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Remembering the great aliyah of Soviet Jewry

What a privilege to be at a Passover seder singing songs of freedom with a refusenik and Jewish activist who had been released from jail just 24 hours earlier
(courtesy)
(courtesy)

Recently, Omer Adam, a popular Israeli singer, composed a song called “Kakdila.” Many Israelis interpreted this song as an insult to the character of Israelis of Russian origin. Yet, the many wonderful contributions of Russian aliyah to the State of Israel are well known. Their economic, cultural, and demographic impact on the country and to Israel, the “start-up nation,” has been profound. Indeed, this controversy led me to travel down memory lane on a personal and nostalgic journey. What I experienced on this journey refutes everything this song implies.

Forty-three years ago, I was an aliyah emissary of the Jewish Agency for Israel, based in the office of the consulate general in Boston. I was approached by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Nativ Organization to travel on a mission to the Former Soviet Union to visit Jewish activists and refuseniks. In 1979, there were, of course, no diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union. My partner on this mission was Mark Sokoll, then-regional director of the American Zionist Youth foundation for New England campuses, and later served as the president and CEO of JCC Greater Boston. Our mission included visits to Moscow, Leningrad, Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

Our cover story was that we were university lecturers in the United States. We were briefed on how to behave during our few weeks as “tourists” in the Soviet Union. For example, we were told not to bring written lists of the activists, but memorize them instead, not to talk about anything sensitive in the hotel rooms, as they may be bugged, and that our tour guide was probably working and reporting for the Soviet government. We were instructed to update the activists on current events in Israel, encourage them, and reassure them that we in Israel were fighting for their freedom. Strange as it may seem now, we were to provide them with duty free items from the local tourist shop called the Birioska, as gifts for their livelihood. At night, we were to quietly reach out to the Jewish activist destinations in the most subtle way possible. We were honored to participate in this Zionist mission.

Among many memorable experiences was a Passover seder in Leningrad. The seder was held in a small apartment with at least 70 people squeezed in. We had brought matzot and wine from the US, a real treat and delicacy for the locals. We led the seder with great vigor including singing traditional songs, “Let My People Go” and “Next Year in Jerusalem.” It was a seder I would never forget. To my amazement, the guest of honor was Yuli Kosharovsky, the famous refusenik and Jewish activist who had been released from jail just 24 hours earlier. What an honor it was to meet this Jewish hero. Yuli was an outstanding engineer in the Soviet Union, but his crime was to request the right to make aliyah. As a result, he was persecuted and imprisoned. Together with other engineers, he clandestinely taught himself Hebrew and, together, they prepared for their aliyah.

In every way, this hero exemplifies the qualities of a modern-day Joseph Trumpeldor, embodying courage, tenacity, leadership and Zionist values. A year after our visit to the seder, Yuli managed to receive his permit to come to Israel, where he succeeded in becoming an important adviser to the Jewish Agency and helped found a political party. Yuli, of blessed memory passed away in 2014, but his Zionist values and spirit lives on with his family and grandchildren.

In Moscow, we had the opportunity to address 30-40 Jewish activists packed into a small apartment to help explain the current events facing the State of Israel in 1978. They were hungry for knowledge and were carefully taking notes. Each of them was teaching Hebrew to a few dozen activists and were going to repeat what they perceived to be our Zionist words of wisdom to their students. Years later, when visiting the Knesset, the now-late member of Knesset Yuri Stern, a refusenik and Zionist activist in the Soviet Union, came up to me and told me, “Jonathan, you were the first paratrooper I ever met in person.” I felt proud that he remembered.

Ten years later, while working for the Jewish Agency for Israel, I was sent on a special mission to Italy. My assignment was to reach out to tens of thousands of Russian Jewish refugees in Ladispoli, Netuno, Santa Marinella, and other locations, to create awareness of the importance of living in Israel.

It was a hard job to compete with the “easy life” in the US, Canada, or Australia. It was an almost impossible mission, but, in the end, together with a dedicated team, a few hundred families emigrated to Israel. They were mostly young couples with small children, and professionals in the fields, such as medicine, music, art, engineering, and others. Their life choice to become Israelis has certainly enriched our country.

In 2000, I participated in a parachute jump into the sea, near the Dado Beach in Haifa. Lt. General Shaul Mofaz led this fundraising event for orphans of paratroopers. Each veteran paratrooper jumped with an “orphan buddy.” Navy seals in rubber dinghies were awaiting to assist us back to shore. A tall and handsome navy seal with a Russian accent assisted me. He was born in Novosibirsk and had been living in Israel for less than a decade. The navy seal, son of Russian immigrants who chose to serve in one of the most elite units in the IDF, was lending me a hand. This brought me full circle in my appreciation and recognition of an immigration that changed the face of the State of Israel.

About the Author
Jonathan Davis is head of the international school at Reichman University (formerly the IDC) and vice president of external relations there. He is also a member of the advisory board of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Mr. Davis also serves as a Lieutenant Colonel (Res) in the IDF Spokesman’s office.
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