On Friday, December 7th, the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva ("RPRY”) held a special assembly in its Study Hall, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry, which took place in Washington, D.C. on December 6, 1987.
At the assembly, speakers discussed the plight of Russian Jewry over the past few decades, the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry and the lessons learned from it. The speakers were introduced by RPRY Principal Rabbi Shraga Gross.
The first speaker Dr. Jay Blum, a doctor in Highland Park, NJ, was a leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. As the leader of the Jewish Student Union of Philadelphia, he organized a Freedom Bus for Soviet Jewry that visited 33 American cities in 1971. In addition to discussing his role as a Soviet Jewry activist, he explained that Soviet Jews lived without the ability to practice Judaism and the plight of refuseniks. The term Refusenik is used to describe Jews that the authorities of the Soviet Union refused to allow to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
The next speaker was Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg. He now serves as the Director of Jewish Career Development and Placement for Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, NJ. In the 1980s, he helped lead Soviet Jewry demonstrations while serving as associate rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rabbi Schwarzberg spoke being an activist for Soviet Jewry and the importance of being involved and taking a stand.
Then Dmitry Chizhik, a well-published electrical engineer, who works at the Wireless Research Laboratory at Bell Laboratories, Alcatel-Lucent in Holmdel, New Jersey spoke. Mr. Chizhik emigrated from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, and detailed some of his experiences in Soviet Russia, as a native of Kiev.
Avital Chizhik, Dmitry’s daughter, a graduate of RPRY, and a journalist, whose writing has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review, Tablet Magazine, and Haaretz discussed growing up in America as a child of Soviet emigrants. Avital explained that as a child she “took her parents’ and grandparents’ stories for granted.” She explained that she “didn’t realize how extraordinary my families’ stories may have been.” She didn’t think of her family’s story in terms of them leaving the evil Soviet Union, leaving everything behind, through Vienna, through Rome and to New York.
But as she grew older she began to think differently about her background, and she stopped taking for granted the stories her family told her and she started writing down the information that her parents and grandparents shared with her. She told a few stories that she had learned about her family.
One story involved her great-great-grandfather, a journalist in the 1930s in Ukraine, who was accused of being a Zionist and “disappeared" in 1937, meaning he was arrested by the secret police and no one ever saw him again. Her family was told that he was sent to a labor camp. Later on, the family learned that he was shot a week after he “disappeared.”
In the Soviet Union, no information could be brought in to the country or sent out. Thus, American Jews and Israelis had to be creative how to bring things to their brethren. Avital discussed how the Israeli government sent Israelisu undercover to stand on street corners in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev in the 1960s. Those undercover would look around to see if people walking by them looked Jewish by face. If they thought someone looked Jewish they would hand them a tiny book, which by its cover did not look like it had anything to do with Judaism. Those tiny books that were handed out actually contained information regarding the Jewish holidays, a Jewish history timeline, prayers, and information about Judaism. As far as the Soviets were concerned the past of the Soviet Jews were to be erased, and for many Soviet Jews that was the case – they did not know of their history. Those tiny books were the only connection that some Soviet Jews had about their true identity, their history and religion.
Another story involved how Soviet Jews smuggled information out of the Soviet Union. At a certain point the only way for Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel was to be sponsored by someone living in Israel who would officially sponsor and house them in Israel. For the most part, Soviet Jews didn’t know their brethren in the State of Israel. Those who were blessed to be able to be sponsored by Jews in Israel worked to smuggle names and addresses of Soviet Jews who wanted to leave for Israel so that the Israeli government would then officially invite those Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. However, if one trying to smuggle such information out was caught doing so by the Soviet authorities not only would the information be confiscated but the one trying to smuggle information out would be denied permission to leave the Soviet Union. Before Avital’s grandfather left the Soviet Union, he took the elastic band from his underwear and wrote down as many names and addresses of Jewish families who were being left behind. He then took the elastic band and sewed it back on to his underwear, and that is how he left the Soviet Union with information on his person about those who wanted to emigrate.
She also told a sad story of a refusenik, who was exiled to a part of Russia where her mother’s family lived and he became friends with the family. When her mother’s family got permission to leave the Soviet Union, he turned to them and said, “Don’t worry, soon we will be sipping coffee in Jerusalem.” Avital explained that her family ended up in Brooklyn, and the refusenik never ended up seeing Jerusalem, as he died in a Soviet Union prison seven years later. She explained that when she goes to Israel in a few weeks she knows that when she buys coffee in Jerusalem she will think about her family’s friend and the many Soviet Jews who never were able to see Israel.
She concluded her remarks by encouraging the RPRY students to “Realize that what may seem ordinary – is not ordinary but extraordinary,” and that it is “a miracle that Soviet Jewish children are learning Torah” today, as there was no such thing as teachers, rabbis, Torah, Israel or G-d” in the Soviet Union. She referred to the freedom that Soviet Jews obtained with the hard work of catalysts for change, like Dr. Blum and Rabbi Schwarzberg, as a modern day Chanukah miracle. She pointed out that there are historians who have written that the beginning of the crumbling of the Soviet Union was brought about by a bunch of students and housewives in America who were able to help topple the Soviet dictatorship because they were willing to speak out and stand up to fight for the freedom of Soviet Jews. Finally, she urged the students to stand up and be involved, as Rabbi Schwarzberg had said, and to celebrate the miracle of Chanukah from the time of the Maccabees and the modern day miracle of the freedom of Soviet Jewry.