Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
Philadelphians Helped Lead Soviet Jews to Freedom
They were housewives, businessmen, dentists, students. What did they know about changing the world?
Yet by the time they were done, after three decades of tireless activism, this grass-roots band from Philadelphia had grown into a force too powerful to ignore, even by the Kremlin. 4,700 miles away. Especially by the Kremlin.
Smuggling Hebrew books into homes in Leningrad and Moscow just beyond the watchful gaze of the KGB, corralling government officials in the halls of Congress, staging rallies and protests at the Spectrum, creating a drumbeat that got louder and louder as conditions for Jews in the Soviet Union got tougher and tougher — these were the tactics they and their counterparts across the country employed.
The results: More than 1 million former “Jews of Silence,” long denied the right to live as Jews, were permitted to emigrate. Many found homes in Israel.
And when Natan “Anatoly” Sharansky, arguably the most famous of the “refuseniks,” made one of his first public appearances after his release from prison in 1986, he chose Philly as his venue to acknowledge the city’s pivotal role, especially his friends and supporters Connie and Joe Smukler, in freeing his fellow Jews.
Although efforts on behalf of Russia’s Jews took place in hundreds of cities throughout the United States and Europe, as well as in Israel, Andrew Harrison argues that Philadelphia’s Jewish community became the most organized and effective advocacy network in the world.
In Passover Revisited: Philadelphia’s Efforts to Aid Soviet Jews, 1963-1998, the historian gives much of the credit to the city’s Soviet Jewry Council, an arm of the Jewish Community Relations Council, for overcoming policy disputes that in many communities sapped the efforts of even the most well-intentioned organizers.
“In other areas, grass-roots and establishment groups were in competition. Here, we all worked together,” agrees Bernard Dishler of Upper Gwynedd, who with his wife, Lana, made repeated trips to Russia in the late 1970s and early ’80s to offer moral support and provide a link to the outside world for the refuseniks.
“We had some very good early leadership: Connie and Joe Smukler, Enid and Stuart Wurtman, Lenny Shuster. There were hundreds of others. We were involved for almost 20 years, most of us. We used to say it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Dishler says.
The name Philadelphia was recognizable to Russia’s Jews from the start, says Frank Brodsky of Wynnewood, a former co-chair of the Soviet Jewry Council. “Among the refusenik community, Philadelphia was considered the No. 1 city in the world as knowledgeable and helpful,” notes Brodsky, who remembers during his first trip to Moscow checking into a barren hotel room, finding a phone booth that accepted American dimes, and dialing the names he’d been given by the Soviet Jewry Council.
“I would say, ‘Shalom, this is a friend from Philadelphia,’ and those were the magic words. The refuseniks would get excited, telling us to come see them right away.”
Through the lens of 2012, it’s hard to imagine the oppressive and frightening conditions the Jews of Soviet Russia lived under. Those Philadelphians who dared defy the Communist government came home with tales of outwitting airport guards who were all too ready to confiscate the dreidels, kipot and Chanukah coloring books they were carrying.
“There was a palpable sense of fear, of looking over our shoulders,” says Lana Dishler, who became one of the local organizers of a massive march that brought 250,000 people to the Mall in Washington in December 1987 — some 14,000 of them from Philadelphia and its suburbs.
Like the march — whose 25th anniversary is being commemorated this month with local and national programming — those trips to visit refuseniks were a hallmark of the region’s ability to plan, coordinate and carry out extremely detailed operations, the Dishlers say.
“Philadelphia had a very active travel program. We sent activists, teachers, rabbis, Congress members, even a district attorney who went on to become mayor and governor,” Bernard Dishler says, referring to Ed Rendell. “We also had a large adopt-a-family program, under which synagogues would symbolically adopt a refusenik family. And public demonstrations — we were very strong on that.”
Circus shows, hockey games, concerts, ballet performances: Few events slipped by without Soviet Jewry proponents hoisting a banner or posting a billboard. The goal was to keep the issue in the public eye and exert pressure on officials who were in a position to effect change.
For at least one member of the younger generation of activists, the lessons learned were powerful and long-lasting.
On the bimah the day of Jonathan Molod’s Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park in April 1983 stood an easel with a picture of two boys from Moscow with whom he was “twinned.”
Twinning began cropping up in synagogues throughout the country, yet another avenue to keep attention trained on the struggle going on thousands of miles away. Since Valery and Gregory Mendeleyev were forbidden to take part in any Jewish ritual, Jonathan Molod and Larry Kaplan, the boy with whom he shared his Bar Mitzvah in real life, would help them celebrate in absentia.
For Molod, now 42 and an Internet consultant, it was one more way for his parents, Alan and Shirley, and his siblings to show their support for the cause.
Long before his Bar Mitzvah, Jonathan had begun wearing a silver bracelet bearing the name of a refusenik: Vladimir Slepak, who with his wife Masha became one of the most highly visible of Russia’s Jews and also had strong Philadelphia ties. Jonathan also knew his way around a protest rally, and had helped his parents play host to Russian families lucky enough to make it out, some of them staying up to a month while they got on their feet.
“The movement was a substantial part of our lives — it was enormous,” he says. “To me as a child, it seemed a natural and important thing to be doing. I grew up in a house where as children we would march on Washington, where we knew our parents were smuggling Judaica into homes where it wasn’t permitted.”
Today, Molod is passing those values on to his children — Samantha, 10, and David, 8. And they seem to be taking root.
“We teach our children that if something is happening in the world that they think is wrong, part of their obligation is to speak up. My daughter recently spoke out at a town hall meeting against a school closing she thought was wrong,” the computer expert says.
For many of the local activists who came of political age with the movement, the experience was life-changing. “Advocating for Soviet Jewry taught Americans how to lobby, says Gal Beckerman in When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, a comprehensive history of the period.
“It was the effort to get the American government to pressure the Soviets that first taught American Jews how to flex their political muscle,” says Beckerman, a Forward staffer who will be part of a Dec. 16 panel discussion focusing on the advocacy movement and sponsored by the local American Jewish Committee.
Why did Philadelphia residents from all walks of life and political streams come together for what some people call the greatest success story in recent Jewish history?
The answer, says Brodsky, is both simple and profound. “My parents came from the Ukraine, so we could relate to the plight of the refuseniks,” the investment banker says. “When we went into those apartments and we saw the quality of the Soviet Jews, they captured our hearts. If my grandparents hadn’t been so smart and gotten out when they did, we would have been there, just like the refuseniks were. They touched our lives so much because we saw ourselves.”
Moreover, adds Bernard Dishler, the first stirrings of the movement came as details of the Holocaust were beginning to come to light, offering dark hints that the American Jewish community might not have acted with as much unity or conviction as it might have.
“We felt we couldn’t make the same mistakes,” Disher says quietly.
“The Soviet Jewry Movement and American Jewish Advocacy: 25 Years Later” will take place Sunday, Dec. 16, beginning at 10 a.m., at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East, Philadelphia. The event, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, along with other local and national groups, will include a symposium and a musical tribute. To register for the free event, go to: ajc.org/sovietjewryphilly or call the Philadelphia AJC office at 215 665-2300.
Teresa Heinz will be honored at an American Jewish Committee fundraising event for her work as an advocate for human rights on Monday, Dec. 10. In 1977, Heinz was part of the core group that became Senate Wives for Soviet Jewry. She also organized and led a delegation to the Soviet Union and participated as a speaker in the Freedom Sunday Rally in Washington 25 years ago.
For ticket information and to make a reservation, call Marcia Bronstein at AJC: 215 665-2300.