Saga may help US Jews to unite in protest again

Once heroes of US Jewry, Soviet Refuseniks are largely forgotten. Not for long

Anat Zalmanson-Kutznetsov, whose parents tried to hijack a plane to escape the Iron Curtain, launches educational initiative focused on unique bipartisan campaign to free USSR Jews

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • A 1960s Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry protest. (Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry Collection)
    A 1960s Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry protest. (Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry Collection)
  • Women refuseniks and their children, Moscow, Ovrazhki, 1979. (Courtesy of Remember & Save)
    Women refuseniks and their children, Moscow, Ovrazhki, 1979. (Courtesy of Remember & Save)
  • From Morey Schapira's collection of memorabilia from the Struggle for Soviet Jewry. (Sam Berzin)
    From Morey Schapira's collection of memorabilia from the Struggle for Soviet Jewry. (Sam Berzin)
  • Rabbis at a Union of Councils for Soviet Jews sit-in. (Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)
    Rabbis at a Union of Councils for Soviet Jews sit-in. (Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)

On tour with her film “Operation Wedding,” about her parents’ failed attempt in 1970 to hijack an empty plane to escape the Soviet Union for Israel, Israeli filmmaker Anat Zalmanson-Kutznetsov noticed that teenagers regularly came up to her after screenings. They told her they hadn’t known about the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and wanted to know more.

The struggle was a seismic event in 20th century Jewish history, and one of the most remarkable victories for human rights ever. For two decades — from the 1960s through the early 1990s — a generation of mainly American Jews worked tenaciously to free their fellow Jews from the iron grip of the USSR. Yet if you were to ask a young Jew today about this hard-won success in ultimately opening the gates for 2 million Soviet Jews to emigrate for Israel and other countries, they would likely give you a blank stare.

“I realized that after I finished my documentary, my job was not done,” Zalmanson-Kuznetsov told The Times of Israel.

In recent decades, the struggle for Soviet Jewry has for the most part been forgotten, rarely making it into the curriculums of Jewish day and synagogue schools, camps and youth groups. The movement to free Soviet Jewry was itself more one of activism than education. Therefore, once the battle had been won, the topic fell off the radar of Jewish educational institutions.

“It needs to be put back on the educational agenda,” said David Waksberg, who was active in the struggle from 1981 to 1995 as executive director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews and vice president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

The majority of Soviet Jews left their native land and settled primarily in Israel (more than a million moved to the Jewish state between 1990 and 2015), the US, and Germany. Life has moved on for these emigrés, and American Jews have failed to keep the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the spotlight. Nonetheless, there are those like Waksberg who believe that this chapter of American Jewish history, with its testament to the power of peaceful protest and political lobbying, must be passed on to future generations.

Women refuseniks and their children, Moscow, Ovrazhki, 1979. (Courtesy of Remember & Save)

Likewise, there is much to be learned from the spiritual, mental and moral strength of the Refuseniks, the Soviet Jews in the vanguard of the dangerous efforts to leave the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. While many wished to emigrate, it was Refuseniks (also known as Prisoners of Zion) such as Sylva Zalmanson and Eduard Kuznetsov who actually applied for exit visas, and thus suffered harsh consequences for simply making the request and wanting to live freely as Jews.

Shofar of freedom for Soviet Jewry demonstration, USA, 1979. (Courtesy of Remember & Save )

Spurred on by the response of young people to her film, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov brought together a small group of individuals and institutions in Israel and the US to create The Refusenik Project, a new initiative promoting education about the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Hosted on the website of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University, the project provides free, ready-to-use lesson plans and resources for teachers, youth group leaders and others to implement with students from elementary through high school ages. The interactive lessons (currently in English only) cover a wide range of topics, including Jewish identity, activism, individual and communal agency, and Soviet Jewish history.

Bob Hirsch dressed up as Stalin at a demonstration of Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews. (Courtesy of Karen Hirsch and Gina Waldman)

Jewish LearningWorks, the central organization for Jewish education in the San Francisco Bay Area, is helping to promote awareness and use of The Refusenik Project’s resources by serving as the fiscal agent for a grant giveaway to educators who use the project’s lesson plans. To be considered for a grant, educators are required to use a minimum of one of the approximately 30 available lesson plans.

The 39-year-old filmmaker fundraised from personal contacts and foundations and partnered with the Lookstein Center, which devoted staff and resources to research, development of curricular materials, technical support, and promotion.

“It really bothered me that there wasn’t something up-to-date out there for educators to use. There also is little, if any, historical fiction on the subject either,” said Lookstein Center executive director Chana German.

“We recognize that teachers are always having to prioritize, and that this will not be central. Nonetheless, we want teachers to find a place for this, and to give them the tools to teach it properly. The project is meant to be a go-to resource on this subject and we expect to see its impact over time,” she said.

Morey Schapira addresses rally in front of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco. (Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)

Retired Silicon Valley hi-tech executive Morey Schapira signed on to assist with fundraising and public relations to keep The Refusenik Project and any future related efforts going. Schapira joined the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in 1969 while attending Case Western Reserve University. He remained involved as a leader in the movement — including as national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry from 1984 to 1986 — until the Iron Curtain finally collapsed.

“The years I served as national president were the darkest years, when they were only letting out 1,000 people. We chained ourselves to the fences of Soviet consulates and embassies. Rabbis were being arrested,” Schapira said.

Schapira said it would be a loss for younger generations not to learn and pass on the positive lessons of the struggle for Soviet Jewry. According to Schapira, the concept of unity permeated the movement.

Rabbis at a Union of Councils for Soviet Jews sit-in. (Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)

“Jews and rabbinical leadership from all the streams worked together, there was bipartisan support from American politicians, and sincere and righteous gentiles who saw this as a human rights issue worked with us,” he said.

“It was the height of American Jews’ sense of empowerment as American Jews,” said Dr. Shaul Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University.

Kelner, who is writing a book on how activism for Soviet Jewry shaped American Jewish culture from the 1960s to the 1980s, said the movement taught American Jews to stand up for themselves and for others, and to do it effectively.

From Morey Schapira’s collection of memorabilia from the Struggle for Soviet Jewry. (Sam Berzin)

Citing examples such as b’nei mitzvah twinning programs, freedom seders, and tourism to the USSR to visit Refuseniks and secretly bring them religious items and Hebrew materials, Kelner said the movement mobilized all parts of the American Jewish community — entering homes, lifecycle events, and leisure time.

“American Jews stood up against the governments of the USSR, Israel and the US in this struggle. They used a lot of strategies that can inspire activists today,” Kelner said.

1985 Congressional Briefing by Union of Councils for Soviet Jews with photos of Republican congressman Jack Kemp and Democratic senator Edward Kennedy demonstrating bipartisan support for the issue. (Courtesy of Morey Schapira)

Waksberg, Jewish LearningWorks executive director, noted that young Jews can take a cue from how Jewish learning helped build up the resilience — and even happiness — of the Soviet Jews who faced oppression.

“Getting involved Jewishly — be it through tradition, religion, culture, or language — is what helped them keep going. To them, it was worth all the risk and struggle to reclaim the part of them that had been taken away,” Waksberg said.

In addition, with anti-Semitism on the rise today, Jews can look to the Refuseniks, who dealt with the phenomenon in the face of even more overwhelming odds, for inspiration and instruction.

Waksberg also pointed out that at the time of the struggle, American Jewry also gained from their own efforts on behalf of their Soviet brethren.

“American Jews got as much out of it as they put into it. Their own sense of Jewish identity and pride was deeply and positively affected. They were inspired by what the Soviet Jews were doing, and by their own activism,” Waksberg said.

According to Kelner, the struggle for Soviet Jewry was a victim of its own success. It shaped American Jewish culture and caused American Jews to understand the meaning of Jewish peoplehood. But once the struggle was won, the benefits accrued largely disappeared.

Rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington, DC (Courtesy of Morey Schapira)

“I worry that American Jews don’t take themselves seriously enough as political and historical forces. This could be the reason why the struggle and its central actors — American Jews themselves — have been forgotten,” Kelner said.

As the daughter of Refuseniks who carried out the incredibly risky and brave act that kicked the struggle for Soviet Jews into high gear in 1970, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov comes at the issue from another angle. Yet for her, all aspects of the movement are important and are what motivated her to work so hard to make The Refusenik Project a reality.

“The stories of the struggle are so fascinating, and I was looking for a way to tell them,” she said.

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