Lessons from the modern Exodus of Soviet Jews

As we drink the wine, ask the questions and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt, Passover offers an opportunity to reflect on a modern Exodus, in which more than a million Soviet Jews escaped oppression.

Here are a few of those lessons, courtesy of Rabbi Hillel:

• Lesson One: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

In 1987, a sister city relationship was proposed between San Francisco and Leningrad. No deal, we said, while Leningrad Jews were imprisoned for political or religious beliefs, and not allowed to emigrate.

We were accused of blocking peace and understanding for sectarian Jewish interests.

Soviet representatives came to negotiate: How many Jews would need to be released for us to relent? Our response: all of them. We had learned our lessons from the Holocaust — no more selections. We would not collude on who shall stay and who shall go.

This single-minded, uncompromising focus on our goals, on our people’s interests, was critical. The Soviets came to understand that the benefits of détente would be held hostage so long as Soviet Jews were held hostage.

The syndrome of Jews not being for themselves, working on behalf of their notion of the greater good while neglecting Jewish interests, was present from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Hillel was right: As we were not for ourselves, no one else was either. Piece by piece, Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe was dismantled.

We had not been for ourselves, and we had paid dearly. Soviet Jewry activists broke this pattern in Russia and the West.

When the Soviet dissident movement sprang up in the late 1960s, Jews felt pressure against being too Jewish and focusing on parochial Jewish interests. This time, we learned from history.

We understood the high cost of neglecting the welfare of endangered Jews. Nowhere did the words “never again” resonate as potently as in the movement to free Soviet Jews. “It’s not often,” said San Francisco activist Harold Light, “that you get a second chance to rescue your people.”

• Lesson Two: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

“The moment I felt strong enough because of my Jewish identity to speak on behalf of my rights, I felt strong enough also to speak about the rights of other people,” said refusenik Natan Sharansky.

Jews were not the only oppressed group in the Soviet Union. We understood the Jewish movement in a broader context of people fighting for freedom and rule of law.

Dissidents were instrumental in exposing Soviet human rights abuses. As activists were rounded up and imprisoned, they found critical support from the Soviet Jewry movement. We came to understand that we could not only be for ourselves; as we relied on others, so they relied on us.

The great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov attended the trial of each Jew arrested on trumped up charges. How could we not stand up for Sakharov when his turn came?

These alliances strengthened us all — none of us could achieve success alone.

• Lesson Three: “If not now, when?”

At the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev summit in Iceland in October 1986, we called the world’s attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. And we were desperately trying to save the life of Michael Shirman.

Shirman, a Soviet émigré in Israel, had leukemia. His prospects were grim without a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Inessa. She lived in Moscow, but Soviet authorities refused to let her visit Israel for the operation that could save his life.

“I am here,” Shirman told the world, “to ask Mr. Gorbachev why he insists on killing me.”

Eventually, Inessa was released, but it was too late — Michael died the following February. The months of waiting killed him.

Michael and Inessa were emblematic of all refuseniks and separated families — forced to put their lives on hold for years. Not all made it to freedom.

Impatience was a virtue. Why wait? A sense of urgency guided us, informed by our understanding of the Holocaust, and of what could have been prevented.

Freeing more than a million Soviet Jews from a superpower seemed no less daunting than releasing 400,000 Hebrews from Pharaoh. We could not predict the consequence of our action; we could only predict the consequence of inaction — this was the most powerful lesson of all.

We now know that our letters, telegrams, rallies and vigils made a difference in freeing our people.

One of every five Jews in the Bay Area arrived here from this modern Exodus, and our community is richer for it. As we sit around our seder table retelling the story of deliverance from Egyptian slavery, appreciate this modern tale of redemption as well. With a strong hand and an outstretched arm, our people were once again rescued from oppression. And this time, we helped.

David Waksberg is the executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. He formerly was the director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews and vice president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.