The young British activist had come to New York to mobilize a grass-roots campaign to draw attention to the plight of 3 million Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain -- a cause that was being largely ignored by the world Jewish community.
He turned first to the Modern Orthodox campus with its high concentration of Jewishly committed students.
"New York City is the largest center of Jewish life in the world, and from New York we could generate pressure on Washington," explained the now-80-year-old Birnbaum, who still lives in New York and was honored recently by Congress for his key role in the Soviet Jewry campaign.
"The goal was always Washington -- first to convert the Jewish community and then convert Washington," he said.
His door knocking launched a national student movement, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), whose first public effort was a May 1, 1964, demonstration outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations. More than 1,000 students from Yeshiva, Columbia, Stern College and other campuses marched, demanding freedom for Soviet Jews.
The protest became a movement, and the movement swelled into a worldwide outcry that 25 years later not only ripped open the Iron Curtain, leading to the largest Jewish exodus in history, but also contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, cemented the role of human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy and heralded the emergence of a strong, independent American Jewry able and willing to speak out for its oppressed brethren around the world.
"It was probably American Jewry's finest hour," said historian Henry Feingold, author of a newly published work, "Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, the American Jewish Effort 1967-1989."
While debate continues as to the role the Soviet Jewry campaign played in bringing the Soviet Union to its knees, virtually no one disputes the impact it had on the American Jewish community.
The movement galvanized American Jewry, producing many of today's top Jewish leaders and a public relations-savvy Jewish voice in Washington.
Haunted by the memories of American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust and emboldened by Israel's triumph in the Six-Day War, the activists vowed never again to ignore Jews in danger.
"This was something we talked about, that we're not going to stand by and let this happen the way we did in the Holocaust," recalled Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, who was a young Orthodox rabbi in 1964, when he became involved with the SSSJ.
While many of the initial activists came from Modern Orthodox circles, they were joined by other young Jews, excited by the civil rights and anti-war struggles, who now applied the energy of those movements to a Jewish cause, many for the first time. That synthesis set the tone for many of the Jewish and Israel-oriented organizations of the 1970s and '80s.
Many of today's communal and religious leaders cut their teeth in the Soviet Jewry movement.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council, was a student at UC Berkeley in 1969, when he attended his first Soviet Jewry rally. It was "transformational," he said, leading to his active involvement and later decision to become a Reform rabbi.
"My formative years coexisted with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War," he said. "My activism was motivated by my sense of Jewish values, but I didn't feel confident in my own grounding in Judaism, so I entered rabbinical school."
Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early '60s, active in civil rights and the anti-war struggle. He said the Soviet Jewry campaign helped him connect those two parts of his identity, "the caring for people and their release from oppression and the Jewish issue -- this was something that affected Jews in a very personal way."
In 1973, he and his wife visited "refuseniks" in Ukraine, one of many American Jews who over the course of the movement secretly carried names, phone numbers and packages to Jews denied permission to leave the Soviet Union.
"It was a formative experience for us," he said, echoing Kahn's words.
Birnbaum's notion of a public, ongoing grass-roots campaign to free Soviet Jewry did not immediately catch fire with the American Jewish establishment. Through the 1960s, the SSSJ labored in virtual isolation on the American scene, holding rallies and demonstrations in New York, Boston and a few other cities organized by a handful of core activists. The Jewish mainstream favored quiet diplomacy over public protest, and the ultra-Orthodox feared the campaign would jeopardize their underground religious activities behind the Iron Curtain.
Israel, of course, had been conducting its own secret operation on behalf of Jews within the Soviet Union for years through Lishkat, the Israeli government's Liaison Bureau. And the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism was created in 1963, although it remained fairly quiet until it was later renamed the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and went on to play a strong role in pushing Washington to back the Soviet Jewry campaign.
It was Israel's stunning victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War that really catalyzed the movement, lighting a fire under young Jews both in America and in the Soviet Union who previously had not expressed their Jewish identity.
For the first time, large numbers of Soviet Jews began applying for exit visas -- they were refused -- and large numbers of American Jews began clamoring on their behalf.
"The campaign was already by that time quite visible and active," said Mark Levin, who was a young teenager when he joined his first demonstration in Lafayette Park across from the White House in 1969.
"The difference is, after the Six-Day War, you didn't find as many Jews hiding their Jewish identity," said Levin, the longtime director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. "The Six-Day War and the struggle for Soviet Jewry together redefined the type and level of activism in the American Jewish community."
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