Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews' daily vigil in front of the Soviet Consulate, Nov. 24, 1986 (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews' daily vigil in front of the Soviet Consulate, Nov. 24, 1986 (Photo/Tom Wachs)

50 years ago, we worked to free Soviet Jews. Those lessons still apply today.

Fifty years ago, in August 1971, I made my first trip to the USSR to meet Soviet Jewish refuseniks. Despite my parents’ nervousness, I was determined to do what I could to support the courageous men and women who were on the front lines of the remarkable resistance movement to free Soviet Jews.

Like a number of friends, I was largely motivated by a feeling of deep unease regarding the weak response of the American Jewish community to the Holocaust.  We believed that the Soviet Jewry movement afforded an opportunity to demonstrate that American Jewry had learned important lessons about how to mobilize effectively to protect and free one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. We were determined to prove wrong the naysayers who claimed the Soviet government would never open the Iron Curtain.

That visit was formative, leading to my two decades of activism on behalf of Soviet Jews.

Vladimir Slepak, Boris Krasny, Mark Yampolsky, Gavriel Shapiro and Katia Palatnik (and so many other refuseniks) that my travelmate Shaul Osadchey and I met in Kiev, Moscow and Odessa inspired us with their courage and their compelling stories of risking so much simply for asserting their right to embrace their Jewish identity and to make aliyah to Israel.

When we returned home, we spread their pleas far and wide. We believed that if these people could fight for the right to live a full Jewish life despite extraordinary risks, how could we, with all the freedom we enjoyed, do less than engage fully as Jews.

Following our trip, I returned to the Bay Area to continue my studies at UC Berkeley. Outside of Washington, D.C., no city in the U.S. was more important in the movement to free Soviet Jews than San Francisco, site of the only Soviet consulate in this country.

The two organizations that led the fight — Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews (BACSJ) and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC),  whose staff I would ultimately join — recognized that the presence of a Soviet Consulate gave us a unique target for our protests.

Throughout the years, we organized hundreds of protests, including daily vigils, aimed at embarrassing the Soviet regime. We also created a lifeline, briefing dozens of Bay Area Jews who went to the USSR to meet and support refuseniks.

I write this now because I want to share lessons from the playbook that was central for saving Soviet Jews, one that included an extensive reliance on community relations — i.e. bridge-building beyond the Jewish community.

Some are critical of such bridge-building. At a time when we are witnessing a surge of antisemitism and anti-Israel activity, they question whether a community-relations approach to advocacy is too subtle.

The reality is that Jewish outreach to engage the broader community was pivotal in the fight for Soviet Jews and remains critical today.

Here are some of the lessons we learned from the movement:

Bring allies into the struggle. Soviet officials took less notice when it was just Jews protesting, and more when we were joined by non-Jews. In San Francisco, that happened because of the relationship-building by JCRC and the BACSJ.

We organized a delegation of Christian ministers and rabbis to meet with refuseniks and human-rights leaders in Leningrad and Moscow. We held interfaith Passover seders at tables set up right outside the consulate. On Simchat Torah, we brought thousands together in front of that building led by a group of rabbis carrying the Torah, with major non-Jewish leaders joining our rally cry of “let my people go.”

Almost every member of Congress adopted a refusenik family, highlighting their case. (One of the many lessons learned from the Holocaust was that we should not just talk about “millions of Soviet Jews,” but highlight individual cases, one by one by one, to make the stories compelling.)

Sustained media coverage is crucial. The media provided ongoing coverage of our demonstrations, giving them attention that the Soviet government hated. That constant coverage was because so many of the protests were creative, and we took the time to educate the media about the issue.

Relationships with law enforcement are important. When we gathered in front of the Soviet consulate, the Soviet government would protest that we were too close, “threatening them.” But JCRC’s relationships with law enforcement helped ensure we could get very close. That proximity always increased the media’s interest and the Soviets’ anger.

Create a full-court press.  For years, virtually every prominent Soviet official visiting the Bay Area was confronted by someone raising the issue of Soviet Jewry and this, of course, was reported back in Moscow. Whether it was cultural events, university visits, business conferences or any other occasion, we prepared local leaders with whom the Soviets would engage to challenge them on the subject of Soviet Jewry.

The same strategic principles apply to current advocacy efforts on behalf of the Jewish people at a time of rising antisemitism. That includes recognizing that our case is much stronger when we have friends in other communities willing to stand up for us.

There were very few detractors during the Soviet Jewry movement. Today, there is a formidable anti-Israel movement. A real concern is that if we are not out there building relationships, then those who oppose Israel and do not have our interests at heart will persuade others to turn against Israel and the Jewish community.

But we have to be strategic: Just as during the Soviet Jewry movement we needed to determine whether certain groups would make good allies or work at cross-purposes, so today must we assess which relationships will advance our security as a community as well as help build a more just society.

There is an important role for single-issue advocacy organizations to play. At the same time, we will only be successful in the long run if we build bridges with other communities, and that requires demonstrating our sincere concern for their urgent issues and standing with them in their hour of need, just as we call on them in ours.

JCRC is a force multiplier. We Jews are a tiny fraction of the population. Unless we muster allies — and, yes, alliances can be complex — we will simply be outnumbered. But the results of investing in true relationship building speak for themselves.

When Jewish students have faced antagonism on campuses, when an awful, one-sided ethnic studies curriculum was initially presented for approval by the state of California, when textbooks in the schools included problematic language about Jews, Judaism and Israel, when the BDS movement picked up steam here, when the Asian-Pacific community and the Jewish community both saw a spike in hate crimes directed against them, Jewish community relations strategies have been at the core of the initiatives developed to address each of these new trends and challenges.

It has been very fulfilling over the last several decades to see Jews from the FSU take up leadership positions in our community — from board members to philanthropists, including leadership within the JCRC.

When I started out as an activist for Soviet Jewry,  I didn’t think about the fact that one day the people we were fighting for would so greatly enrich and build our community.

But they do in so many ways and it has truly been a blessing.

That they are free, whether in Israel or America, is living testimony to their courage and how important Jewish community relations has been and will continue to be in asserting our ability as a community to defend our interests.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Doug Kahn
Rabbi Doug Kahn

Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The views expressed are his own.