Jacob Birnbaum and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Forty years later, a look at the man and the movement that transformed American Jewry.

For all it lacked in resources and power, SSSJ compensated with commitment and energy. It had no regular budget, relying instead on three-dollar membership dues from college students, the sale of buttons and other movement material, and the occasional check from a synagogue men’s club. SSSJ’s staff, including Birnbaum and Richter, a Queens College student previously involved in the civil rights movement, received no salary. Birnbaum generally worked from his home, due to health problems, while Richter ran the office, working “part-time,” as he put it—which usually meant eight to ten hours a day. In large measure, the fate of the Soviet Jewry movement in those crucial early years depended on their dedication. Birnbaum provided the vision and the tactics and maintained contacts with community leaders and politicians, while Richter organized demonstrations, printed literature, mobilized volunteers, and updated the media about developments inside the Soviet Union.
The inner circle of SSSJ never numbered more than several dozen activists. A large portion, possibly a majority, was modern Orthodox, as were most of those who came to that first May Day protest. Other activists were drawn from Zionist youth movements. Finally, there were those whom Birnbaum called “freelancers,” students without a strong Jewish background who were drawn to the Soviet Jewry movement because of a reawakened Jewish awareness and a commitment to human rights. Perhaps a quarter of SSSJ activists had, like Richter, been involved in the civil rights movement.13 Birnbaum especially cherished the freelancers, because they proved one of his basic contentions: That SSSJ would save not only Soviet Jewry, but American Jewry—by kindling the Jewish passion of its youth. Even as many adult Jews bemoaned the widespread involvement of Jewish youth in non-Jewish causes, Birnbaum argued that the real fault lay with the Jewish community, which had failed to offer them an idealistic option. His antidote was the cause of Soviet Jewry.
Birnbaum predicted that the movement would be a training ground for American Jewry’s future leaders. He drew around him a remarkable group of young rabbis, most of whom would go on to play key roles in invigorating American Jewry. They included Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who became the theologian of post-Holocaust Jewish empowerment and founder of the interdenominational group clal; the singer and neo-hasidic teacher Shlomo Carlebach, a fixture at SSSJ rallies, who composed the anthem Am Yisrael Hai (“The Jewish People Lives”) at Birnbaum’s prompting; Arthur Green, theologian of liberal Jewish renewal; Shlomo Riskin, whose Lincoln Square Synagogue became a role model for modern Orthodox revival; Avi Weiss, prototype of the activist rabbi and later a leading proponent of the Orthodox feminist movement; and finally, Meir Kahane, whose eventual split with SSSJ would lead him to found the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Each in his way helped revitalize American Jewry, for better and sometimes for worse; all received their training as activists in the Soviet Jewry movement.

In autumn 1965, I joined SSSJ. Like many of its activists, I grew up in a Holocaust-survivor family. For me, saving Soviet Jewry meant retrieving not only the last great Jewry of Eastern Europe but also the lost honor of American Jewry, whom I blamed for failing to save my own family during the Holocaust. SSSJ offered the opportunity to resolve my inner conflict as an American Jew ashamed of American Jews. The group’s slogans, which focused on our determination not to repeat the Holocaust-era sin of silence, spoke precisely to my need: “This Time We Won’t Be Silent”; “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.” Yet the very insistence of the rhetoric revealed our anxiety. Would American Jewry really act differently now? One SSSJ button asked accusingly, “Are We the Jews of Silence?”—a pointed response to the title of Elie Wiesel’s 1966 book about Soviet Jewry, The Jews of Silence.
As I soon discovered, Birnbaum was not conventionally charismatic. After the first months of SSSJ’s existence, he almost never spoke at rallies, preferring the role of mentor as well as liaison with the Jewish establishment and, later, with Washington. Birnbaum’s magnetism came from his faith in the eternity of the Jewish people and its certain triumph over evil. He filled his sentences with “you see, you see,” imploring the listener to share his vision. Birnbaum convinced me that American Jewry would indeed mobilize, that the conscience of the world would be stirred, that Soviet Jews would retrieve their identity and courage and return to the Jewish people. As with the early civil rights movement, SSSJ was moved not by rage but by righteous indignation. Hope protected us from bitterness: Soon the world would respond to our pain. We appealed to justice—to “public opinion.” Birnbaum repeated those two words so often that they evoked for me a concrete image: A disciplined and organized force waiting, in his phrase, to be “galvanized.”
Birnbaum’s words evoked revolutionary dynamism. We were not just trying to influence Moscow and Washington but were engaged in a “thrust” to those centers of power. We were not mere activists but a “cadre” aiming to “galvanize the grassroots.” Demonstrations were not only media events but “great public manifestations” of responsibility for fellow Jews—and, no less, intimations of a borderless world in which human rights abuses would no longer be granted immunity behind an impenetrable veil of national sovereignty. Indeed, we were not a protest movement at all, but a movement of redemption.
From SSSJ’s inception, its declared goal was not to ease the plight of Soviet Jewry, as the establishment intended, but to “save” it. Birnbaum invoked the imagery of the Bible, glorifying SSSJ rallies with names like the Jericho March, the Geula (“Redemption”) March, the Exodus March. Heading the 1966 Geula March was a massive mural depicting divided waters and the words, “As the Red Sea Parted for the Israelites, So Will the Iron Curtain Part for Soviet Jews.” Whereas the Conference on Soviet Jewry spoke only of “reunification of families,” SSSJ demanded free emigration, ignoring the establishment’s fears that the utopian demand for opening the gates could compromise the seemingly more realistic goal of easing Soviet restrictions on Jewish life. Beginning with May Day 1964, Birnbaum insisted that SSSJ rallies include posters with the slogan, “Let My People Go.” He argued for summoning the redemptive force in Jewish history—a force that began with the mutual concern and responsibility Jews felt for each other. Without a daring vision, Birnbaum was saying, SSSJ’s strategy of diaspora empowerment would fail.
By the time I joined SSSJ, its initial frantic and fragile phase had ended. The organization I discovered had moved out of Birnbaum’s bedroom and actually had an office, donated by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Its rallies had made the organization an integral part of New York Jewish life. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the first prominent American Jews to call for a protest campaign, spoke at an SSSJ rally and encouraged Birnbaum’s efforts, lending the movement much-needed legitimacy.14 Nor was SSSJ alone, as it had been during its first months, in planning its demonstrations. Birnbaum had initiated the formation of the New York Jewish Youth Council for Soviet Jewry, which brought together major Jewish youth groups; the combined efforts of the council and SSSJ drew 15,000 participants to the 1966 Passover Geula March, the largest crowd until then to attend any Soviet Jewry event.15 Suddenly, it seemed that SSSJ’s dream of organizing a demonstration that would draw 100,000 Jews—the magic number we imagined would transform us into a major movement—was not so delusional after all.
Still, the gap between political reality and our redemptive vision was so great that only students and dreamers could defy it. Those were, after all, years in which the most basic facts of Soviet Jewish oppression had not yet been established. The rare media reports about Soviet Jewry usually referred to its “alleged” oppression. Even many of those who did concede the truth of our claims were not convinced that the persecution of Soviet Jewry was any worse than the Kremlin’s treatment of other religious and ethnic groups. Nor had the Zionist movement inside the USSR emerged yet, so SSSJ often seemed to be acting in a void, with no evident response from those it was trying to save.
Most painful of all was the relentless skepticism of American Jews. What proof existed, we were asked constantly, that the Soviet Union was sensitive to our protests? And even if the Soviets miraculously yielded, why assume that Soviet Jews, especially among the younger generation, even wanted to be Jewish, given the decades-long policy of enforced assimilation?

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