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Women’s Philanthropy Is ‘Back In the USSR’

December 4, 2013 By:
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(From left) Connie Smukler and her cousin, Sasha, the first refusenik to serve as president of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, chat with Rabbi Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi, and Sherrie Savett during their visit to Moscow. Photos by Jennifer Stein

Twenty of our Federation’s  leading Jewish women traveled back in time to a place and an era where Jews were ostracized, persecuted and often imprisoned — for the “crime” of living their lives Jewishly. The women, all members of Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy (WP) affinity, traveled to Moscow and to Israel to learn more about the Jews of the former Soviet Union and the extraordinary efforts made by North American and Israeli Jewish activists to set these refuseniks free.

Who better to lead them on this poignant pilgrimage than Constance (Connie) Smukler, who along with her late husband, Joe, was one of the most beloved and respected leaders in this emancipation movement that spanned three decades? This October journey was her first trip back to the former USSR since she and Joe were invited by the Ukrainian government to participate in ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar, which killed thousands of Jews. It would also be her first return trip without her husband and fellow activist at her side.

Connie credits her friend and fellow Women’s Philanthropy member, Robin Batoff, with convincing her that she must share her unique knowledge of this movement that effectuated the release and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. Robin made the request at a luncheon one year ago.

Despite her initial hesitance, Connie says she came to view the planning process as a true “labor of love.” She and Women’s Philanthropy President Susan Schwartz reached out to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) to help to plan the itinerary for the Moscow leg of the women’s journey. NCSJ’s executive director, Mark Levin, served as scholar-in-residence, helping mission participants to gain a better understanding of both “the struggles that the refuseniks encountered and the significant role that the Jewish community of Philadelphia played in securing their freedom,” he said.

The group walked through the same streets where renowned former refusenik Natan Sharansky, now the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, met his wife, Avital, during a human rights demonstration. The group visited the Chorale Synagogue and met with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow. “Inside the now-restored synagogue, members of the KGB — the Soviet secret police squad — gathered, while outside, refuseniks and activists held protests,” Levin explained.

NCSJ President Sasha Smukler, the only former refusenik to serve as the organization’s top lay leader, also accompanied the group. Sasha is proud to call Connie his cousin and flew to Russia at his own expense to share his personal story and to convey his deep thanks to women who stood on the shoulders of “the many Philadelphia-area activists” who helped to set him free. “Philadelphians were one of the most involved groups in the free Soviet Jewry movement and we always felt their presence throughout our struggles,” he said.

Connie emphasized the significance of Philadelphia activists to the refusenik movement by retelling one of Sharansky’s favorite stories. “Natan always maintained that many of the refuseniks thought that New York was a suburb of Phila­delphia because so many Philadelphians visited them,” she explained.

Susan Schwartz, whose connection to Federation and Women’s Philanthropy began 14 years ago with a WP mission to Poland and Israel, said she enjoyed traveling with “savvy and sophisticated women” who ranged in age from 42 to 75. Among her most cherished memories of this, her first trip to Russia, was a visit to Marina Roscha Synagogue, which also functions as a thriving Jewish community center.

“We attended a Kabbalat Shabbat service, where many participants did not know the Hebrew words but were very familiar with the traditional melodies,” she said, marveling at the ability of the Jewish people across the globe “to connect so powerfully through common customs and traditions.” Schwartz was also struck by their itinerary, where “every day was filled with something remarkable to see.”

For Lyn Ross, who has volunteered for many years with the former Stiffel Center, now the Klein JCC Center City Senior program, one of the most affecting moments on the journey was the group’s visits with older adults who receive services and sustenance thanks to Federation’s financial support of such agencies as the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. One elderly couple really touched Ross’s heart. 

“We went to a local market and shopped for them and they were so grateful,” she said, adding that “it was wonderful to see that the husband is cared for by an aide who visits regularly and that older adults like these have people to turn to satisfy their needs.”

Ross and her fellow mission participants were wowed by a visit to Moscow’s Jewish Museum — designed as an interactive experience to tell the history of Russia’s Jews and to encourage dialogue among people from diverse cultures. They also enjoyed meetings with the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, as well as insightful conversations with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, and Rabbi Berel Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi. Both rabbis told the group that they enjoy “warm relationships” with the current government of Russia and that Jewish life is both “open and thriving.”

Connie Smukler knows from first-hand experience that just a few decades ago, this was not the case and cautioned that the global Jewish community must be vigilant and responsive to incidents of anti-Semitism and nationalism.

The contrast between the reality for Russia’s Jews then and now was never more jarring than the final leg of the group’s journey — a visit to the Jewish homeland of Israel — for meetings with former refuseniks Yuli Edelstein, now head of the Knesset, and Natan Sharansky — a personal friend of Connie’s — as well as visits to numerous agencies and organizations that Federation helps to fund.

Connie broke into tears at the sight of their El Al jet, parked on the tarmac of the brand-new Moscow airport, with the shining Star of David emblazoned on its wing. She remembered when she and Joe were bound for Israel in 1975 to report to government authorities about their clandestine meetings with refuseniks. “We had to make our way to Sofia, Bulgaria, to fly to Israel then because there was no diplomatic relations between our two nations,” she recalled.

Federation President Sherrie Savett said she felt honored to “walk in Connie’s footsteps” through the streets of Moscow and to learn about the struggles of Jews throughout the former Soviet Union to express their Jewish heritage. She sees “unbelievable irony” in the fact that Jews of that era sacrificed so much for freedoms that contemporary American Jews take for granted. She cited the results of the recently released Pew Study on American Jewry, indicating that an alarming number of younger Jews feel little affinity with Judaism.

“We who participated in this wonderful mission must make it our mission to share the joys of Judaism and the beauty of our Jewish heritage with others,” she asserted.

For more information about Women’s Philanthropy, call Marni Davis at 215-832-0859 or email: mdavis@jfgp.org. To learn more about upcoming Federation missions, call Pam Pearlmutter at 215-832-0837 or email: ppearlmutter@jfgp.org.

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