July 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The American Struggle for a Soviet Jewry Needs to Be Taught

I strongly back and agree with the assessment of Rav Elie Mischel last week regarding the lack of knowledge of the Soviet Jewry movement, particularly the American side to it (“College Students, Housewives and the Future of Our People,” November 30, 2023). After going through 12 years of Orthodox Jewish education (class of 2015) plus a year in Israel, I had never heard of this movement, despite it happening just 30 years prior. I only learned of it when I happened to start reading books on recent Jewish history during Covid.

Sure, I knew that being Jewish in Russia was not “desirable” – but that’s about it, and most of the stories I heard in school were told offhand about pogroms from a century or two ago, not the more modern struggle. I certainly had no clue that Jews were marching, rallying, and demonstrating all over the country for years for the freedom of their fellow Jews in the Soviet Union. Reading about it was almost surreal; I remember wondering why I had never heard of this quite recent, enormous movement. How could this have happened just 30-40 years ago when I’d basically never seen anybody from my community organize anything remotely similar for any of the issues we currently faced?

As Rav Mischel says, Holocaust education is very important. However, in all my schooling we had numerous Holocaust programs, speakers, classes, movies and books dedicated to the Holocaust every year, and it was probably brought up in a class almost every day. I remember the entire 11th grade being assigned to read “Out of the Depth,” a book I now know is outstanding but I just didn’t read it then because I was so bombarded with this topic every day that I didn’t think I needed to read even more about it. I don’t think anything will be lost if just a little of this Holocaust programming could be replaced with other recent, very important Jewish historical events that happened after 1948. While there’s lots of Jewish history to learn about, the Soviet Jewry movement had such a huge presence in America, where we live, and it would be such a tragedy for it to be forgotten.

It’s also incredibly relevant to our current state of affairs. I hear many Jews saying in response to the mass number of Hamas protests that way outnumber the amount of pro-Israel protests that “Jews fight with our brains, lawsuits, financial resources, not in the streets.” But the Soviet Jewry movement shows that this is not true.. We absolutely can and should be doing both. A noticeable big difference between our struggle now and the Soviet Jewry movement is that in the past, the effective protests were all grassroots and attended by students, while the “Establishment” didn’t help much. Now it’s the opposite: the Jewish Federation spent significant funds to get people to enormous rallies, and students and young people came when their schools made a field trip out of it, but there needs to be more than that. We can’t just have one giant rally at DC every 20 years. Our actions cannot be limited to fundraising and sending food in duffel bags. We need an active and consistent physical presence and demonstrations. They don’t need to be huge, but they need to happen.

If anybody is interested in learning about the American Soviet Jewry movement, I highly recommend utilizing the vast amount of online resources we have and/or reading any of the following: “When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone” by Gal Beckerman, “Open Up The Iron Door” by Avi Weiss, and “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist” by Yossi Klein-Halevi.

Meir Brodsky
Teaneck

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