims process, according to Lisa Hoffman, Bet Tzedek’s Holocaust services program director. 

“I think the No. 1 thing that Leo brings to the culture of Bet Tzedek is a true commitment to serving the community and, in particular, serving Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union,” Hoffman said. “He is very dedicated to that community.”

The interviews Shkrab conducts at Bet Tzedek are just the first step for the survivors in the process of applying for reparations. The interview often takes several hours, during which Shkrab listens to the clients’ personal stories of the war — and of the ghetto, the concentration camps and, more often than not, the many family members who perished.

Sometimes a survivor’s conversation with Shkrab is the first time that the survivor has fully told the story of these horrors. The sessions can be very emotional, Shkrab said.

His commitment to this work dates back to his early life experiences, growing up under an oppressive Soviet regime that tried to limit his ability to practice law on behalf of Jews.

As a young attorney, during the mid-1970s, Shkrab provided legal counsel to congregants at a synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine — until Soviet anti-religion officials told him to stop — or face consequences. 

The police were purposely vague about what could happen to him, Shkrab said, and he was too afraid to ask them to elaborate.

Just the threat of trouble was enough to convince Shkrab that it was time for a change. In 1988, after spending a year in Italy, Shkrab, his wife and their daughter were able to obtain visas to immigrate to the United States with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The family settled in West Hollywood, and Shkrab took classes at Los Angeles City College, earned a paralegal degree and joined the workforce, splitting his time between a position as director of social programs at a local Chabad, where he helped Russian immigrants obtain American citizenship, and a legal-assistant job at a civil litigation firm. Eventually, the law firm hired him as a full-time paralegal. 

Seeking to keep busy since his retirement, he began lending his professional skills to Bet Tzedek in 2007. 

Shkrab works at Bet Tzedek at least once a week, always clocking in a full workday. He receives no pay. He also volunteers several days each week at the County of Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs as a legal counselor. Until 2010, he volunteered on a regular basis at Santa Monica Courthouse’s information department.

Of all of these efforts, Bet Tzedek is closest to his heart, he says, because he knows the people he encounters have endured tragedies he was lucky to avoid. And, most important, because with each encounter, they open up to share their stories with him.

Why Bush shouldn’t talk to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute


A media firestorm kicked up last week after Mother Jones broke the story that President George W. Bush was to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute on Nov. 14. 

I blogged about the news as soon as I heard about it, and I’ve now had a chance to review what others have written, as well as the online comments. 

Keep in mind, judging the state of the American mind by reading Internet comment sections is like tasting a four-star meal by scooping it out of the garbage disposal. It’s weird and messy and slightly scary. But in Bush v. Jews, one constant refrain emerges: Why are Jews so upset? Religion is a private matter, the majority of commenters say. The people who invited Bush happen to believe Jews need to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The former president wants to speak to them. So what?

So let me explain. There is nothing private about the Irving, Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Its sole purpose is very public — to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, these people believe, Jesus will return to earth and the End Times and Rapture will follow.

That may or may not happen — my guess is we’ll never know. But one thing for certain does occur when Jews believe Jesus is divine: They stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on. Think about that for a second: This may be the only thing about which all Jews agree. It’s what makes Jews Jews. 

“‘Jews for Jesus,’” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on beliefnet.org some years ago, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”  

Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews.

It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews. 

Of course, that’s not how the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute frames it. It tells those it proselytizes to that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, the proselytizers know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Bush, a straight shooter, agreed to speak to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.

Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, author of the Jesus biography “Zealot,” told the Journal, “Jesus was a Jew first and foremost, and everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”

But where we part ways with Christians, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was God. 

For the wannabe Bill Mahers out there, this may seem just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”

But for Jews, the distinction defines us. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah, but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, deeper than text.

For Jews, there is no Father and Son; there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We accept that the biggest piece of the puzzle is left unsolved — that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey. It makes us, as individuals and as a People, inquisitive, skeptical of authority, relatively tolerant, empathetic — for if God is One, we’re all in this together — and eternally dissatisfied. 

That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish — not just in name, but deep down, in our souls. 

According to its 2011 IRS filing, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group President Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million attempting to convince Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS — that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren’t many Jews left, anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe. 

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the communists, are among the world’s least educated about Jewish belief and practice. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.

And now, they have a former American president to give them a boost.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Putin’s party loses key city to tough Jew with checkered past


Growing up in one of the Soviet Union’s richest cities, Elena Chudnovskaya never imagined that she would be raising her daughter in a place so full of drug addicts that “the flowerbeds became strewn with syringes.”

But that is what became of her downtown apartment block after the collapse of communism, when soaring unemployment and the proximity to drug-producing countries unleashed a narcotics epidemic of alarming proportions in this district capital of 1.3 million people 900 miles east of Moscow.

Over the past decade, however, everything changed. Chudnovskaya and her 15-year-old daughter gradually forgot to look out for the junkies, who are now a rare sight in Yekaterinburg.

For this change, she credits the man she helped elect mayor last month: Yevgeny Roizman, a tough-minded activist who parlayed his successful record addressing the city’s drug problem into a rare defeat for President Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate.

“People in the drug business were already scared of Roizman before he was elected,” Chudnovskaya said. “Now they’re talking about finding a different place to live.”

Even before he became mayor of Russia’s fourth-largest city, Roizman, 51, already was an international celebrity thanks to the success of City Without Drugs, the organization he set up in 1999 that is widely credited with effecting a dramatic transformation in Yekaterinburg.

But the change has not come cost-free. Allegations of violence and intimidation have dogged Roizman and the organization’s staff, which engaged in radical practices such as abducting drug addicts and chaining them to metal beds while they endured anguished withdrawals.

”We raised the drug issue and today there is practically no heroin being sold in this city,” said Roizman, a 6-foot-2-inch hunk of muscle who wears skintight T-shirts and sneakers to work.

City without Drugs now works with law enforcement, but it began as a rogue agency. Over the years it has “treated” more than 6,500 addicts and helped arrest and prosecute more than 3,300 suspected drug dealers, according to the organization’s own figures.

Roizman, who spent two years in jail for theft during the 1980s, says he knows “how to communicate” with drug users. But prosecutors say the organization’s methods go well beyond communicating.

One addict, Tatyana Kuznetsova, died last year after being chained to a bed by City Without Drugs. Two of Roizman’s associates are currently on trial for her death from meningitis, which prosecutors say turned lethal because she was denied medical treatment for days.

“In fighting the drug problem, he did illegal things that I couldn’t condone,” said Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a democracy activist who used to work with Roizman. “He is too harsh. To Roizman, anyone who tried drugs is a junkie that needs to be punished.”

In an interview at his office, Roizman sandwiches short answers to a reporter’s questions between meetings with citizens whose concerns he receives two days a week, a tradition he brought to city hall from his days at City Without Drugs. Asked about rumors that his former organization tortured drug dealers on the graves of people who died because of their product, Roizman is ambiguous.

“Maybe stuff like that happened elsewhere. Around here, we solved the problem in simpler ways,” he said, declining to elaborate.

In recent years, Roizman has been the subject of several police investigations connected to complaints by addicts who spent time at City Without Drugs facilities. In past interviews, he has said that authorities wanted City Without Drugs to cease operations — not because of their illegal tactics, but because they were trying to hide their own incompetence.

That argument, coupled with a sharp drop in drug-related offenses, seemed to resonate with Yekaterinburg voters, who gave Roizman 33 percent of the ballots in elections last month. Yakov Sillin, the candidate of Putin’s United Russia party, garnered 29 percent.

That kind of success is unusual in Putin’s Russia, where United Russia candidates trumped challengers in the vast majority of municipal races on Sept. 9 — including in Moscow, where the opposition is particularly well-organized. In the capital, Mayor Boris Sobyanin clinched a victory with 51 percent of the vote over opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who racked up 27 percent.

Those who have worked with Roizman say his successful war on drugs is only part of his popularity. The son of a Jewish factory worker, Roizman left home at 14 and worked odd jobs before he found trouble with the law for stealing jewelry and clothing. He likes to collect Christian iconography and has a cozy relationship with the church.

“He is highly cultured but knows how to work with his hands,” said Konstantin Kiselev, a political scientist who worked on Roizman’s campaign. “He writes poetry but knows how to get along with criminals. There is something for everyone in him.”

Though he has never concealed his Jewish origins, Roizman says he never felt like a member of any minority.

“It was never an issue and I never felt any anti-Semitism, but that’s perhaps because of the kind of person I am,” Roizman said, one palm casually wrapped around a clenched fist.

Only three weeks into his job as mayor, Roizman wears a harried expression as he darts in and out of conference rooms. He relaxes as he sits opposite a weeping septuagenarian who complains that she can’t afford heating.

Chudnovskaya thinks this sort of retail politics is comfortable for Roizman, who was used to hearing public complaints at City Without Drugs.

“Maybe he’s a bit rough around the edges,” she said. “But this city, with its miner community and so far removed from Moscow, has always been Russia’s equivalent of America’s Wild West. We don’t mind that sort of thing here.”

Putin basks in isolation over Syria as Obama’s charm falls flat


At the end of a tense two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama – slumped over and serious – tried to lighten the mood with a joke about their favorite sports.

“And finally, we compared notes on President Putin's expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” the U.S. president told reporters at the G8 summit, after the two men gave formal statements emphasizing their common ground rather than their sharp differences on how to end the Syrian crisis.

“And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover,” Obama said.

Putin – who folded his hands and glowered through most of the exchange – was having none of it. He waited for the audience to finish laughing, smiled icily and stuck in his spear.

“The president wants to relax me with his statement of age,” retorted Putin.

Few expected any diplomatic breakthroughs from the meeting in Northern Ireland, less than a week after Obama's administration announced it would provide military support to rebels fighting Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But Putin — who scowled, lectured and fidgeted while resisting the forced bonhomie of the two-day summit with the leaders of world's richest nations — seemed positively to relish his isolation.

It was a vintage display of Putin's world view forged since the Soviet Union's fall in 1991: the United States will inevitably overreach, and Moscow must always step forward to demonstrate the limits of U.S. power.

His position won the former KGB spy plaudits at home, where he is trying to reassert his authority after protests and in the face of a stuttering economy.

“I think he got all the bonuses domestically. He held his head high, stood tall and did what he pledged to do – to be very firm but not confrontational,” said Dmitry Trenin, a political analysts at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

Putin clearly calculated that he had nothing to gain by making concessions over Syria, and little to lose if Russia was further alienated in a rich nations' club where it has looked the odd-one out since it became a fully fledged member 15 years ago.

“RESET”

U.S. officials played down the rebuff, describing the Putin-Obama meeting as “businesslike” and emphasizing the common ground over a sectarian civil war in which the two presidents are now both committed to arming the opposing sides.

“We both want to see an end to the conflict. We both want to see stability. We don't want to see extremists gain a foothold,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser.

“I think both leaders went out of their way to underscore that they can work together on this issue,” Rhodes said. “If they can project a message that they have a convergence of views as it relates to a political negotiation, that keeps the possibility, the prospect of that political track alive.”

But even their one joint initiative faced a setback. One source at the summit confirmed that Syrian peace talks called last month by Moscow and Washington, initially meant to be held in June, then July – were now postponed until August at least.

The tense exchange between Putin and Obama marks full circle since the administration of the newly-elected Obama called for a “reset” in ties with Russia in 2009 after a row between the Cold War foes over Russia's 2008 war against U.S.-ally Georgia.

Obama has touted the Russia reset – in which his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a big red “reset” button – as one of his signature foreign achievements. (Clinton's aides notoriously mistranslated the button and labeled it “overload” in Russian.)

WE ARE GOING TO DELIVER

Putin arrived the night before the summit and made his unrelenting position clear at a press conference with his host, Britain's David Cameron.

Putin hammered home his point that arming Syrian rebels was reckless by zeroing in on an incident from last month in which a rebel fighter was filmed biting on the entrails of an enemy.

“One does not really need to support people who not only kill their enemies but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the camera,” he said as Cameron stood by.

From the outset, Putin was isolated at the summit.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Putin of supporting “thugs” and said Syria would be discussed by the other seven powers, with Russia as a “plus one”. Putin's foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov fired back, saying the Canadian's remarks came “from the position of an outside observer”.

After the bilateral meeting with Obama, Putin went to a dinner in a lodge on the shore of Lough Erne where the leaders discussed Syria over a dinner of crab, fillet of beef, and whisky-laced custard.

Putin refused to accept any public declaration that could imply Assad would go. He won: the final communique on Syria did not even mention Assad's name.

He also defended Russia's arms shipments to Syria and suggested that more might be coming: “We are supplying weapons under legal contracts to the legal government. That is the government of President Assad. And if we are going to sign such contracts, we are going to deliver,” he said.

Western officials still suggest that Moscow's alliance with Assad is not as strong as Putin's remarks imply. “Clearly Putin doesn't hold back with his views,” said one Western official who tried to play down the disagreements.

“Don't expect Vladimir Putin to pick up the phone to Damascus and say 'the game's over',” he said. “The Russians have deliberately and utterly not tied themselves to him (Assad) as an individual and have always given themselves some wriggle room.”

Western officials have suggested for months that Moscow might soon drop Assad, only to find Putin as staunch as ever, even when the war was going the rebels' way. Now, with Assad's forces having seized battlefield momentum in recent months, there seems less reason than ever for Moscow to ditch him.

Putin has another reason to want to look tough abroad, to consolidate support at home at a time when the faltering economy is hurting his standing.

“Despite the emotions, the summit was in many respects a success for Russian diplomacy,” the business daily Vedomosti wrote, suggesting Russia had made no concessions and the West had shown it was not ready to act if Moscow was not on board.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular daily with a reputation for catching the public mood, was more uneasy: “Putin is alone again,” it wrote. “But do we need to be sorry about it?”

Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn, Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton and Alexei Anishchuk in Enniskillen; Editing by Peter Graff

Frank Lautenberg leaves legacy of American Jewry’s profile


This story originally appeared on JNS.org.

Someone searching for the legacy of Frank Lautenberg, the longtime Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey, might simply look to Baruch College in New York. Of the 1,900 Jewish students there, 60 percent are from the former Soviet Union, 15 percent are Persian and 10 percent are Syrian.

Or one might look to the dozens of newly minted U.S. citizens who lined up at a New Jersey citizenship ceremony in the mid-1990s, waiting for Lautenberg to autograph the back of their citizenship papers, grateful to him that they were able to come to America.

“He stayed and signed every single one,” said David Mallach, who had frequent contact with Lautenberg when Mallach directed the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest in New Jersey. “For him, this was such a powerful statement of what he was all about.”

Lautenberg, who died Monday morning at age 89, was the oldest member of the Senate and the only one representing the World War II generation. During his Senate tenure — he served twice, from 1983 to 2001 and then again from 2003 until his death — he was responsible for numerous major pieces of legislation, including one that outlawed cigarette smoking on domestic flights and another that prohibits individuals who have been convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm.

But the signature piece of legislation that most resonates in the Jewish community is the Lautenberg Amendment. Passed in 1989 and enacted in 1990, that law allowed thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union to immigrate to this country by permitting them to use historic religious persecution to receive refugee status.

“I, and many of my Hillel colleagues who work on campuses here in New York, bear witness every day the impact of the Lautenberg Amendment,” Matt Vogel, executive director of Baruch College Hillel, last week told an audience gathered in New York to honor Lautenberg with the Renaissance Award from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie, told the gala that her husband — too ill to attend — considered the amendment his “proudest achievement.”

“Without the amendment, hundreds of thousands of Jews would not have been able to enter the United States,” said Mark Levin, the director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “Without the amendment, the profile of the American Jewish community would be very different—in terms of numbers, in terms of making the community better.”

Senator Frank Lautenberg with Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan. Photo from Hillel News & Views.

Levin said that Lautenberg saw that with the fall of the communism, there was a rise in nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. At the same time, “the rate of denial for people coming to the United States was skyrocketing,” Levin said.

Lautenberg recognized that he needed to do something to help these refugees. “Something in his body just clicked; this was something he had to do,” said Stephen M. Greenberg, a longtime friend as well as NCSJ chairman. He said there was a moment when Lautenberg realized, “I’m here for a reason, a Jewish man in the Senate, and I have to do something.”

Alla Shagalova, assistant director of pre-arrival and immigration for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), was one of the refugees waiting permission to come to the United States, having left Russia in 1989 with her husband and 2-year-old son. “We really felt we had to leave as possible,” said Shagalova, who came to this country via Austria and Italy, assisted by HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We were in jeopardy,” she said. “Anti-Semitism, which had been kind of controlled by the oppressive regime, was now out of control and could become violent at any time.”

Without the Lautenberg Amendment, she said, “We might have been denied refugee status and would have been stuck in Italy in limbo, stateless for an unpredictable amount of time.”

A New Jersey resident who works for HIAS, Shagalova says she was honored to be able to vote for Lautenberg as her senator.

The legislation has since helped persecuted religious minorities fleeing Iran, Burma and Vietnam as well.

“He never stopped working for populations at risk, particularly those persecuted for their religious beliefs,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director for U.S. policy and advocacy for HIAS. “He was a real inspiration for those who care about immigrants and who fight for immigrants’ rights,” she saod, noting that the immigration overhaul bill currently in the Senate includes an extension of the Lautenberg amendment would give the president discretion to designate particular groups as refugees for humanitarian reasons or if in the national interest.   

Lautenberg was also “a fervent believer that government could be a force for good,” said David Mallach, who had frequent contact with Lautenberg when Mallach directed the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest in New Jersey. Lautenberg would speak about “how the GI Bill make it possible for him to get out of being a poor kid,” according to Mallach.

Mallach recalled how the senator used some of the power of government in 1987 in the run-up to the December Soviet Jewry rally on Washington. Mallach thought it would be terrific to charter an Amtrak train to bring participants down to DC. Since Amtrak is federally funded and Lautenberg sat on the Transportation Committee, Mallach said he “called Frank’s office and said, ‘How do I rent a train?’”

“The senator called up Amtrak, and I got a call saying you are to call this person in the Amtrak office,” said Mallach, who would charter a 1,600-passenger “Freedom Train” train for the rally.

A millionaire, Lautenberg made his fortune as co-founder of Automated Data Processing and eventually became involved in the Jewish community, serving as national chair for the United Jewish Appeal (now known as the Jewish Federations of North America), establishing the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology, a major cancer center at The Hebrew University in Israel, and serving on the American Jewish Committee’s national board of directors, Hebrew University’s board of governors, and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive committee.

Lautenberg grew up in Paterson, NJ, with little attachment to organized Jewry, but was strongly influenced Rabbi Shai Shacknai of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, NJ. “He and the rabbi really hit it off,” Greenberg said. “Something was in his gut, in his kishkes that came out.”

Initially reluctant to get too involved with Jewish issues as a senator, he “became more comfortable on Jewish and particularly Israel issues,” said Doug Bloomfield, a columnist who worked as a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during Lautenberg’s early years in the Senate.

New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg dies at 89


New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, whose signature law facilitated a flood of Soviet Jewish emigration just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, has died.

Lautenberg, 89, died Monday morning of viral pneumonia, his office said.

Two far-reaching laws bear the name of the Democrat, who served a combined 30 years in the U.S. Senate in two separate stints.

The first Lautenberg Amendment passed in 1990 facilitated the emigration of Soviet Jews by relaxing stringent standards for refugee status, granting immigrant status to those who could show religious persecution in their native lands.

The Lautenberg amendment loosened a restriction that required potential refugees to show a risk of imprisonment or death, allowing those who could show that their religion restricted their lives and careers to apply for immigrant status.

The amendment led to the emigration of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews and also was extended to religious minorities in Iran, Vietnam, Burma and other countries.

The second Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1996, bans the sales of guns to those convicted of domestic violence.

Lautenberg, born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, served as the chairman of United Jewish Appeal beginning in 1974. He was honored last week by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Marathon bomb suspect eludes police, hunt shuts Boston down


Black Hawk helicopters and heavily armed police descended on a Boston suburb Friday in a massive search for an ethnic Chechen suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings, hours after his brother was killed by police in a late-night shootout.

The normally traffic-clogged streets of Boston were empty as the city went into virtual lockdown after a bloody night of shooting and explosions. Public transport was suspended, air space restricted and famous universities, including Harvard and MIT, closed after police ordered residents to remain at home.

Officials identified the hunted man as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and the dead suspect as his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed Thursday night in the working class suburb of Watertown.

Details emerged on Friday about the brothers, including their origins in the predominantly Muslim regions of Russia's Caucasus, which have experienced two decades of violence since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The fugitive described himself on a social network as a minority from a region that includes Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

A man who said he was their uncle said the brothers came to the United States in the early 2000s and settled in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area.

“I say what I think what's behind it – being losers,” Ruslan Tsarni told reporters in suburban Washington. “Not being able to settle themselves and thereby hating everyone who did.”

Tsarni said he had not spoken to the brothers since 2009.

He said Monday's bombings on the finish line of the world-famous Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured 176 “put a shame on our family. It put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity.”

The bombing, described by President Barack Obama as “an act of terrorism,” was the worst such attack on U.S. soil since the plane hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001.

The FBI said the twin blasts were caused by bombs in pressure cookers and carried in backpacks that were left near the marathon finish line as thousands of spectators gathered.

Authorities cordoned off a section of the suburb of Watertown and told residents not to leave their homes or answer the door as officers in combat gear scoured a 20-block area for the missing man, who was described as armed and dangerous.

The manhunt has covered 60 percent to 70 percent of the search area, Massachusetts State Police Colonel Timothy Alben said Friday afternoon. “We are progressing through this neighborhood, going door-to-door, street-to-street,” he said.

Two Black Hawk helicopters circled the area. Amtrak said it was suspending train service between Boston and New York indefinitely and the Boston Red Sox postponed Friday night's baseball game at historic Fenway Park.

The events elicited a response from Moscow condemning terrorism and from the Russian-installed leader of Chechnya, who criticized police in Boston for killing an ethnic Chechen and blamed the violence on his upbringing in the United States.

“They grew up and studied in the United States and their attitudes and beliefs were formed there,” Ramzan Kadyrov said in comments posted online. “Any attempt to make a connection between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs is in vain.”

INTERNET POSTINGS

The brothers had been in the United States for several years and were believed to be legal immigrants, according to U.S. government sources. Neither had been known as a potential security threat, a law enforcement official said on Friday.

A Russian language social networking site bearing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's name paid tribute to Islamic websites and to those calling for Chechen independence. The author identified himself as a 2011 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He said he went to primary school in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, a province in Russia that borders on Chechnya, and listed his languages as English, Russian and Chechen.

His “World view” was listed as “Islam” and his “Personal priority” as “career and money.”

He posted links to videos of fighters in Syria's civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles such as “Salamworld, my religion is Islam” and “There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts.”

He also had links to pages calling for independence for Chechnya, a region of Russia that lost its bid for independence after two wars in the 1990s.

Video posted on NJ.com showed a woman, Alina Tsarnaeva, who described herself as a sister of the suspects.

“I'm not OK, just like anyone else is not OK,” she told reporters from behind the closed door of an apartment in West New York, New Jersey.

She said the older brother “was a great person. He was a kind and loving man. To piss life away, just like he pissed others' life away … “

She said of the younger brother, “He's a child.”

HOUSE-TO-HOUSE SEARCH

In Watertown, the lockdown cleared the streets for police, who raced from one site to the next. The events stunned the former mill town, which has a large Russian-speaking community.

During the night, a university police officer was killed, a transit police officer was wounded, and the suspects carjacked a vehicle before leading police on a chase that led to Tamerlan Tsarnaev being shot dead.

“During the exchange of the gunfire, we believe that one of the suspects was struck and ultimately taken into custody,” Alben said.

The suspect died of multiple injuries including gunshot wounds and trauma, said Dr. Richard Wolfe, chief of emergency medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The older brother was seen wearing a dark cap and sunglasses in surveillance images released by the FBI on Thursday. The younger Tsarnaev was shown wearing a white cap in the pictures, taken shortly before Monday's explosions.

“We believe this to be a terrorist,” said Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. “We believe this to be a man who has come here to kill people. We need to get him in custody.”

Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Alex Dobuzinskis, David Bailey, Peter Graff, Stephanie Simon, Svea Herbst-Bayliss, Aaron Pressman, Daniel Lovering and Ben Berkowitz; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Grant McCool; Editing by Doina Chiacu

Ukrainian city agrees to stop using Jewish headstones as pavement


The city of Lviv in Ukraine agreed to remove Jewish headstones currently used as pavement.

The grave markers, from cemeteries destroyed by the Nazis during their occupation of Ukraine in the 1940s, will be moved to the only cemetery that was not destroyed during the Holocaust, according to Sprirt24, a Netherlands-based news agency.

The Soviet Red Army, which moved in on the heels of the retreating Nazi army, used the headstones as pavement, according to Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine’s representative in the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union, who has lobbied for the headstones' removal for years.

He told Spririt24 that the local market was built by the Soviet authorities in 1947 from Jewish headstones, which were placed horizontally and covered with asphalt.

Viktor Zaharchuk, a local resident, showed the Spirit24 film crew some headstones with Hebrew writings that were directly placed on the ground as pavement.

The city was considering several designs for a monument at Lviv’s the only remaining Jewish cemetery, Spirit24 reported, though it is unclear whether that monument would incorporate the headstones after they are removed.

IDF to tackle Ethiopian troops’ adjustment problems


A new IDF unit will work on integrating Ethiopian recruits, who are over-represented in army prisons.

Army Radio reported that Brig.-Gen. Eli Shermeister, who heads the Israel Defense Forces Education and Youth Corps, set up the unit last month after senior IDF officers learned that half of all Ethiopian soldiers were sentenced to prison at some time during their military service.

Though they account for only three percent of the Israeli army, one in every five inmates of army prisons are Ethiopians, the military radio station reported. Immigrants from families from the former Soviet Union accounted for 16 percent of inmates in 2011.

An earlier report from 2012 by Ma'ariv and other Israeli media quoted the IDF Spokesperson as putting the number of jailed Ethiopian soldiers at 10-11 percent.

“Something happens when Ethiopian recruits enlist and encounter army life,” Major Hila Alperin, the commander of the new Education Corps unit, told Army Radio. “Something goes wrong during their process of adjustment and integration.”

My Single Peeps: Kristina L.


Most Jewish parents don’t name their child Kristina, but Ukraine — when it was still the former Soviet Union — was very secular. “So my parents just gave me what was the cool, European name of the moment, not wanting to give me some very traditional and typical Russian name like Tanya or Svetlana.” When she was 9, her family went through Jewish immigration. There was a five-month process where they lived in Italy and Austria, before landing in Los Angeles. She didn’t speak a word of English. They lived in a tiny apartment off of Fairfax Avenue, while her mother worked to support her father in medical school. 

Kristina, now 32, went to UC Santa Barbara, where she was pre-law. “Santa Barbara is a very fun place to go to school, a very fun place not to go to class. Then 9/11 happened and I changed my major to political science. I thought I was going to be Christiane Amanpour and hide in the bushes in the Middle East and report on war crimes.” After working for a news station, she realized the road to becoming a reporter would be too difficult, “so I decided to go into PR instead. I started working for a PR agency in Santa Barbara, and then I moved to L.A. and went through the PR agency world.”

She’s a hard worker — and others noticed. She was recruited by a startup, ShoeDazzle, which became very successful. She was then recruited by Match.com to run the company’s PR. After some time, the constant traveling to Dallas grew exhausting. “I decided it wasn’t a fit for me, and with a lot of encouragement from friends, I [started] my own agency. My parents were freaking out that I was giving up a really good salary, job security and working for a big company, in a shaky economy. I had my first client within a month. That was five months ago. Now I have a pretty full roster of clients and flexibility to go to yoga in the middle of the day if I feel like it. I love what I do. It’s a lot of fun. I work with a lot of different clients in a lot of different industries — one of them is a dating Web site called 3 Day Rule founded by two female matchmakers.” As I write that down, I realize she just PR’d her way into my article. Well played, Kristina.

Kristina likes her men well read. “I tend to date people who are entrepreneurs. They have a certain drive that I relate to. Having a good personality is important. Chemistry is the most important. It doesn’t matter what qualities you put down, but it comes down to a spark.” I say, “You haven’t mentioned looks.” She laughs. “I’m 5-foot-7, so definitely tall. I never thought about descriptors. I’ll know it when I see it. When I’m in a relationship with someone, we’re best friends. You can support each other and kick each other’s ass — in a good way. I’m very supportive. I try to make sure the other person feels really good. I’m also really fun. No one’s ever been bored dating me.

 “I do want kids, but I don’t need them tomorrow. Probably in the next five years. If I have to think about things that are most important — it’s not work, even though I enjoy work. It’s not hobbies — those can come or go. It’s relationships with the people around you. The people in your life are the most important. I would move for a relationship to another state. I wouldn’t move for work.”


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

 

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, top adviser to Kissinger, dies at 86


Helmut Sonnenfeldt, the top adviser to former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, has died.

Sonnenfeldt, who was credited with playing a key role in forming the Nixon administration’s policy of detente with the Soviet Union, died on Nov. 18. He was 86. His wife, Marjorie, said he had Alzheimer's disease.

The policy of relaxing tensions between the U.S. and USSR took effect in 1971.

Sonnenfeldt and Kissinger were German-born Jews who fled the country during the Nazi rise to power and met shortly after serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, according to The Washington Post.

“He was with me in practically every negotiation I conducted with the Soviets,” Kissinger reportedly said in an interview, adding that he regarded Sonnenfeldt as an “indispensable associate.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich: Soviet gulag survivor’s courage


It was standing room only at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, as a crowd packed the Hertz Theatre to hear Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, the celebrated Russian refusenik and author, stress the importance of standing up for one’s principles. 

The former prisoner of conscience, now 65, discussed the turbulent years in the former Soviet Union leading up to an attempt to hijack a Soviet plane to Sweden and his eventual 12-year imprisonment in a Soviet gulag. The Riga, Latvia-born Mendelevich, who had a nonreligious upbringing and became an Orthodox rabbi after his release, is touring following the English-language publication of his biography “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival” (Gefen Publishing House). 

The Oct. 28 evening discussion, followed by a Q-and-A session and book signing, likely will not be Mendelevich’s final visit to Los Angeles or to the Museum of Tolerance. In addition to helping to launch the West Coast leg of the “Unbroken Spirit” book tour, the museum is hoping to assemble an exhibition on the oppression of Soviet Jews that would prominently feature Mendelevich, according to the museum’s director, Liebe Geft. 

Museum officials and volunteers have a personal connection to Mendelevich and his story. While living in Israel in the 1970s, Geft helped Mendelevich’s sister petition for her brother’s release and bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews, even meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and doing a presentation for then-CIA Director George H. W. Bush. 

At that time, in Los Angeles, another future Museum of Tolerance volunteer, Myrtle Sitowitz, was among the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. This group of housewives sent countless letters to the Soviet Union and, on one occasion, staged a silent protest at a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.

“We were not getting a good name for ourselves,” said Sitowitz, “but when you fight for something with a purpose, you’re not going to get a good name.”

Geft called Mendelevich “a hero of the Jewish people and of freedom-loving people the world over.” The rabbi, who now lives in Israel and teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, said he had far more practical motives. 

 “My reason for publishing the book was to help all Jews, (including) new generations, to prevent assimilation, to teach them Jewish values,” Mendelevich told the gathering. “Everything needs sacrifice. If you buy the book, use it as a weapon to continue the fight.”

Fight, Mendelevich did and has done for most of his adult life.

“Unbroken Spirit” chronicles Mendelevich’s work with the Jewish underground (he edited a newsletter on Jewish issues). In the late 1960s, as anti-Israel sentiment increased in Russia, Mendelevich and his fellow dissidents began to seek out ways both to leave the country and to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Along with former Soviet military pilot Mark Dymshits and several others — including non-Jews — Mendelevich hit upon the idea of taking a 12-seat civilian plane, diverting it to Sweden, holding a press conference and then ultimately returning the plane to the Soviet Union … with a full tank of gas, no less.

“We figured we certainly would be arrested, but it was the price to publicize our struggle,” said Mendelevich. “We were willing to pay the price, and we understood that we could be killed during this attempt. But if there is only even a 1 percent chance to succeed, I’m ready for that 1 percent. There was no life for me anymore in Soviet Russia.”

The group was arrested at the airport. At their 1970 trial, Dymshits received a death penalty sentence while Mendelevich received two 15-year sentences plus an additional seven years “for my Jewish activities.” The sentences were later reduced on appeal to a total of 12 years for Mendelevich and 15 for Dymshits. By the time Mendelevich got to his first labor camp, the restrictions on emigration from the Soviet Union had already begun to loosen. In 1971, 12,000 Soviet Jews were able to leave, followed by 30,000 the following year. 

“It was a real victory,” Mendelevich said. “Somehow it is ironical that the winner is being arrested, but I told myself that I felt comfortable in a prison and I am ready to serve as much as needed. Thanks to me being seated in prison, other people got freedom.”

The fight did not end there. Mendelevich talked about having privileges revoked for his refusal to remove his kippah or to work on Shabbat. For the former offense, Mendelevich lost his annual visit with his father — himself an agitator who demonstrated against Nazi anti-Semitism. Toward the end of his imprisonment, Mendelevich endured a 50-day hunger strike over the right to study Torah. 

When they finally released him, the Soviets promptly exiled Mendelevich, who immediately thanked God for the miracle of his deliverance. Rather than being forced to leave his “motherland,” Mendelevich saw his release as an opportunity to relocate to his true motherland — Israel.

“I don’t have a strong will. I am a normal man.” Mendelevich said, insisting that his principles rather than personal attributes gave him strength. “It was our common struggle, not specifically for Jews in America or people in the Soviet Union. Nothing can withstand our good will to bring freedom to the people. Through struggling for all Jewish rights, we brought freedom to other nations.

“So I suggest to everybody, including [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, not to start with us. We have a strong will.”

Obama and Israel: The record, the facts


President Obama has been criticized for being wrong for Israel. Even in the third debate of the Presidential campaign, a lovefest toward Israel, which was mentioned 31 times by the candidates, Governor Romney managed to get in a couple jibes against Obama's Israel policy. “I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate.” He went on to complain that Obama had not visited Israel, inferred that Obama had a poor relationship with the Jewish State, and accused Obama of wanting “to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.” Others opposed to the president have even been known to claim that Obama is the worst president for Israel in American history.

But history emphatically tells us otherwise. Many presidents saw Israel as a burden and acted accordingly. Truman recognized Israel's existence six minutes after its birth, but also embargoed arms before and during Israel's War of Liberation. Eisenhower, who doubted whether Israel should have even been created, forced Israel to return its gains in the Sinai and Gaza in 1956 by making a variety of threats, including ending tax-deductible gifts to Israel.

Ford set up a reassessment of America's Middle East policy in 1975 because he was angry at the Israelis for refusing a proposed disengagement agreement with Egypt. Carter brokered the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, but otherwise endlessly clashed with Israel. George H.W. Bush's secretary of state told Israeli Prime Minister Shamir publicly to phone the White House when he was ready to talk peace, and later denied Israel critical loan guarantees when refugees from the Soviet Union were arriving.

There are no similar episodes in Obama's record. Instead, he established the closest working military and intelligence relationship with Israel in the country's history: joint exercises and training, increased security assistance every year, unprecedented advanced technology transfers, doubling of funding for Israel's missile defense system, and assistance in funding for the Iron Dome system that today intercepts rockets headed for Israel. Indeed, in the debate he was emphatic that Israel “is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region,” and went on to say later, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. And this is the reason why, working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history.”

More facts. The Obama administration has opposed efforts to boycott or divest from Israel. It backed Israel on the infamous Goldstone Report, the anti-Israel Durban Conference, the Gaza flotilla incident, Palestinian effort to gain recognition as a state, and others. And the U.S. voted with Israel at the UN 100 percent of the time under this administration, a first in modern history.

So what's the problem? Certainly, the poor personal relationship between the Israeli and American leaders does not help. But this is not the first time that an American president found an Israeli leader frustrating, yet managed to enhance U.S.-Israeli relations. Ronald Reagan had a number of diplomatic conflicts with Israel — the peace process, the U.S. sale of AWACS jets to Saudi Arabia, Israel's attacks against Iraq's nuclear reactor and the Lebanon War — yet strengthened security ties with Israel. Like Reagan, Obama has exponentially enhanced U.S.-Israel security cooperation. But unlike Reagan, Obama did not suspend arms transfers to Israel because of a disagreement with its leaders.

Recently, the Israeli-American discord has centered on Iran. The president and prime minister disagreed over setting a red line delineating when military action would be taken. But few noticed when the U.S. and Israel quietly resolved the issue, with Netanyahu agreeing to delay action until next year at the earliest and praising the president at the UN for his efforts.

In fact, Obama has supported the toughest sanctions on Iran in history, in pursuit of the goal of preventing Teheran for gaining nuclear weapons. In the foreign policy debate, he stated categorically that “…as long as I'm president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. I made that clear when I came into office.”

His statements and actions are far tougher than anything provided by President George W. Bush. Standing with Prime Minister Olmert in Jerusalem in January 2008, Bush could only offer, “I believe it's incumbent upon the American Presidents to solve problems diplomatically. And that's exactly what we're in the process of doing. I believe that pressure — economic pressure, financial sanctions — will cause the people inside of Iran to have to make a considered judgment about whether or not it makes sense for them to continue to enrich.''

For Obama, opposing Iran's nuclear weapons is part of his longstanding opposition to nuclear proliferation. In 2004, even as he opposed the war in Iraq, Obama told The Chicago Tribune editorial board: “The big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures, including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point are we going to, if any, are we going to take military action?” Admitting that attacking Iran might hurt America's image in the Arab world, he concluded, “On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.”

Obama's Iran policies have been working, with intensifying sanctions helping to cause accelerating economic chaos, and protests, in Iran, which is today weaker than four years ago. Tehran may have made advances toward a nuclear force, but the costs of that movement are clearer than ever, and the worldwide opposition more determined and tougher. Iran is paying a heavy price for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that price will grow higher. There is no argument between Israel and the U.S. on that score.

The critics are simply wrong. Obama has been an exceptional supporter of Israel where it counts — on the hard-core security and diplomatic issues that provide assistance and protection in a very dangerous region.

A similar version of this article appeared in the Times of Israel on October 19, 2012.


Steven L. Spiegel is Professor of Political Science at UCLA.

Ayn Rand … Rosenbaum?


The first public cause to which Ayn Rand donated her own money was the State of Israel.

I find this little-known nugget fascinating for two reasons.

One, it contradicts the idée fixe of Rand as not really Jewish. And two, it contradicts the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Rand’s followers often obscure, or quickly pass over, her Jewishness.  The official Ayn Rand Web site, aynrand.org, doesn’t mention it. Neither does the Web site of her most popular book, atlasshrugged.org, nor the hagiographical site, facetsofaynrand.com.

But none of this is exactly a secret. In her excellent 2011 book about Rand, “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,” Jennifer Burns tells the story. Alisa Rosenbaum was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on Feb. 2, 1905, to Zinovy Rosenbaum, a pharmacist, and Anna Rosenbaum, the high-strung daughter of a wealthy tailor, whose clients included the Russian Army.  The Rosenbaums were largely non-observant, but celebrated Passover and were by no means completely assimilated—Alisa sat out of class during religious instruction.

[Related: How Paul Ryan will motivate Jewish voters]

Intellectual, withdrawn and immersed in her fantasy worlds, Alisa yearned to leave her country behind. When she was 21, Jewish relatives in Chicago—the Portnoys, of all names—helped her arrange a visa.  Once in America, she grew tired of her relatives’ insular Jewish world, and headed for the source — you could say the fountainhead — of her fantasy: Hollywood.

In Hollywood, the aspiring screenwriter Alisa Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand. An Eastern European émigré who breaks free from the claws of tradition and family, gentrifies her name, assimilates and devotes herself to creating stories about an idealized America — if that’s not the very definition of a 20th century Jew, what is?

Rand was a classic 20th-century Jew in another way as well: she was a devout atheist. She replaced God with her philosophy, just as Freud did with psychology and Einstein with physics. She loathed religion as much as the Communists, whom she loathed, loathed religion. In a 1979 interview, Rand told talk-show host Phil Donahue that religion, “gives man permission to function irrationally, to accept something above and outside the power of their reason.”

All this matters now because Ayn Rand matters now — perhaps more than ever. Gov. Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, is a self-described Ayn Rand devotee — and not of her early screenplays.

Ryan requires all his staff members to read Rand’s seminal novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” The ideas she developed in these novels, as Burns writes, have become the ideological touchstones of the modern Conservative movement.

“Rand advanced a deeply negative portrait of government action,” Burns writes. “In her work, the state is always the destroyer, acting to frustrate the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals. Her work … helped inspire a broad intellectual movement that challenged the liberal welfare state and proclaimed the desirability of free markets.”

It is hard to read Ryan’s plan for addressing the Federal deficit and not see Rand’s ideological pencil marks.

The Ryan budget, wrote David Stockman, the conservative Republican former budget director under President Ronald Reagan, “shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled.”

In other words, the Ryan budget is Ayn Rand’s philosophy made flesh. 

I understand the origins of Rand’s emphasis on initiative and ingenuity. She was an exceptional individual, an outsider who by sheer force of intellect and will forged not just a life, but a movement. 

I understand her faith in capitalism and the free market. The Bolsheviks shattered her family, and few understood better than she the failure of Communism.

I even understand her rejection of religion — in her day it was most often a force of repression and superstition.

What I don’t understand is how, given these beliefs, Rand also could urge her followers to donate money to Israel.

“Give all help possible to Israel,” said Rand, then in her late 60s, in a lecture in 1973. “Consider what is at stake.”

Rand made clear she loathed Arabs and the Soviet Union, and saw Israel as a bulwark against both — even if it was socialist.

“This is the first time I’ve contributed to a public cause,” Rand said, “helping Israel in an emergency.”

Really, how do you explain such a thing? True, she saw Arab culture as “primitive,” but she acknowledged individuals had no responsibility to help citizens of other countries. She didn’t act out of logic or rationality — she acted because she felt, in dire circumstances—part of a collective. In that time, I believe, she wasn’t The Individual, she was part of a group: The Jews.

That feeling, that impulse, may not be rational, but it is powerful. There is a very real sense, as Jews, as Americans, as people, that we are bonded to one another despite, or even because of, our essential individualism. 

Rand’s religious blind spot is also Ryan’s policy blind spot. The most successful countries on Earth do not just fund defense, police and the courts, as Rand would have it. They invest in research, education and innovation. They provide a safety net to the sick and needy. They keep defense spending in check. They protect the environment from over-exploitation. They make cuts and raise taxes, so that society’s costs and benefits are shared.

Ayn Rand couldn’t see this. I hope Paul Ryan can.

In Putin’s return, Russian Jews see stability


Was Vladimir Putin’s carefully choreographed plan to return to Russia’s presidency in 2012 a big blow to democracy or a victory for stability?

It all depends on who you ask.

Most Russian Jews, it seems, say that Putin’s return after a four-year stint as prime minister is good news for stability, and that’s good for the country’s Jewish community. Critics, however, say it’s a sign of Russia’s stagnation.

Echoing traditional Jewish sensibilities, Yevgeniy Satanovsky, head of the Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Studies, a think tank in Moscow, says that Jews do not have to worry about Putin.

“Putin is neither an anti-Semite nor anti-Israel,” Satanovsky said.

For Russia’s Jews, whose estimated numbers range from 500,000 to 1 million, Putin marked a departure from the anti-Semitism of past Communist elites and of the once all-powerful KGB, which he served for nearly two decades.

Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Israel, where he attended an official reception. He also visited a Moscow synagogue, participated in candle-lighting ceremonies on Chanukah and reportedly had an open door for one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar.

While human rights groups reported surges in xenophobic attacks at various times during Putin’s presidency, Jews rarely were the targets.

Lazar said Putin should be credited for driving anti-Semitism out of Russian political discourse.

Politicians in today’s Russia “would not risk taking anti-Semitic or a so-called anti-Zionist stand,” Lazar said. “Any impartial observer should acknowledge Putin’s big role in this.”

As president and prime minister, Lazar said, Putin “paid great attention to the needs of our community and related to us with a deep respect.”

But the Putin regime also earned a reputation for intimidating political opponents and journalists, and rolling back democratic reforms. As evidence, critics say one need look no further than the way he has orchestrated his return to power.

The announcement about the next stage of Putin’s rule over Russia came Sept. 24, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor to the post, said he would not run in next year’s presidential election. Medvedev then backed Putin’s return to the Kremlin. In return, Putin offered Medvedev the prime minister’s chair in 2012.

Putin, the president from 2000 to 2008, was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive four-year term. The 2008 arrangement that made Putin the prime minister for four years was widely seen as a sign that Putin would retain control over the reins of power, and his intention to return to the presidency confirms that thinking. With presidential terms extended to six years by Medvedev—presumably with Putin in mind—Putin, who turns 59 this week, could serve as Russia’s president until 2024.

His public approval rating is high and he isn’t expected to meet any formidable political challenges.

Putin’s popularity is explained largely by Russians’ yearning for order and a strong hand skillfully wielded by the Kremlin’s political advisers. Over the years of his rule, Putin effectively sidetracked any real opposition, put the brakes on political dissent on national airwaves and turned Russia’s Parliament—dominated by his United Russia party—into a virtual arm of his regime.

Liberals find his plan to return to the presidency deeply disturbing.

“I’m honestly shaken by the impudence with which this was all done,” Yevgeniya Albats, a prominent Russian Jewish journalist, told Echo Moskvy radio, one of Russia’s few remaining liberal media outlets.

“We have witnessed how all institutions of the Russian Federation were torn down—the constitution, the elections,” said Albats, the editor in chief of The New Times weekly magazine in Moscow.

Critics blame Putin for dismantling many of the democratic achievements of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin; for failing to implement many substantial economic and social reforms; for nurturing widespread corruption; and for creating a system in which only those with ties to his clan can prosper.

Others argue that Putin’s return, no matter how it was orchestrated, is a fair reflection of realities in today’s Russia.

“It may not be happening all nicely, but democracy is not built overnight,” Satanovsky said. “Putin is coming back to power as a real leader of a large political and economic clan. Can it change soon? I don’t see how.”

The early years of Putin’s presidency were marked by Kremlin pressure against Russia’s oligarchs—the once politically influential Russian business tycoons, many of whom were Jews. But in recent years, most leading business figures in Russia have withdrawn from political life, marking a victory for the Kremlin.

Despite the fact that many of those oligarchs were Jewish, Satanovsky notes that Putin never let his political, business and even personal battles “translate into anything anti-Jewish.”

While the Putin era has not been good for democracy in Russia, Jewish life in the country has continued to thrive. Thousands of parents send their children to Jewish schools and camps, and new synagogues and community centers are being added every year. There even are new museums opening in Moscow.

Despite these gains under Putin and his loyal successor Medevedev, a sense of unease left over from the olden days persists among many Jewish community leaders, who declined speak on the record with JTA about the perils of Putin’s cavalier approach toward democracy.

“There is a certain frustration in the society,” said one Jewish leader who asked that his name not to be used. “But the revolution is nowhere near. There is no democracy, and life goes on.”

Kissinger: Gassing Jews would not be a U.S. problem


Henry Kissinger is heard saying on newly released Nixon tapes that the genocide of Soviet Jews would not be an American concern.

The tapes chronicle President Richard Nixon’s obsession with disparaging Jews and other minorities.

Kissinger’s remarks come after a meeting he and Nixon had with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on March 1, 1973 in which Meir pleads for the United States to put pressure on the Soviet Union to release its Jews. Nixon and Kissinger, then the secretary of state, dismiss the plea after Meir leaves.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” The New York Times on Saturday quotes Kissinger, as saying on the tapes. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Nixon replies, “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Six months later, during the Yom Kippur War, Nixon rejected Kissinger’s advice to delay an arms airlift to Israel as a means of setting the stage for an Egypt confident enough to pursue peace. Nixon, among other reasons, cited Israel’s urgent need.

The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants in a statement called for an apology from Kissinger, who is still consulted by Democratic and Republican administrations and by Congress on matters of state.

“Henry Kissinger’s comments are morally grotesque and represent a disgraceful perversion of American values,” said the statement. “He owes an apology to all victims of the Nazi Holocaust.”

Nixon secretly recorded his White House conversations. After this was revealed during congressional investigations, the tapes became government property and have been released over the years in intervals.

Elsewhere on the batch of tapes recently released by the Nixon Library, the late president repeats many of the ethnic and racial slurs that had appeared on earlier such releases: Irish are “mean” drunks, he says; Italians “don’t have their heads screwed on tight”; Jews are “aggressive, abrasive and obnoxious”; and it would take blacks “500 years” to catch up with whites.

‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel


In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.

For these people — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law — the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.

At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.

“They are not going to be religious but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, who has written a book on the subject.

“Thousands are being born here, and they are no longer immigrants,” he said. “They are raised just like their secular neighbors, and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish. The problem is just getting worse.”

In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halacha, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.

For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.

Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendants of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others — until they came to Israel.

Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.

“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”

Itskov observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said she never tried to hide her Jewishness.

“I want people to understand we are part of this country, and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy (non-Jew).”

Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.

“Little is known about them; there is no research about them, and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”

For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.

In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Gorman is Jewish, but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions, because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century, and we need to be going forward.”

Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state. They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.

Russian immigrants — Jews among them — say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.

A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.

Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.

Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Jewish and not — are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.

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.

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.”

Unearthing mass graves in Ukraine unveils history


In May, Ukrainian workers laying a gas pipe in a southern village dug into a buried chamber of thousands of Jews killed during the Holocaust.

That same month, a construction crew building a new office complex in western Ukraine burrowed into the corpses of several dozen more Jews.

Stumbling upon such mass graves is not particularly unusual in Eastern Europe.

Less well known is how many more “martyr sites” lie undiscovered and unmarked in fields and forests across the region — wherever mobile Nazi killing units scorched the earth in the so-called “Holocaust of bullets.”

It seems momentum is growing in the search for such sites.

French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois has pinpointed 600 in Ukraine over the past seven years, and says he may find another 1,800 as he moves farther east.

The Killing Sites Project of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem has identified from archives some 700 settlements in Ukraine and 200 in Belarus where Jews likely were massacred.

Even on Polish soil, where it seems every aspect of the six Nazi death camps has been dissected and detailed, the country’s chief rabbi says evidence is mounting that a number of unmarked mass graves remain in the country’s eastern woodlands.

“From time to time we’d hear about them,” Rabbi Michael Schudrich said. “But over the past two to three years, more have come forward…. You begin to realize we may be talking about a much larger number than anyone was talking about previously.”

Marking and memorializing these killing fields makes for far more than a historical footnote. Research may one day alter the 6 million figure of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, as recently opened archives in Eastern Europe enable researchers to fill in the blanks of what had been a virtual black hole in Holocaust research: the genocide of Jews in the Soviet Union.

With archival materials and witness testimonies casting a spotlight on what today is Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, eastern Romania and western Russia, scholars soon may be able to record a more accurate death toll from the Holocaust.

Those who still lie buried in unmarked pits may help elucidate.

The primary problem in finding the mass graves is the nature of the killings themselves, which began well before the first gas chamber was operational in Poland in 1942.

When Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union in July 1941, paramilitary units called Einsatzgruppen, or “special-duty groups,” trailed behind, systematically cleansing the countryside of Hitler’s “Jewish-Bolshevik” enemies.

The most notorious event occurred at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where nearly 34,000 Jews were shot over two days in September 1941.

The Einsatzgruppen’s own records claim responsibility for 1 million deaths; historian Raul Hilberg puts the figure at 1.4 million.

After the Holocaust, relatives who might have memorialized these killing sites were dead themselves or had fled elsewhere.

Then, as the Iron Curtain came down on Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union — which had lost 20 million of its own citizens during the war — ordered that no one ethnic or religious group be singled out for its victimization. Instead the carnage was portrayed as an ideological battle between communism and fascism.

This helps explain why the memorials the Soviets did build often were labeled generically for “Soviet victims of fascism.”

After Stalin launched his anti-Zionist crusade in the early 1950s, the topic of Jewish victimhood became taboo and those probing it ran the risk of imprisonment.

Nevertheless, members of the Extraordinary Soviet Commission to Investigate the Crimes of the Nazi Occupiers were quite meticulous in documenting the Nazis’ vast crimes, Western researchers say, and their evidence was used in court to convict alleged collaborators.

Yet while Germany became a treasure trove for Holocaust research, the Soviet Union remained closed.

Only in recent years have researchers begun to reveal the stories Soviet archives have to tell.

“Political developments in the past 20 years have enabled us to focus on an area of the Holocaust that may not have been prioritized enough,” said Philip Carmel, international relations director for the Brussels-based Conference of European Rabbis, which is pursuing an ambitious project of its own to document the Jewish cemeteries of Europe.

One of the more critical breakthroughs in researching the unmarked graves came when the vast Soviet archives on the subject were copied and transferred to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. When cross-referenced with other sources for reliability, these once-sealed archives illuminate a trail for researchers to follow and unravel the mystery of missing bodies.

A windfall of material also came from the International Tracing Service’s secret Holocaust archive at Bad Arolsen, Germany, which recently transferred its millions of images of concentration camp survivors to the museum in Washington.

Buffered by this research, the mass graves movement appears to be gathering speed.

Desbois soldiers on with his small but methodical project. Schudrich says the Polish Jewish community soon will be reaching out to non-Jewish Poles to help locate the last remaining mass graves.

The director of Yad Vashem’s Killing Sites project, David Bankier, says he and his colleagues plan to start field research next year in Ukraine.

“Why is this important? It’s important for the Jews who live in these countries,” said Bankier, who heads Yad Vashem’s International Institute of Holocaust Research. “They would like to have a gravestone on the site where their family members were assassinated. And these are the only cemeteries for them.”

But even if these graves are discovered and marked, what next?

With few or no Jews remaining in these areas to preserve and protect them, untended sites may become vandalism or looting targets.

Some marked sites already have been spotted with bits of bone lying about. Experts suspect looters went excavating for gold, jewels and other valuables.

Marking these sites “kind of identifies for them where to dig, so rather than be helpful, it does the reverse,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

“If you create a memorial, have a ceremony, then go back to Israel or the United States, the concern is what happens to that site. You haven’t completed the task.”

Jews laud Boris Yeltsin’s legacy


Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first popularly elected president, made a lasting impact on Russian Jewry, though his legacy included its share of controversy and tragic failures.

Russian Jewish leaders agree that the community should remember Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76, primarily as the man who ended decades of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Russia.

“With Yeltsin’s passing, a page is closed for the Jewish community, that of revolutionary changes in the life of Soviet and Russian Jewry,” said Borukh Gorin, spokesman for the Federations of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish group.

“Yeltsin was an important figure” for the Jewish community, said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a Washington-based group that works on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

“His opening of the country allowed for the development of Jewish communities throughout Russia. His willingness to create a more open, democratic country certainly had an impact on the Jewish community.”

Both of Russia’s chief rabbis offered their condolences Monday to Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, and daughter, Tatyana.

Mikhail Chlenov, who established Russia’s first legal Jewish group in the early years of Yeltsin’s rule, said Jews should remember Yeltsin as a great figure.

“It was his great achievement that the new Russia came to life without that evil called state anti-Semitism,” said Chlenov, president of the Va’ad of Russia.

Others credit Yeltsin for allowing Jewish life to develop freely in Russia to an extent that was hard to imagine even under his predecessor, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

With American Jewish activists marking the 40th anniversary this year of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, it is notable that meaningful Jewish emigration began under Gorbachev, but it was Yeltsin who really opened the floodgates.

“While Gorbachev made freedom of emigration a reality for Soviet Jews, it was Yeltsin who made possible an unprecedented freedom of Jewish life in the country,” Gorin said. “Jewish schools and new synagogues were opened — it was he who made the impossible possible.”

Yeltsin was much criticized for economic policies that left millions of Russians below the poverty line, but he was the “ultimate Russian president with a very Russian character,” Gorin said. “It’s no exaggeration to say we were blessed to have Yeltsin as president.”

Another leading figure of the Russian Jewish renaissance during Yeltsin’s presidency noted the fundamental changes in civil liberties and economic freedom that Yeltsin helped establish in Russia — changes that ultimately benefited Jews.

“I won’t make a direct connection between Yeltsin’s rule and Jewish life in Russia unless we take into account the maxim that the more freedom there is, the better it is for Jews,” said Alexander Osovtsov, who served as executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress from 1996 to 2000.

But Yeltsin’s legacy also was filled with controversy.

“His resignation did not mean an immediate return of the things he demolished, but I cannot consider it accidental that during his rule, many people with anti-Semitic views came to power,” Osovtsov said.

Osovtsov noted in particular Boris Mironov, an anti-Semitic publicist now on trial for hate speech who served as press minister early in Yeltsin’s tenure.

“This only underscores the controversies of this gigantic figure,” said Osovtsov, who is now a liberal opposition activist.

At the same time, some observers said that controversial policies in the second half of Yeltsin’s presidency — such as the escalating war in Chechnya and his decision to appoint a successor rather than have one elected — paved the rise to power for Vladimir Putin and the slide back toward authoritarianism that has been associated with his rule.

Yet Osovtsov said Yeltsin’s legacy cannot be underestimated, since some of the fundamental changes associated with his reign — including the end of state-sponsored anti-Semitism — have continued long after he left the office.

Chlenov agreed that Yeltsin was a controversial and even tragic figure, which has become even more evident since he stepped down in December 1999 in favor of Putin.

Yeltsin successfully fought the predominance of communist ideology, but was unsuccessful in overcoming the influence of bureaucracy and powerful apparatchiks. Many of the negative trends in Russian political and public life since his resignation are a direct result of the unfinished struggle Yeltsin led, Chlenov said.

“These are these bureaucratic circles who are taking their revenge now,” Chlenov said.

Same-sex unions roil Jews in former Soviet Union


The resignation of a longtime leader of one of the largest Reform congregations in Ukraine has thrown the spotlight on a bitter controversy over homosexuality within the post-Soviet Reform movement.
 
Boris Kapustin, 70, founder and chairman of the Reform congregation in the Crimean town of Kerch, quit his post in September.
 
While Ukrainian Reform leaders cite Kapustin’s age and health concerns as reasons for his resignation, Kapustin said his resignation stemmed from his opposition to the movement’s acceptance of same-sex commitment ceremonies.
 
“I don’t want to participate in a movement that has organized a chuppah for lesbians, which happened in Moscow this year,” Kapustin said.
 
He was referring to Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who officiated at an April 2 commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. It is believed to be the first Jewish, same-sex commitment ceremony in the former Soviet Union.
 
A strong backlash greeted the move by Shulman, who insisted she officiated at the ceremony on her own private initiative and was not backed in any way by her group, OROSIR, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in Russia.
 
In a strongly worded statement, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest stream in the former Soviet Union, urged a boycott of the Reform movement. There were also repercussions within the Progressive movement, as Reform Judaism is referred to in the region.
 
In late April, Zinovy Kogan resigned as chairman of the movement’s Moscow-based umbrella group. In August, a Reform congregation in the Ukrainian town of Pavlograd wrote to all Reform synagogues in the country, urging them to “renounce all religious contacts with the people who committed that crime,” a reference to the lesbian ceremony.
 
Responding to the wave of criticism from their communities, the six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have agreed to ban such ceremonies for the time being, saying that post-Soviet citizens, including Jews, are not yet prepared to accept the Reform movement’s liberal approach to homosexuality.
 
Homosexuality was only decriminalized after the fall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago. According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.
 
Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the Kiev-based leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, said that Reform Jews who criticize the ceremony “completely misunderstand Reform Judaism, which teaches tolerance and respect toward the choice of each and every individual.”
 
Nevertheless, when Dukhovny is approached by same-sex couples who want to arrange such a ceremony, “I tell them that neither our community nor society is ready for this.”
 
Esfir Mikhailova, recently appointed as Kapustin’s successor in Kerch, refused to speculate on this aspect of Kapustin’s resignation.
 
“At our board meeting, Kapustin told us he decided to retire because of his age and problems with health,” Mikhailova said.
 
Dukhovny praised Kapustin’s role in building a “strong congregation” in this Crimean town of 160,000.
 
The Kerch Progressive congregation, which Kapustin founded in 1997, has 1,000 members, virtually all the town’s Jews and their families. It is considered a leading light among the 70-odd Reform communities in the former Soviet Union.
 
A retired Soviet navy officer, Kapustin is credited by many local Jews with building a strong and unified Jewish community. That is a rarity in a region where Jewish life is often plagued by infighting among Chabad, non-Chabad Orthodox and Reform groups.
 
Also rare is the congregation’s monopoly over local Jewish life. Kerch is one of a handful of Reform communities anywhere in the former Soviet Union that owns its own building, a 19th century synagogue returned to the congregation as part of a government program of religious property restitution. The community restored the building and reopened it in 2001.
 
Chabad does not have a presence in the town.
 
“This is one of the largest and the best functioning, congregations in Ukraine,” said Alexander Gaydar, executive director of the Association of Progressive Jewish Congregations of Ukraine.
 
The congregation runs religious, cultural, educational and charitable programs; youth and women’s clubs; senior center; family Sunday school; Jewish museum, and theater group. Funds come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Almost everyone in the Kerch community credits Kapustin’s leadership for the congregation’s success.
 
Kapustin’s son, Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, 26, was ordained a year ago at the Leo Baeck College in London. The youngest of the six Reform rabbis in the former Soviet Union, he serves the Reform congregation in Kkarkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
 
Neither he nor Reform Jews in Kerch believe the elder Kapustin’s resignation will harm the congregation he built.
 
“Boris Kapustin has retired, but he built a good basis for the congregation, which will continue to develop,” Dukhovny said.
 

According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.

The Subbotniks: an Armenian community on the fringe of extinction


A community of rural residents in the former Soviet Union, descended from Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Mikhail Zharkov, the 76-year-old leader of Armenia’s tiny Subbotnik community, said only 13 of the 30,000 people living in his small alpine town of Sevan are Subbotniks. There are three men and 10 women, and all are nearing the age of 80.
The community in Sevan is part of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Subbotniks spread across the former Soviet Union. Zharkov, a retired welder who is wiry and full of energy, estimated that about 2,000 Subbotniks lived in Sevan during the community’s zenith in the 1930s.

Located at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Lake Sevan’s turquoise waters were seen as a vast exploitable natural resource. After Armenia became a Soviet republic in the 1930s, the lake fell victim to disastrous Soviet planning and industrial expansion.

During Soviet rule, the Subbotniks’ religious freedom, which had helped preserve their identity for almost two centuries, vanished, along with their prime waterfront real estate.

According to Zharkov, Soviet authorities confiscated the Subbotnik synagogue in the mid-1930s. It has since been privatized, and the building no longer belongs to the community.

An unknown number of Subbotniks from elsewhere in the region immigrated to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, but community members in Sevan never dreamed of leaving for Israel. In Sevan, Soviet repression, combined with Armenia’s difficult economic conditions after the fall of communism 15 years ago, tore into the fabric of the community.

“My son, who is 48, and daughter, who is 36, are in Moldova. And of course, they have been baptized,” Zharkov said. “They did it without consulting me or my wife. My daughter had to. She married a Russian Orthodox man.”

Zharkov’s family situation is mirrored in the rest of the community. Sevan’s Subbotniks have dispersed all over the former Soviet Union and offer no financial assistance to their parents, Zharkov said.

“We lead a simple life, but life has become very expensive. Without the aid of the Jewish community, we would have a very tough time,” he said. “Our pensions are meager, not even enough to cover utilities.”

The Armenian office of Hesed Avraham, a welfare center sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, periodically provides the Subbotniks with food packages.

The Subbotniks’ mysterious 19th century conversion to Judaism, strict adherence to the Torah and staunch refusal to convert back to Christianity exposed them to repression and persecution. During the rule of Czar Alexander I in the first quarter of the 19th century, Subbotniks were deported en masse to remote parts of the Russian empire.

According to Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization that reaches out to “lost Jews,” the Subbotniks are spread out in small pockets across remote corners of the former Soviet Union. Sevan’s Subbotniks do not know what part of Russia their ancestors came from or what prompted them to convert to Judaism.

“Maybe they thought it a purer form of religion,” Zharkov speculated.
Subbotniks derived their name from their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday — Subbota in Russian — rather than Sunday. Most Subbotnik communities practice circumcision, but otherwise, the Subbotniks do not differ in outward appearance from other Russian peasants.

The women wear head scarves and long skirts; the men dress in simple slacks and shirts. They do not observe kashrut or Jewish dietary laws, and their melodic Shabbat prayers, chanted in Russian, could be mistaken for Russian folksongs.
According to Gersh-Meir Burshtein, who heads a small Chabad-sponsored synagogue in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the fact that the community owned two Torah scrolls is proof that Sevan’s Subbotniks once were well-versed in Hebrew.

Some years ago, one of the old Torah scrolls was taken to the Yerevan synagogue, where it remains to this day. The other was stolen from the small community. Sevan’s Subbotniks now sing and read out of their own Torah-based Russian-language prayer book.

“Maybe at some point one of their elders realized that the community was losing its Hebrew knowledge and adapted the Torah into a Russian-language prayer book that they use now,” Burshtein said.

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