What do you say about spending a week with real-life heroes? Inspiring. Incredible. The experience of a lifetime. Having returned recently from a mission to Russia and Israel with Women’s Philanthropy, a part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, a million images and phrases continue to roll around in my mind — but the one word that continuously arises is “hero.”
The first hero was our mission leader, Connie Smukler, a long time community leader and world-renowned Soviet Jewry activist. Connie had not been back to Russia in the years since she and her late husband, Joe, were so fiercely active in the movement to gain freedom for Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
During our first evening in Moscow, Connie and Joe’s personal history, as well as the personal history of hundreds of Russian families, suddenly had a face, coming to life in the form of Joe’s cousin, former refusenik Sasha Smukler. Now a successful international businessman and president of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, with homes in Montclair, N.J., Lake George, N.Y., and Moscow, Sasha retold the story of meeting Joe in the late ’80s.
The Smuklers were always looking for relatives, and Smukler is a common name in Russia, but they had not yet found one.
Sipping wine, Sasha had asked Joe if he’d received a toy drum as a gift from his father as a little boy. “Yes,” replied Joe. “All Smukler boys receive a toy drum.” Sasha smiled, “I have one, too! The drum is in honor of great-grandfather Smukler who was in the czar’s army — required of all Jewish men at that time — and became a decorated hero as a drummer, sending messages to the front with his drum.”
Connie recalled that Joe dropped his wine glass at the realization he had found a relative. And the families, she said, have been inseparable ever since.
The next morning, Women’s Philanthropy president Susan Schwartz and our scholar-in-residence, Mark Levin, the CEO of NCSJ, led 20 women down Gorky Street in Moscow, now called Tverskaya, and began literally reliving history with Connie.
Standing in front of the one-time apartment of the Slepak family, a reknowned refusenik family, Connie explained how she and Joe met with refuseniks, planned their strategies, exchanged information. They brought American jeans, cigarettes and books — especially Leon Uris’ Exodus — igniting dreams of freedom and the land of Israel. We saw where they held rallies. We heard about interrogations, arrests and exiles to Siberia.
In those days, there were no cell phones or computers, and telephones were bugged. The only means of communication was by telegram. I asked Connie if she was scared all the time. She answered — amazingly — “No. It was such an exciting, passionate time. We just did what we felt we needed to do.”
As she said this — clearly meaning every word — we were incredulous. In the ’70s and ’80s, Connie was a regular “Main Line Mom,” like so many of us. Three young children, driving carpool, making dinner. Except that she changed history. Forever.
As our day continued at the beautifully refurbished Chorale Synagogue and the Moscow JCC, we met with several rabbis and communal professionals, all of whom talked about the great rebirth of Jewish life in Moscow. It is now very “in” to be Jewish in Russia. They have well-established leaders, and the hope is the community will remain strong and vibrant.
Forty-eight hours later, we were on our way to Israel. There our journey continued, as we were able to see firsthand the success of so many former refuseniks, as well as the services and support our Federation provides for hundreds of Russian immigrant families.
Our first stop was the Knesset, where we met famed former refusenik, now speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein. He was eloquent, smart, witty and bright. In fact, all the former refuseniks have a spark. No doubt, it was part of what kept them going, kept them alive, through torture, through prison, through Siberian exile.
Later, we went to Orr Shalom in Haifa — another of Federation’s great success stories. Orr Shalom provides foster care, where at-risk children live together with house parents like a family. Here we met eight young girls; by coincidence, they were almost all Russian, from horrific backgrounds — alcohol and drug abuse, physical and psychological abuse, parents who were incarcerated, parents who’d been killed in bus explosions.
And yet, these girls were engaging and sweet. They told us of boyfriends, dances, sleepovers, music lessons, basketball practice. Like our own daughters, they talked of wanting skinny jeans and over-the-knee boots. Do they fight? “Yes, like sisters.” What do they want to be when they grow up? Several answered: “A mother.”
Orr Shalom is also the home of the Cis Golder Garden, named in memory of my mother, herself a communal leader. Nothing would make her happier than to hear that answer; nothing makes me happier than to watch our Orr Shalom children thrive and grow. As we hugged and kissed goodbye, promising to return soon, the girls waved and thanked us. To them, we were heroes indeed.
Our final morning was spent with renowned refusenik Natan Sharansky, now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Once more, he and Connie hugged. Sharansky is a household name, a true hero. We’ve read his books, and knew his story well. Shaking his hand, I thanked him for coming to speak to us, and he replied, “Anything for Connie,” adding, as several other refuseniks had confided, “You know, we were all secretly in love with her!”
The moral of the tale? Ordinary people do extraordinary things, some on a huge historical scale, like the Smuklers; others, on a smaller scale. With Chanukah upon us, it feels right to remember that at Federation, we truly create miracles, right here in Philadelphia, in Israel and around the globe. We can be heroes every day.
Ellyn Golder Saft is a freelance writer and vice chair of the Federation campaign.