April 22, 2024
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The Mayor and the Torah: David Dinkins’ Service to Soviet Jewry

It is well known that Mayor David Dinkins, who passed away at 93 earlier this week, had a complex relationship with the New York Jewish community. Serving the city during a period of racial tension including the infamous Crown Heights riots, Dinkins faced criticism for being ineffective in calming the tensions that contributed to a legacy of racial divisions in New York. Sadly that division continues to impact on how the city is perceived until this very day.

At the same time, Dinkins took a deep and caring interest in the plight of Soviet Jews in the then-communist Soviet Union, joining Jewish leaders to support and rally for their freedoms.

As we recognize his passing, I wish to share a brief personal story. While it is one that is likely completely unknown to most, it reveals a very human and indeed brave side to Dinkins, reflective of his deep respect for the Jewish faith and the Jewish people.

In May 1988, the Iron Curtain remained intact and Soviet Jewry faced severe religious persecution in their country. As part of the ongoing effort to attract international attention to the plight of our brothers and sisters in the USSR, Dinkins joined a delegation of communal and Jewish leaders to Helsinki, Finland. The goal of our delegation was to ensure that the issue of Jewish human rights would be a central part of the agenda when the U.S. President Ronald Reagan met with the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev the following week in Russia.

Our Helsinki group had the chance to have Shabbat dinner with U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, who promised to keep the matter prioritized in the upcoming summit. Indeed the next Monday, despite the consternation of the Soviet government, a meeting with refuseniks took place with the president and the secretary of state at the Spaso House, the residence of the American ambassador in Moscow.

Knowing the difficult condition of the Jewish community behind the Iron Curtain and the severe lack of resources they had, I brought along with me a Torah scroll that we planned to have smuggled into Russia. The plan was complicated and risky.

First, we needed to find a trusted courier who would be able to get it over the border without attracting suspicion. For that role, I was put in touch with a reporter who would be traveling from Helsinki into Russia as part of the U.S. president’s protective press pool. He bravely agreed that he would hide the Torah in his laundry bag with the hope that the press group traveling on Air Force One would be able to enter with little scrutiny. The Torah would be handed off at the Spaso House.

With the difficult parts of the plan arranged, I still needed to figure out how to get the scroll from my hotel into the hands of the reporter who was on the other side of the city. I would have liked to do it myself, but this proved impossible. All this was taking place on a Shabbat at a time it is prohibited to carry in the public domain and in the month of May; as anyone who lives in far northern parts of the world can attest, day only turns into night at that time of the year well after midnight (1:18 a.m.). As a result, Shabbat would only be over long after the press delegation was already scheduled to depart, and with it my chances of getting the Torah into the Soviet Union.

And here is where Dinkins came into the picture. After New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams and I told him the challenge, Dinkins quickly volunteered to personally bring the Torah from our hotel to the reporter. There was certainly an element of risk involved if it was uncovered that a leading American public figure was working to circumvent Soviet restrictions. But he apparently recognized the humanity and symbolism behind this act and eagerly accepted the responsibility.

And so, as a result of the selfless actions of an African-American mayor together with a still-anonymous reporter, we were able to contribute to further strengthening and supporting the Jewish community behind the Iron Curtain.

This is certainly a story that has remained largely unknown until now, and I don’t know if Dinkins ever shared it with others.

And while there are certainly larger parts of his legacy which will be discussed, I feel it is important that people know about this brief yet heroic episode of personal courage and sensitivity to the plight of the Jewish people. The story of the mayor and the Torah scroll.


Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander lives in Jerusalem and is the president of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of educational institutions.

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