Adam S. Ferziger

Jacob Birnbaum’s solidarity revolution: In memorium

By advocating mass protest to free Soviet Jewry, Jacob Birnbaum galvanized a generation of Orthodox leaders to reach across the barriers between American Jews
Jewish students rally in support of Soviet Jewry during a speech by US president Gerald Ford outside the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY, in 1976. (photo credit: AP)
Jewish students rally in support of Soviet Jewry during a speech by US president Gerald Ford outside the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY, in 1976. (photo credit: AP)

“As a cautious, pedantic historian, I am naturally reluctant to call anyone the ‘Father’ of anything…but I have no hesitation whatever in describing Jacob Birnbaum as the Father of the Soviet Jewry movement.” So wrote Oxford historian Sir Martin Gilbert. Birnbaum passed away in New York this week at the age of 88.

Raised on British soil, the grandson of the legendary Jewish leader Nathan Birnbaum, Jacob arrived in New York in late 1963 and set out to convince American Jewry to dedicate itself to reclaiming “Let My People Go” as a Jewish slogan.

He rented a room in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and began knocking on the doors of the neighboring Orthodox Yeshiva University (YU) dormitory. His message interspersed righteous indignation at American Jewish apathy during the Holocaust, with a seemingly “messianic” confidence in the ultimate triumph of a just cause. Such redemptive virtuousness had been expressed until then mainly by the Southern preachers who anchored the Civil Rights movement.

In April 1964, Birnbaum sent out a letter to Jewish college students throughout Greater New York with the following call:

Just as we, as human beings and as Jews, are conscious of the wrongs suffered by the Negro and we fight for his betterment, so must we come to feel in ourselves the silent, strangulated pain of so many of our Russian brethren. We who condemn silence and inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, dare we keep silent now? The time has come for a mass grass-roots movement – spearheaded by the student youth…There is a time to be passive and a time to act…We believe that a bold, well-planned campaign, to include some very active measures, can create a climate of opinion, a moral power, which will become a force to be reckoned with.

From its founding in 1964 to its official closing in 1991, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) advanced the cause of Soviet Jewry through a myriad of activities. Its path-breaking contribution was its insistence that only through constant public protest, publicity, and promotion of the cause, could American Jews offer substantive assistance to their Soviet brethren. The humiliation of the great Soviet empire by a small cadre of dedicated young people would draw massive media attention. Simultaneously, it would exert pressure on both the American Jewish establishment and on the U.S. government. Indeed, by the early 1970s much of the establishment had adopted public protest as the central expression of its Soviet Jewry campaigns. Solidarity Sunday marches had become central facets of Jewish public life. No longer merely the precinct of idealistic students, they showcased national Jewish leaders, elected officials, and recently released dissidents, and drew crowds of more than 100,000.

One of the outstanding features of the SSSJ and the activities that it sponsored was the overt use of religious symbolism. A shofar that called out figuratively to both the Jews of the Soviet Union and the United States was chosen as the emblem of the organization. SSSJ events featured names like the “Passover Geulah (redemption) March,” the “Chanukah Menorah March,” and the “Jericho Ride.” The demonstrators would sing Hebrew words taken from Psalms according to original tunes prepared by the emergent hasidic songwriter Shlomo Carlebach.

Birnbaum created a non-denominational organization with representatives from the spectrum of American Jewry, but the core activists stemmed predominantly from New York’s Modern Orthodox camp. This dynamic generated a level of Orthodox cooperation with other Jews that could never be expressed in a synagogue. The “Solidarity Orthodoxy” that arose was rooted in the religiously motivated desire of Orthodox Jews to “struggle” for their Soviet brethren, but it produced a generation of American Jewish leaders whose religious identity was intertwined with their commitment to working in partnership with other Jews. The centrality of the solidarity principle for Modern Orthodoxy from the1960s through the 1980s is illustrated by looking at some of the more prominent Orthodox graduates of the Soviet Jewry movement.

For Israel Miller, Herschel Schacter, and Haskel Lookstein, all rabbis of Orthodox synagogues who led establishment efforts for Soviet Jewry, their involvement served as a bridge from their initial focuses on cultivating an Orthodox constituency to careers that balanced particularistic oriented synagogue leadership with solidarity directed public activism. The same can be said for Shlomo Riskin, the first chairman of SSSJ and one of the rabbis who marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Saul Berman, who inherited Riskin’s Manhattan pulpit, was highly active in both Soviet Jewry and civil rights. Later he spent nearly ten years as head of Edah, whose Modern Orthodox agenda highlighted Jewish unity.

Avi Weiss, longtime chairman of SSSJ, has also sought to create frameworks that allowed him to balance between tolerant spiritual leadership and partnering with a broader constituency on common goals. That equilibrium is reflected in the synagogue where he has been rabbi since 1975 and is one of the aims of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical seminary that he founded. As Jewish chaplain at Columbia University from 1969 to 2003, Charles Sheer also split his energies between cultivating a rich religious life for the many Orthodox students and galvanizing all of the Jewish student body in solidarity type efforts. Sheer was the first president of YU’s Soviet Jewry club and subsequent vice chairman of SSSJ.

Other former Soviet Jewry activists remained personally committed to Orthodoxy, but their internalization of the solidarity ethos eventually steered the direction of their professional lives away from Orthodox settings. Such was the case with Malcolm Hoenlein the national Jewish leader, as well as Efraim Zuroff, the Nazi hunter. More pronounced are the examples of Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and Shlomo Carlebach, both figures who began their public careers in Orthodox circles. Concurrent with their Soviet Jewry involvement they evolved into charismatic individuals who reached the pinnacles of their renown as symbols of solidarity rather than Orthodox leaders. Greenberg – the former pulpit rabbi, theologian, CLAL founder, and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council – described his life during the 1960s as “a spiritual odyssey…toward greater involvement…I was orienting myself to a Klal Yisrael community of Orthodox-Conservative-Reform…”

In the meantime, the individual who inspired so many of the central figures in the rise of Solidarity Orthodoxy remained steadfast in working for the cause that he first brought to their attention in the 1960s. On October 6, 2006, a congressional resolution was proposed that, “Whereas Birnbaum continues to assist institutions for the Jewish education of former Soviet Jews as part of his `Let My People Know’ campaign: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, that on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, the House of Representatives honors the life and six decades of public service of Jacob Birnbaum and especially his commitment to freeing Soviet Jews from religious, cultural, and communal extinction.” May his memory be blessed.

About the Author
Adam S. Ferziger is professor in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, where he holds the Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair, and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, University of Oxford. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies.