January 19, 2020

Rav Avi & Soviet Jewry Activism

Demonstrations in the street, hunger strikes, political strong-arming, and countless tears of woe and grit were the hallmarks of the movement to free Jews in the Soviet Union from crushing and humiliating oppression. In an era where revolution lurked around every corner, where clarion calls for civil rights rang loud and clear, permeating the environment, the plight of Soviet Jews was an emblem for all that needed correction in civil society. Rallies for their freedom displayed humanity at a high point.

In a new memoir Open Up The Iron Door (Toby Publishing), my spiritual mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss, an early leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, recalls stories from his years as an activist on the front. As one of the leading voices of the movement, Rabbi Weiss recounts the humbling highs and crushing lows on the journey to fight for freedom. This was not an easy commitment with countless nights away from family, attacks, and threats. Rav Avi even suffered a heart attack at the activist scene where he was beaten (199).

At under 300 pages, Rabbi Weiss’ memoir is filled with dynamic images from the archives, riveting tales on emotional toils and tribulations, and reflections and teachings he culled from being on the front line of one of the most vibrant social movements of the latter half of the 20th century. Still, while the historical account is interesting and a critical aspect of the book, the lessons to be applied to future Jewish movements comprise the most thought-provoking and lasting part of the experience of reading this tome.

While embracing the crucial role of activists in the west, using hunger strikes and constant protests, the true heroes, Rav Weiss explains, were the Soviet Jews on the inside (Yosef Mendelovich, Natan Sharansky, and others) who were leading the way from within captivity. These battles could not be won by the establishment groups and their seasoned leaders. Indeed, Rav Avi reflects upon the crucial role of young leaders. “Only someone with youthful naiveté, vitality, and idealism could believe that he or she could go toe-to-toe with the powerful Soviet Union – and win.” We must learn from the wisdom of those with seasoned experience, but we must also learn how to humbly follow the young who are capable of the impossible. Today in Rav Avi’s spiritual mentorship, he does not pull others down a set path but listens deeply and empowers these young souls to honor their own authenticity and to walk down their own path.

Soviet Jewry activism was tireless and strategy was simple yet complex. Historically, Jews in the Soviet Union were in an unusual position. The state recognized them as Jews and allowed them to speak Yiddish but not Hebrew. While there were monuments to those who died in World War 2, the Jews were not mentioned in these memorials. Things came to a head after 1967, when Israel decisively defeated the Soviet allies in the Six-Day War. The victory spurred a renewed interest in the study of Hebrew and in religious texts, along with a surge in applications to emigrate to Israel. The Soviet government, for its part, embarked on an aggressively anti-Semitic campaign against Israel and largely refused to allow emigration. Those who had been rejected, the “refuseniks,” often waited a decade or more to emigrate. While they waited to leave, they were usually fired from their often prestigious positions, after which they might be subject to arrest (and even exile to Siberia) as a “parasite” if they did not accept any degrading position offered. An Amnesty International report in 1980 detailed Soviet Jews who had been jailed, including two who had been sent to a psychiatric hospital, for trying to emigrate to Israel.

Natan Sharansky, a prominent refusenik, was arrested in 1977, convicted of treason in 1978, and then sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in Siberia. He was first held in solitary confinement in Moscow, and then sent to the gulag. After a major campaign for his release, he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange. He emigrated to Israel, where he has played a prominent part in Israeli politics.

The refuseniks were greatly helped by a massive effort by a coalition of Jewish groups in America. Nationally, the movement won a victory when Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, which mandated that trade with the Soviet Union could only continue if Jews were allowed to emigrate freely (although Jews were not specifically mentioned in the agreement). While emigration was inconsistent (an initial peak of 33,000 in 1973 slowed to a trickle in the mid 1980s, and then soared to more than 330,000 in 1990-1991), about 1 million Jews have emigrated to Israel since 1970.

During the fight to free the Jews from the fetters of the Kremlin’s intransigence, American institutional establishments were complacent, and slow to act. Extremists like Rabbi Meir Kahane were eager to exploit this inaction, engaging in violence and negligently endangering the safety of young activists. Rabbi Weiss sought the middle ground: intense fervor and conflict in grassroots activism tempered by a commitment to security, nonviolence, and big-picture leadership; ultimately, his strategy was successful. He was committed to not only working with Jews of similar persuasions but also in a pluralistic framework (144).

After finishing the book, I was left with so many questions: Who has the rabbinic stamina today to see a cause to the end? What role today does the larger Jewish establishment play in relation to grassroots movements? How does social media help and hurt our work for social change? What music is animating our leadership? Comprehending the magnitude of such inquiries is crucial for future generations when we and they (sadly, but inevitably) will have our own righteous fights to wage.

Having, myself, been arrested in civil disobedience spiritual activism with Rabbi Weiss, I know what it is like to sit handcuffed in the back of a paddy wagon with this spiritual activist par excellence. It is a spiritually connected space, uplifted with melodies, where one sacrifices for the sake of the other. He has taught so many of us that to love another means to stand with them in their most trying times.

There is no better primer for fighting the good fight than this indispensable book from a true master of the art of Am Yisrael spiritual activism.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”