I had the pleasure of sharing a riveting conversation with Pamela Cohen recently. Pamela Cohen was an activist in the Soviet Jewish emigration movement from the early 70’s through 1996. I was deeply inspired by our conversation.
Pamela recently wrote and published her book Hidden Heroes, an insider’s view of the modern-day exodus of Soviet Jews from the Soviet Union.
Pamela began her activity through the independent grassroots council, Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry (CASJ) and in 1978, served with Marillyn Tallman as co-chairman until 1986, when she became the national president of the Washington-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ). She served in that capacity for 10 years.
Beginning in 1978, she traveled throughout the USSR to visit emigration activists and Refuseniks, Jews who were refused emigration visas, to bring out information and to develop strategies for UCSJ’s grassroots support. In 1987, she led a UCSJ delegation to Reykjavik, Iceland and to Moscow for the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit. Two years later, in 1989, Mrs. Cohen led an international delegation, representing five countries, to the Soviet Union to hold the historic first open meeting between Jews of the Soviet Union and the West and Israel. Later that year, at the request of Refusenik activists, she traveled again to Moscow for the opening of the Solomon Mikhoels Cultural Center.
In 1991, she returned to Russia for a Round Table of Human Rights, co-sponsored by the Union of Councils, with participation of indigenous human rights and democratic leaders. She also led a UCSJ team to Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to assess the situation of Jews in the Soviet Moslem Republics and returned to Kyrgyzstan the following year with a UCSJ delegation to conduct an International Symposium on Human Rights as requested by local Jewish leadership. In the same year, she participated in a Human Rights Experts meeting in Vilnius Lithuania, co-sponsored by UCSJ.
Mrs. Cohen has participated in numerous international and national conferences on the issues of Soviet Jewish emigration, Soviet anti-Semitism, and the right to Jewish identity in the former USSR. On behalf of the Union of Councils, she attended three separate sessions of the Vienna Follow-Up Meeting of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE); the 1989 CSCE Paris Conference of the Human Dimension; the Paris CSCE Summit of 1990; the Copenhagen Conference of the Human Dimension in 1990; the 1991 Moscow Conference of the Human Dimension and served as a public member of the official U.S. delegation to the CSCE Conference on Minorities in Geneva, Switzerland in 1991. She traveled to Israel on bi-annual basis with UCSJ activists to debrief Jews who were able to receive visas.
Pamela Cohen established networks for transferring information to and from Refuseniks throughout the USSR and maintained regular telephone contacts with activists during the darkest years. She has testified at Congressional hearings on the state of Soviet emigration policy and state-sponsored anti-Semitism during the Soviet era and participated regularly in briefings for the Congress, the White House, the departments of State, Commerce, and defense. She has participated in briefings for President Reagan, Secretaries of State Schultz, Baker and Condoliza Rice, in her capacity with the National Security Council. In 1992, she was a guest at the White House for the State dinner during the Summit between Presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin.
During the course of her service, Mrs. Cohen has received the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award from the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of Chicago in 1981, the Edward J. Sparling Award from Roosevelt University’s Alumni Association. In 1989, during the UCSJ Conference in Moscow, Mrs. Cohen was given the Medal of Honor by grassroots Soviet Jewish activists and leaders for her achievement on behalf of Soviet Jewry. In 1997, she received a degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Spertus College of Judaica.
In 1995, Pamela Cohen and Rabbi Ezra Belsky co-founded Komimiyus, the North Shore Torah Center, the Deerfield-based, independent grassroots education center dedicated to Jewish classical education for adults in the Chicago area.
She currently serves on the board of the Chicago-based Blitstein Institute, a career-oriented college for Jewish women.
She lives in Chicago with her very supportive husband, Leonard; enjoys their children and grandchildren; maintains an open home for Torah classes, and travels frequently to their home in Jerusalem.
Q: What started you on the path of activism in the American Soviet Jewry movement?
I was determined that “on my watch” Soviet Jews would not be abandoned as the 6,000,000 Jews in Europe were abandoned by my parents’ generation.
Q: What kept you going when you faced adversity?
The non-negotiable obligation, responsibility we Jews have for each other: “kol arivim zeh b’’zeh.”
Q: What was the opinion of those around you on the work you were doing in the 70s in activism? How has your work affected your relationships?
I was repeatedly told, “You? Who do you think you are? You think YOU can take on the greatest military power in the world?” My colleagues and I were obsessed, driven, impatient, even intolerant of what we perceived to be the indulgent self-interest of Jews around us who were impervious to the suffering of the second-largest Jewish community in the world. Our single-minded commitment, however, was ultimately empowering. We constructed mechanisms to partner with the leadership of the Jewish movement in the USSR and produced an effective, dedicated grassroots advocacy movement in the US, England, and France.
Q: What is an inspiring story you can share with us from your activist work?
Either on trips to the USSR or on the phone lines, I was in daily contact for nearly 20 years with Jews who, refused permission to emigrate, were under constant surveillance by the secret police, but who exhibited staggering moral courage despite the real threat of arrest, intimidation to themselves and their families. Every interaction I had with them inspired me…
Q: Were you ever afraid to be doing what you were doing?
There were a few events that in retrospect could have come out of a spy novel. However, at the time, in those precarious moments, I prayed that I’d return safely to my family, but I was always being pulled from one high-speed event to another without time to be cognitive of the fact that I might have been in danger. I was always aware that as an American citizen with high visibility, I was far safer than the refuseniks who were accompanying me at all my meetings and travels behind the Iron Curtain.
Q: When did you decide you would write “Hidden Heroes” and why?
The writing was in two stages, the first immediately after stepping down after 10 years as national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. I wrote for 5 years, then decided to leave the writing in order to live my own life. I resumed in 2015 when I realized that many of my American colleagues in the UCSJ had passed away. I was only one of a couple of remaining American grassroots leaders who could tell the story of what really happened to release Jews held captive for decades.
Q: What was your writing process like?
I felt that I was hearing the voices of dozens of invisible former refuseniks and prisoners of Zion, urging me to tell their stores, what they did, and the truth about the complexities of the movement.
Q: What do you hope will be the legacy of your book? How do you hope it will affect people?
The story is exciting but it is also inspiring and a lesson for contemporary Jews in the West. Thousands of Soviet Jews exerted moral courage in their struggle to leave the “communist paradise” and emigrate to the “anti-Soviet Zionist State of Israel”. Their moral stand—their search for Jewish identity, their struggle for the Jewish homeland turned them into pariahs—socially, economically, and politically. Yet they courageously struggled against the full might of the Kremlin displaying Jewish national pride. The current wave of anti-Semitism is cloaked, as it was in the USSR, as anti-Zionism. American Jews have much to learn from these Hidden Heroes as well as the movement which produced the largest rescue of Jews in history and in its wake, brought about the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
Q: What is your focus today when it comes to your activism work?
I am actively working to get this book in the hands of American readers. My book transmits stories that are a model for American Jews to resist forces of assimilation, to fight for identity, to forge unity between Jews and ties with Israel.
Q: What are your current relationships with Judaism and the land of Israel?
My husband and I became Torah observant, bought an apartment in Jerusalem 23 years ago, and recently made aliya.
Q: What is your favorite Jewish holiday, and why?
Probably Succos…after the intense introspection of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the observant Jewish world is suffused with a jubilant, joyous sense of recommitment, of starting afresh— closeness to G-d and renewed hope for the Jewish future and the future of Jews.
Q: What is your favorite book recommendation?
As a voracious reader, I can’t isolate just one. But my life was impacted by several: Andre Schwartz-Bart’s “Last of the Just”, David Wyman’s “The Abandonment of the Jews”, Shmuel Katz’s “Lone Wolf: A Biography of Vladimir (Ze-ev) Jabotinsky.
Q: What role does Zionism/Judaism play in your daily life and career?
The fact that I am a Jew has and continues to dictate and direct my daily life and my values. We continue to learn. My husband and I are so privileged to be alive during the sliver of time Israel as a Jewish state exists.
Q: What is one thing you know about Israel that even her greatest supporters may not know?
This country, facing so many internal and external enemies and critics determined to wipe us out, is nevertheless, brimming with joyous, irrepressible, vibrant life. Every Jew living in Israel has an incredible story of survival and heroism and courage and vision and purpose not seen in the outside world. There isn’t one boring Jew in this incredible country that exists only miraculously.
Q: Share an only-in-Israel moment. (we all have at least one!)
Took our grandson to Shaare Tzedek for an infusion. We were the only Jews being treated on the pediatric floor. Arabs, Palestinians were the patients, nurses, and doctors. Where are Amnesty International and media that decry Israel as an apartheid state? I wanted a TV news crew at my side.
Q: What’s your favorite Israeli snack or cuisine?
The off-the-charts fusion cuisine of some of Israel’s world-class chefs.
Q: What do you miss most about Israel when you’re not here?
Everything…is the Center of the Universe. Every other place is irrelevant.
Q: What message do you wish you could get through to the world about Israel?
Israel is a vigorous democracy. Barely out of its infancy, it’s a bubbling stew of competing religious, social, and political groups, each trying to imprint its own vision on the soul of the country —and all the while the essential right of the state to exist is being delegitimized by the world. My message is: Come. Experience it. Walk the streets. Go from border to border. Taste it. It’s alive and thrilling and nothing less than a miracle.