Soviet Jewry movement celebrates 40th anniversary

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John Rothmann still can’t tell the story without choking up.

In 1967, he traveled to the Soviet Union, a cocky 20-year-old on a bad-will trip to the Evil Empire. To ensure that the ubiquitous KGB goons knew exactly who and what he was, Rothmann donned a bright blue yarmulke and wore an in-your-face Magen David around his neck.

On his first day in Leningrad, a middle-aged man nervously approached him. “You are a Jew?” he asked.

“I said yes,” Rothmann recalls. “He said, ‘Have you been to Israel?’ Again, I said yes.

“Then he asked, ‘Do you have something from Israel?’ I took out of my pocket a keychain with a coin that had a picture of Moshe Dayan. He put it to his lips and said, ‘One day I will be in Israel.'”

Rothmann, a popular host on San Francisco’s KGO radio station, pauses to collect himself. Memories of the days when he and many others stood in solidarity with Soviet Jews remain fresh.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the worldwide Soviet Jewry movement, a tidal wave of people-powered activism that led to the largest Jewish exodus in history — more than 1 million — and heralded the emergence of a strong, independent American Jewry willing to speak out for its oppressed brethren around the world.

Haunted by the memories of American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust and emboldened by Israel’s triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War, American Jewish activists vowed never again to ignore Jews in danger.

While many of the first activists came from modern Orthodox circles, they were soon joined by other young Jews, fresh from civil rights and anti-war actions and ready to embrace a Jewish cause. The alliances set the tone for many of the Jewish and Israel-oriented organizations of the 1970s and ’80s.

Like many other movements of the late 1960s and early ’70s, San Francisco was a hub of effective protest. The city served as the stage for nonstop rallies, vigils, street theater and protest, much of it in front of the Soviet consulate in posh Pacific Heights.

Locally, the movement took off with the founding of the Bay Area Council of Soviet Jewry. Harold Light, Sidney Kluger, Rabbi Morris Hershman and Edward and Rose Tamler get much of the credit, with Light taking the role of visionary-in-chief.

“There are no words to express the inspiration and leadership [Light] offered,” Rothmann said. “After his own trip to Russia, he threw himself wholeheartedly for the rest of his life into the struggle to free Soviet Jews.”

Light and the council set to work organizing, advertising and agitating. But movement activists agree the council’s coming-out party took place in September 1969 at Stern Grove. That event drew thousands and put the plight of Soviet Jews on the media map.

U.C. Berkeley student Doug Kahn was among the throng. Kahn didn’t know much then about Soviet Jewry, but as a committed Jew, he connected with the passion coming from the speaker’s podium.

“I remember being amazed by the turnout,” said Kahn, who went on to become a rabbi and now serves as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in San Francisco. “This was a real opportunity to respond to a movement of Jewish resistance and to the oppression of millions of Jews.”

Kahn happily signed on to the effort. In 1971 he traveled to the U.S.S.R. to meet with refuseniks (Jews who were denied exit visas by the Soviet government) in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa.

He remembers every moment of that trip.

“Everyone who met with the refuseniks became activists for Soviet Jewry,” Kahn says. “We were so inspired by their courage. We knew the worst that could happen to us is that we would be kicked out (of the U.S.S.R). The worst for them would be the gulag for years. They felt we provided them a greater level of protection.”

Back at Berkeley, Kahn founded an East Bay chapter of the Bay Area Council. One of his first projects was weekly phone calls to refuseniks. The Soviets often jammed the lines, and charges exceeded $4 a minute. But those calls did more to personalize the struggle for Kahn and his comrades than anything else.

“It was never just about freeing 3 to 4 million Soviet Jews,” he says. “It was about freeing Boris Einbinder and Vladamir Slepak and Ira Nudel, one by one, until each got out.”

Through those weekly calls (which Kahn ran through a loudspeaker so fellow students could listen), he learned the latest news: who had been arrested, who had been denied permission to leave. “These were very powerful exchanges because it brought people right into a modern Jewish resistance movement.”

Protest was a big part of the strategy. When Kahn learned that the mayor of Moscow was coming to the Berkeley campus, he got busy. As the mayor dined at the chancellor’s home, scores of demonstrators encircled the house. “The principle was that no Soviet official could go anywhere in the world without escaping the message,” he said.

Other key agencies, among them the Jewish federations and the JCRC, joined in.

Earl Raab, a former executive director of the JCRC, organized the first local rally on behalf of Soviet Jews in the mid-1950s. “Nothing came of it,” he remembers. “The lid was tight in the Soviet Union, the Cold War was on and the U.S. had no leverage. And nobody had heard much from the Soviet Jews themselves.”

But once Soviet Jews went public with their plight, the organizations stood ready to help. At first, Raab said, some in American Jewish organizations worried that protesting might make life worse for the Soviets. “But this is what the Jews wanted in the Soviet Union,” Raab said. “We had to take their word for it. If they were willing to go out in the streets, then so were we.”

Raab joined the council in a common goal: to “embarrass” the Soviet Union. This was done in the streets and behind the scenes.

“The JCRC did what it does best,” Raab explained. “We had regular contacts with congressmen and other politicians in the area, to get the U.S. to put pressure on the Soviets and also to get the U.S. to open its gates.”

Rothmann, who served as president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews from 1985 to 1989, gives Raab credit for bringing together disparate Bay Area Jewish groups, some with competing or conflicting agendas, so that all ultimately spoke with one voice.

“What he did was a model that proved such a success that here in San Francisco we were as one, unlike some communities where there was a war between the establishment and the activists,” Rothmann said. “He stood steadfast, even though there were people who were furious at him.”

The movement suffered a blow with the sudden death of Hal Light in 1974. He did not live to see the triumph of the campaign he had started. “You can’t give enough credit to Hal Light,” Raab says. “He was a fireball.”

During the height of the movement hardly a day went by without at least a quiet vigil — it was called the daily vigil — in front of the Soviet consulate at 2790 Green St. Often things got crowded and noisy.

“Every single day there was a presence,” Rothmann affirmed. “I emceed almost every rally for the two decades we were involved there.”

Each year, activists saved their biggest rally for Simchat Torah, which follows Sukkot and marks the completion of the year’s Torah reading. Why that holiday? In “The Jews of Silence,” author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote about how Jews danced in front of the Moscow Synagogue on Simchat Torah.

Some events took on a theatrical flair. In one 1973 rally in front of San Francisco’s City Hall, protestor Robert Hirsch dressed as Josef Stalin. On Aug. 31, 1985, Rothmann and others led a large funeral procession, carrying a coffin up Green Street to mourn the “late” Helsinki Accords, the human rights document signed by the U.S.S.R. and promptly ignored.

Over the years, the movement won some and lost some.

On the bright side, Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Reform Act of 1974, linking Most Favored Nations status, which the Soviets coveted, to the easing of emigration policy. Initially emigration spiked. The peak came in 1979 when 51,320 Jews were allowed to leave.

A few years later, the Soviets lowered the boom, and for most of the 1980s, emigration slowed to a trickle.

In 1981, the movement got another leader: David Waksberg. A young veteran of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry on the East Coast, Waksberg moved to the Bay Area and quickly began working with the council. After then-director Regina Waldman stepped down for maternity leave, Waksberg took over as director.

During his tenure, the council operated on multiple fronts, from back-channel diplomacy to all-out guerrilla theater. Sometimes Waksberg himself played a starring role.

In May 1983, he and his new bride, Ellen Bob, now co-owner of bob and bob in Los Altos, stood under a chuppah at Union Square. They volunteered as stand-ins for Yuri and Olga Tarnopolsky, a Moscow refusenik couple deprived of the right to have a Jewish wedding.

“We got a lot of media,” he remembers. “[Yuri Tarnopolsky] later came to San Francisco, and we showed him where we did it.”

Waksberg says the council’s work rested on several pillars: direct financial, technical and religious aid to Soviet Jews; political advocacy to apply governmental pressure; public advocacy; and moral support, which included vigils, petitions and the like.

“The thing to remember is we were a support movement,” he said. “We had partners in the Soviet Union, and we consulted with them all the time. They were the most forthright about encouraging us to persist, to be louder and more assertive, to be uninhibited and not to worry. They were the ones on the front lines, not us.”

Non-Jews were also attracted to the struggle. Greg Smith, raised Catholic, came to the Bay Area in 1970 to manage the Jewish senior housing facility Menorah Park. As he got to know Russian Jews there, he found himself drawn to the plight of their families in the homeland.

“They couldn’t see their parents, their children,” he said. “They needed family and this was denied to them. It seemed so wrong, so painful.”

Smith became a vice president of the Bay Area Council, and stayed for years. “These were people who truly wanted to change the world and had a good shot at doing so. Everyone wants to be part of something larger than themselves, and for our group that was our time.”

One of the more stunning aspects of the movement was its audacity. In the 1970s and for most of the ’80s, no one could have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. It stood as an implacable, nuclear-armed bulwark of socialism, as unlikely to crumble as the sun or moon.

“I don’t think any of us believed that the Soviet Union would change that quickly,” Smith said. “We saw the worst of the society. We saw the KGB engage in tremendous means of control over the population there. We saw the power of the oppressive nature.”

Rothmann saw it, too, but never felt intimidated.

“I never cared about [the Soviets],” he says. “I cared about our people. Our activism took place in the shadow of the Holocaust, which was not a distant memory. The survivors still had children in high school and college. So when we stood there, it was a statement of what should have happened 30 years earlier in front of the German consulate.”

In January 1983, near the nadir of emigration — only 1,315 Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union that year — the council staged its most memorable piece of political theater: the Sharansky Tribunal, a mock trial investigating charges against the most famous refusenik of all, Anatoly “Natan” Sharansky.

Players included Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, Irwin Cotler of McGill University representing Sharansky, and Stanley Mosk of the California Supreme Court presiding as judge.

The Soviet Union stood in the dock, and was found guilty of illegal detention and imprisonment.

Sharansky languished in prison for three more years before finally walking across a bridge from East to West Germany, and to ultimate freedom in Israel.

A year after that, as Sharansky basked in worldwide celebrity, Rothmann found himself at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on his way to a Soviet Jewry conference in Washington, D.C. Whom should he see standing alone near the gate but Sharansky, also headed to the conference.

Rothmann greeted his hero, and when a snowstorm prevented them from flying, the two took the train together to Washington. “We had a wonderful time,” Rothmann recalled. “It was a snowy day. He looked out and said, ‘You know the difference between here and Russia? Here there is no barbed wire.'”

A month later, the two met again in front of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco, at the largest rally the council ever staged. Thousands cheered Sharansky, the guest of honor. “It was not a protest. It was a celebration. We won,” Rothmann said.

Arrests also were part of the experience. In May 1985, several local rabbis, among them Sheldon Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth, chained themselves to the consulate gates. Rothmann was there and remembers the SFPD officer saying, “If I didn’t have to arrest you, I would chain myself, too.”

In particular, Kahn remembers the Simchat Torah rally of 1987. As always, a group of protesters would ring the doorbell of the consulate. Usually no one would answer; sometimes the police would be called out. “To our utter disbelief, the door opened and the delegation was allowed in. The Soviet consul yelled at us,” he said.

“In 1988 we repeated the same thing, and they let the delegation in. [The consul general] said, ‘I understand you’re fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews.’ The tone had completely changed. We were now in the era of glasnost. The last few years, the event was held inside the Soviet consulate.”

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and in 1990, as Gorbachev-era reforms took hold, the Soviet Union opened the gates. That year more than 213,000 Jews emigrated, refused no more. In 1991, 178,000 Jews left.

In December 1991, as an astonished world looked on, the Soviet Union officially dissolved.

Having achieved total victory, the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews shifted focus, becoming the Bay Area Council for Rescue and Renewal.

Last year the agency became the Climate of Trust Council, for which Smith serves as treasurer. Its new mission is promoting tolerance and combating anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.

Working in the movement had long-term repercussions for the individual participants and for the broader Jewish community.

“One of the lessons is that grassroots movements, dissident movements, are important for the mainstream,” Raab said. “They push the mainstream community.

“Early on, there was this question: Why do you have any sense of optimism that the Soviets would open the door to the Iron Curtain?” added Kahn. “What I say today is, this is the reason why we always have to take on these great causes. Because here we see a great victory was achieved, only because of the courage of the Soviet Jews and the response of world Jewry and Israel.”

Rothmann never lost his firebrand spirit. He remains an ardent advocate for Israel, ready to agitate for the rights of Jews. He learned it as a young man, standing on Green Street shouting, “Let my people go!”

“We responded to this with perhaps greater passion, clarity of purpose and determination than to any other issue,” he said. “No matter how great the injustice, you can fight back. You can win.”

They let my people go!

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.