November 1, 2010

Back to the Future: Celebrating Refuseniks, Activists, and 'Ordinary' People (orginally posted mid-2002)

Not all the community leaders I get to meet in the successor states were once dissidents — most 'refuseniks' as soon as they had the chance. I have had the opportunity to tell some of these veterans, however, how strange it feels to fly over and teach or inform them of organizational and political issues, representing the gargantuan Organized American Jewish Community, when these are the champions I rallied and campaigned for as a child and a college student. Who am I to instruct them?

Since the late 1980s, each time a U.S. President has met with his Russian counterpart this has been termed a "summit". Since President Bush's May 2002 visit to Russia, many commentators have urged that future meetings not be treated with such gravitas, that what is most remarkable about such opportunities is that they are no longer remarkable. While Russia still has far to travel, it no longer needs to establish its bona fides as a country. From now on, perhaps US and Russian presidents will meet as colleagues routinely do.

I had the opportunity in December 2001 to participate not in a summit, but in a reunion of heroes turned ordinary leaders. Twenty-five years after the Soviet shutdown of a seminal refusenik symposium in Moscow and 11 years since the Soviet collapse, dozens of refusenik leaders gathered in Moscow to reflect on their past struggles and envisage the Russian Jewish future. Ironically, most of the names which still resonate with Westerners are relatively unknown to those who suffered under Soviet restrictions.

Of the best-known former refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion who convened, some have gone on to assume contemporary leadership roles. In Israel, Yuli Edelstein and Yuri Stern are in government, Yuli Kosharovsky is promoting religious pluralism, and Yosef Begun is seeking greater recognition for the heroism of those who suffered untold privations so that over one million could emigrate freely. Roman Spektor and Mikhail Chlenov in Russia, and Josef Zissels in Ukraine, have stayed behind to join those rebuilding Jewish communal and cultural life since the late-1980s. Eliahu Valk, having served as Israel's ambassador to Belarus, is now pioneering the Russian-language Jewish encyclopedia. Others have embraced the normal lives that were so long denied them.

As a sign of the new, post-Soviet Russia, we met in the impressive new Jewish community center of the Federation of Jewish Communities, which was sponsoring the conference. With snows drifting outside in the winter twilight, we exchanged views on what had been accomplished and what must be done to ensure that their history and the unique culture of Russian-speaking Jews is preserved for posterity.

With the United States contemplating removal of Russia from the scope of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a historic moment in its own right, here were the retired heroes who once labored in the shadow of the KGB. In addition to those like myself, who traveled from the United States to address the gathering, the US and British Ambassadors recounted their meetings with refuseniks and prisoners' families — including those present for the reunion — during their prior postings to Moscow.

Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar welcomed participants and dignitaries to his organization's flagship institution. Jewish Agency Treasurer Chaim Chesler and ORT Executive Director Robert Singer, whose organization was founded in pre-Soviet Russia, also delivered greetings, as did the Ambassador of Israel. Veteran Philadelphia activist Frank Brodsky and Jerry Goodman, NCSJ's founding executive director, recounted their many visits in the 1970s and '80s with the same dissidents who are now honored guests in Moscow.

While in Moscow, I was also able to witness other examples of the revival of Jewish life. I joined Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt and leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress for a community-wide cultural gala in a packed Opera Theatre, complete with first-rate Jewish and non-Jewish entertainers, and met with several other community activists and professionals.

Frank Brodsky and I drove one morning to a school run by the Israeli Ministry of Education, where hundreds of students pursue secular and Jewish studies. A modern museum in the school basement, run by Arthur Klempert (also of Tenth Nahum Goldmann Fellowship), displays the history of Russian Jewry through artifacts and records that the students supplied from their own family experiences. Like the erstwhile refuseniks, Arthur and these students are reclaiming their past and their identity. And thanks to the refuseniks who stood up 25 years ago, against all odds, they are free today to apply them to their future.

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