“Life is full of tears of joy and tears of despair. Life is not made of years but of moments” – Elie Wiesel
Just as Martin Luther King demonstrated on the National Mall in 1963 for a cause he firmly believed in, so too did 250,000 people demonstrate on December 6, 1987 for the support of Soviet Jewry. The issue: Jews throughout the Soviet Union were living under anti-religious, anti-Semitic and Communist oppression and were denied the ability to emigrate. They were hunted down by the KGB for even the slightest detection of religious practice. Possessing scant knowledge of Jewish history, customs and holidays, many of them either assimilated or converted. Those that chose to fight, however subtle it may have been, were called refusniks and were often convicted of treason and sentenced to long and harsh prison sentences in Siberia.
Perhaps the most famous refusnik, Natan Sharansky,was sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp for teaching Hebrew to students. While he was frequently held in solitary confinement and in a special “torture cell,” Sharansky became the first political prisoner released by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, thanks to intense political pressure from Ronald Reagan and the Jewish community in the United States.
This December we mark the 25th anniversary of the largest active protest on behalf of the Jewish community in American history. It was protests like these that helped end the Soviet oppression just a few months later.
Yet the passage of time diminishes the reality of history, making it belong to ‘those’ people, in another age, epoch, and place. This is a phenomenon that the Jewish community desperately hopes to avoid. As the last of Holocaust survivors die off, it is up to future generations to remember such tragic and important events as if they experienced them.
As such, about 20 students from Beth Tfiloh’s senior class headed down to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. Few had ever heard of the issue of Soviet Jewry until we were inspired by the stories and open dialogue of Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky. Their leadership among the Jewish community and their dedication to our history is truly admirable.
Students like Marisa K., class of ’13, shared in Wiesel’s sentiment regarding the historical illiteracy of young people. “I was appalled to learn that such an event had never been made known to me and my peers. We definitely need to do a better job as a community to make sure that our history is never forgotten.”
In response, Rabbi Frank is coordinating a significant program this winter dedicated to understanding the Soviet Jewry movement.
Regardless, the American Jewish community in the 80s and 90s protested vociferously. According to senior Josh L., their actions were truly commendable.
“Political advocacy in response to the Soviet Jewry crisis yielded tangible results. From this, I learned that we must actively pursue justice rather than passively acquiesce in the status quo.”
As an overall conclusion on the hour long conversation Tali V. ’13 had this to say, “It was incredible to witness Wiesel and Sharansky, two men from different generations of savage anti-Semitism involving Jewish concentration camps and gulags, sitting together and conversing in today’s society of Jewish freedom and power.”
While the dialogue between Sharansky and Wiesel was certainly the main event at the General Assembly, seniors got chances to see the inner workings of the North American Jewish community by listening to unique speakers that spoke about issues such as: Israel and the Media: Tools for Effective Communication; Investing in Israel and Improving Results; and, Israel’s Haredi Community Today.
Economics student Elliott S. ’13 was very impressed with the session about investing in Israel for its information and open dialogue between the audience and the presenter. “As I intend to study economics in college next year it was very mind opening to learn that Israel’s market is a great opportunity for American companies.”
During lunch, the delegates from Beth Tfiloh sat with staff and lay leaders from The Associated and helped the community by writing letters to American soldiers returning home for the holidays and by making blankets for poor and needy children. “Very seldom do I get to have a direct impact on the Jewish community as I do at the General Assembly. I can make blankets for the poor and yet I can sign up to learn more about other issues from so many other organizations as well. It’s truly a once in a lifetime experience,” commented Yuval M. ’13.
In addition, the break gave students a chance to chat with members of dozens of organizations and learn about the services many of these groups provide. The students thoroughly enjoyed getting free souvenirs, whether a Theodore Herzl mug provided by the World Zionist Organization, a free t-shirt courtesy of the JFNA, popcorn, jelly beans, free newspapers from the Jerusalem Post and even massages. According to Jordan S. ’13, who went with his local National Conference of Synagogue Youth group (NCSY), “Like AIPAC, this was a great opportunity to meet Jews and supporters of Jewish causes from around the world and build a meaningful relationship with them.”