In the spring of 1979, at the height of the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, my wife Robin and I were among many volunteers who traveled to the Soviet Union for the express purpose of aiding and abetting the efforts of Zionist refuseniks.
Working with a small group of people who were acting on behalf of the Foreign Ministry of Israel, we had a specific task: find the names and addresses of those who wished to leave for Israel, and bring them out with us. At that time, no Soviet Jew could even apply for an exit visa without a written invitation from first-degree family in Israel. The Foreign Ministry was happy and eager to provide those letters of invitation, but could only do so if it had the names and addresses of the interested parties. So whether it involved memorizing the names, coding them into address books, or whatever other means we could come up with other than carrying them on easily discoverable pieces of paper in our pockets, that was our task.
Towards that end, Robin and I visited Moscow, (then) Leningrad, Minsk, Kiev, and Kishinev. Everywhere we went we were followed, and our hotel phones were bugged. When we finally left the Soviet Union, we were questioned at the airport in a most hostile manner, and our luggage was taken apart piece by piece.
Many of the people we visited are now in Israel. It is, I must admit, a most gratifying feeling to know that, in the smallest way, we were able to be of some very modest help in the first great test of Diaspora Jewry since the dark days of the Holocaust.
Last week, under the gracious auspices of UJA-Federation of Greater New York, I returned to Russia- now one of many independent entities that make of the FSU (Former Soviet Union)- to once again visit with the Jews of Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was part of a small group of rabbis from the New York area who participated in a mission that was so different in every important way from what brought me to Communist Russia last time.
On the most superficial of levels, it was clear that the standard of living in Russia’s major cities has improved dramatically. We stayed in a lovely hotel in downtown Moscow, within walking distance of Red Square, a Starbucks next door, and a whole host of fashionable shops in between.
But that clearly was not the most important difference. Thirty-two years ago, I went to visit with those Jews who desperately wanted to leave but were cruelly denied the right to. This time, we visited with Jews who, when the walls of the former Soviet Union came crumbling down in 1991, chose to stay behind, despite their new-found freedom.
On this trip, we were privileged to spend a day in St. Petersburg with Natan and Avital Scharansky, great heroes to those of my generation and older who came of age during the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. Scharansky, who spent nine horrible years in a variety of Soviet prisons, explained to us that, when the Iron Curtain fell, some one million Jews left in stages for Israel, and roughly another million Jews left, also in stages, for other destinations. Left behind were yet another million Jews who were so systemically assimilated- the products of sustained Russian spiritual deprivation- that they hardly knew they were Jewish at all. Many if not most intermarried, and they and their children knew nothing- really, nothing- about Jewish culture and life.
It was these Jews whom we went to visit, to see who and what they are, and to be witness to the outstanding efforts of a variety of agencies supported by UJA-Federation of New York to reclaim them for the Jewish people.
A variety of organizations are involved in remarkable and sustained efforts to reach out to these Jews and their families. Chabad, whose outreach efforts often undermine the work of organized religious communities here in the States, does heroic work in the FSU. With a liberal approach that is light years from what is generally characteristic of their operation both here and in Israel, they have opened the widest tent possible, encouraging those who are clearly not Jewish in a halachic sense to come be a part of the Jewish community with their families- and if it works, they expedite their conversion. The Joint Distribution Committee, as it has done with great distinction for so long, lovingly provides desperately needed social services to those in need, from soup kitchens to home visits and all kinds of programs recreational and social in between. They, too, ask no questions about who is Jewish in a halachic sense; they help across the board. And the Jewish Agency, under Natan Scharansky’s chairmanship, operates a whole host of programs, including wonderful sleep-away summer camps, one of which we visited outside of St. Petersburg. Some of the staff is imported from Israel, and some are alumni of the camp programs themselves- a great success!
All these programs work towards the same goal… reclaiming Jews whose ethnic identity was all but eliminated by decades of Soviet repression. This trip was both an inspiring reminder of the miraculous redemption of Soviet Jewry, and a sobering reminder that the work is not yet done. UJA-Federation deserves enormous credit for recognizing the challenge, and stepping up to meet it. We rabbis were left with much to think about when we came home.
Gerald C. Skolnik is rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly.