I was a 19 year-old UC Berkeley sophomore when I first became involved with the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry. It was 1969 and in the middle of a very harsh era for the Jews of the Soviet Union. For the crime of identifying publicly as Jews, learning Hebrew in small groups in private homes and for applying to immigrate to the State of Israel, Jews were fired from their jobs, expelled from universities, arrested, charged with treason, tried, convicted, and imprisoned.
Many of us had become activists after reading Elie Wiesel’s The Jews of Silence. For me, the arrest of 11 Leningrad Jews at the airport as they attempted to hijack a plane out of the country drew me in. The leader was given the death penalty (later commuted because of world-wide reaction) and the others long prison sentences of hard labor in Siberia. The courage of these and many more people was extraordinary and an inspiration.
We in the west protested, marched, disrupted Soviet cultural events, painted “Let My People Go” on the side of docked Soviet vessels, agitated the established Jewish community to take this issue on publicly, and lobbied our Senators and Congressional Representatives urging them to pass the Jackson-Vanik Amendment tying favorite nation status with the USSR to open immigration policies for Jews wishing to leave.
I offer this remembrance as a preamble for your viewing the YouTube below. It shows thousands of Russian Jews singing openly in a concert led by a male Jewish choral group of 10 voices with an energetic back-up band somewhere in Russia.
As I watched it, I pinched myself realizing how much has changed in the 42 years since I was first active in the movement. Jews are now free to leave, and those who remain are able to live openly as Jews. The Reform movement is active in the FSU training leaders, establishing congregations and creating connections with Israel and American Jewish communities. Chabad is also very active there. Thousands have immigrated to America, and more than one million formerly Soviet Jews are living as citizens in the State of Israel.
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