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Back in the USSR

Gal Beckerman recalls the Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which reinvigorated a tradition of Jewish political engagement

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A Soviet Jewry demonstration in San Francisco on Simchat Torah, 1983.(American Soviet Jewry Movement Photographs Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society)

More than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the history of discrimination against Jews there and the reprisals against those who sought to leave are a distant memory for many—as is the Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the U.S. movement that formed in response. One way the movement raised awareness of Soviet Jewry was to encourage American Jewish teens to adopt a Soviet “twin” with which they shared their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations—as journalist Gal Beckerman did at his bar mitzvah in 1989. When he wondered recently what became of his twin, Maxim Yankelevich, Beckerman’s curiosity led him to write When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, a comprehensive study of the movement. He joined Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss the movement’s beginnings, some of the key refuseniks—including Natan Sharansky—whose plight galvanized American students, and the secret role Israel played in fomenting Western sympathies for those refuseniks. 

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Helen Hill says:

Interesting account from the American perspective but it’s important to remember that active Soviet Jewry Movements existed in other counries too.
The THIRTY-FIVES in Britain was a leading group in Britain. Formed by “ordinary” London Jewish housewives with an average age of 35. Initially they had to fight the communal establishment that wanted to keep things low profile. The 35s mobilized with clever, well-planned campaigns that not only gained extensive publicity in the media that raised public awareness, but achieved real results. For example they succeeded in having imprisonment terms for indivuai “Prisoners of Zion” reduced or cancelled and their efforts also led to exit visas being issued for some Russian Jews.

This is an excellent book – meticulously researched, informative, and very well written. It is a very moving story and its lessons are still relevant.

moshe brodetzky says:

Someone should research and write a companion book a la PERFIDY by Ben Hecht about – not just things not done – but about actions by Jewish establishment ” leadership” to stop and sabotage proposals and projects by the ” grass groups”. One specific example was the PEOPLE TO PEOPLE radio program conceived by RON BLUM z’l’ and WALTER GOLMAN z’l’ of the WASHINGTON COMMITTEE for SOVIET JEWRY in 1968 They put together and recorded a sample program and outline for a year. Each program would be sponsored by a Jewish community and directed to one in USSR. The first prospective donors / founders luncheon was nixed by the “powers to be” (federations/israeli / voa )

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Back in the USSR

Gal Beckerman recalls the Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which reinvigorated a tradition of Jewish political engagement

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