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."Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was a student at UCLA in the late 1960s when he founded California Students for Soviet Jews. And it was his frustration with The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles' conservative, bureaucratic approach to the émigré issue that led him to create the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews (SCCSJ) with fellow Soviet activist Si Frumkin.
In addition to successfully encouraging local synagogues to adopt refusenik families, the SCCSJ engaged in publicity campaigns that included releasing 5,000 balloons featuring the slogan "Let My People Go" when Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev visited President Richard Nixon at San Clemente in 1973, spray-painting the same slogan on the hull of a Soviet freighter, and hiring a helicopter to fly over the Super Bowl with a banner that read "Save Soviet Jewry."
Another major catalyst was the highly publicized Leningrad trials in December 1970, which handed down death sentences to the leaders of a group of refuseniks who had tried to hijack a plane from Leningrad to Israel. The punishment was commuted to hard labor, but it shocked into action 24 major American Jewish organizations. They came together in June 1971 as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which became the third main voice advocating for Soviet Jewry.
The National Conference often acted in concert with the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, which under founding executive Malcolm Hoenlein -- today the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations -- launched large-scale Soviet Jewry rallies throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
But it was the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which the U.S. Congress passed in January 1975, that universalized the Soviet Jewry campaign by tying the Soviet Union's human rights behavior to its attainment of most-favored trading status with the United States.
By showing that free movement for Soviet Jews was key to the free movement of all peoples, Jackson-Vanik fit in perfectly with the foreign policies of the Reagan and Bush senior administrations, cemented Washington's support for what might have been seen as a parochial concern and gave rise to the worldwide campaign for universal human rights, culminating later that year in the Helsinki agreements that committed all nations to a certain level of protection of human rights.
All of this strengthened the American Jewish community's position in Washington, giving rise, in turn, to today's powerful Israel lobby on Capitol Hill.
Levin said the street protests of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, combined with the behind-the-scenes diplomacy of groups like the National Conference, combined to create a powerful political wedge.
"It was a raging debate within the Jewish community," he said, referring to the ongoing discussion about whether the campaign should focus on public or private tactics. "But we would not have succeeded without utilizing both."
The culmination of the campaign was a massive demonstration on Dec. 6, 1987, on the National Mall in Washington on the eve of a summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. More than 250,000 protesters, representing a cross-section of American Jewry, showed up on a bitterly cold morning to shout, "Let My People Go," demanding that Gorbachev open the doors to free emigration.
That happened two years later, but the wheels were set in motion that day.
"When you talk about freedom of movement, that was a direct challenge to the Soviet control system," said Feingold, who believes the Soviet Jewry campaign was a key factor leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. "It's no accident that after three decades of agitation, the collapse of the Berlin Wall was based on the precedent of the Soviet Jewish right to emigrate."
For many historians, the Soviet Jewry campaign represented the coming of age of the American Jewish community. Its "brilliant PR, its ability to get the story out," Feingold said, is what tipped the scales and moved the struggle beyond a parochial Jewish issue to a cause the entire free world could back.
It also represented the willingness of American Jewish organizations to break ranks with Israel on a major political issue: the "dropouts," or Soviet Jews given permission to emigrate to Israel who once out of Moscow's clutches headed for the United States, Germany or elsewhere.
The Jewish Agency for Israel and its U.S. allies believed they should be forced to go to Israel, but through the 1970s and 1980s, most American Jewish groups insisted on the Soviet Jews' right of choice, a democratic value enshrined in the American way of life. However, American Jewry reversed itself two decades later.
When the mass exodus of Soviet Jewry really took off in the early 1990s, American Jewish leaders -- fearful of the social and financial burdens of absorbing such an influx and mindful of the fact that these people were not technically political refugees because Israel was ready to welcome them -- backed Israel's demand that the bulk of the immigrants be sent to the Jewish state.
Throughout the 25-year struggle, which grew in strength until the Soviet gates finally opened in 1989, American Jews may have differed over tactics and leadership for the campaign, but they were united in their goal of open emigration for Soviet Jews.
"There were a lot of headaches," Smukler admitted. "We all had different points of view. But at 2 a.m., when the meetings were over, we were on the same page. We knew what we had to do: Get them out."
No other issue since the '67 war has brought American Jews together in quite the same way, said Smukler and other activists who lived through those times. Given the complexity of the Israel-Diaspora relationship today and the growing diversity of the American Jewish community, it is doubtful that anything will. The campaign heightened American Jews' sense of responsibility for oppressed Jews around the world, along with the confidence that they could effect real change.
"It gave the community a sense of what is possible when we are able to speak in a united voice," Levin said. "It didn't just have an impact on Jews; what we did impacted the world. It helped expand and strengthen the human rights movement by showing a group of individuals challenging a totalitarian state at the peak of its power, so that future challenges would not look so insurmountable."
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