Sermon by Rabbi Lerner, Dec. 4, 2010
One of the most important memories of my teenage years was participating in the struggle to free Soviet Jews. It is hard to believe that just over two decades ago, millions of Jews were, for all intents and purposes, imprisoned in the former Soviet Union, prevented from immigrating to Israel and practicing Judaism.
This is a critical story that our young people need to hear and learn. I have been surprised to find out that most of our college students, teens, and b’nei mitzvah students are unfamiliar with this recent history. In the 1970s and 1980s, the American Jewish community mobilized to rescue this vital part of the Jewish people. Many of these Jews were disconnected from Judaism, having been assimilated or prevented from practicing Judaism for generations. Many were living in the shadow of the Holocaust, having had parts of their families wiped out; they were afraid to be Jewish, given the history and the fear of what could happen. Many of them lived with continuing anti-Semitism.
Responding to their plight, the American Jewish community mobilized and began an incredibly powerful effort to rescue Soviet Jews. Rabbis and Jewish leaders would visit Russia, sneaking in siddurim and sets of tefillin or boxes of matzah. They were often followed by the KGB, Russia’s secret police; they would try to arrange meetings with the Jewish leaders in the Soviet Union. Sometimes these Jews would be arrested, and they were known as Refuseniks – Russian Jews denied the permission to leave the country.
Most famous among these was Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned in the Gulag, a system of forced labor camps; his crime: being Jewish and wanting to make aliyah to Israel. Some of our own member families were Refuseniks.
Growing up, I watched and participated in the movement to free Soviet Jews. In my high school, Ramaz, a modern Orthodox Yeshiva and prep school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, we were immersed in the effort to free Soviet Jews. Each year during winter vacation, a group of students were given the honor of travelling to the Soviet Union, filling their suitcases with Jewish books and sets of tefillin, arranging clandestine meetings with Jewish leaders, teaching them how to daven, how to pray, teaching them how to leyn – to chant Torah, bringing them back under the wings of the Shekhinah, of the Divine Presence, back into a relationship with Torah.
In tenth grade, my classmates and I raised funds to purchase these supplies, and the group headed off on this most remarkable journey. They were taking risks. They could be arrested. Who knew what the KGB would do to them? But our tradition teaches us that this was a required risk, a necessary mitzvah.
The mitzvah is called pidyon sh’vuyim, redeeming the captives, and it is a vitalact). Throughout Jewish history, Jews have taken herculean efforts in order to free our brothers and sisters whenever they were in need.
As students in Manhattan, we attended rallies: rallies at the United Nations, in front of the Russian Consulate, at the Russian mission to the UN, rallies anywhere we could gather and mobilize support.
The largest rally took place in 1987. We boarded buses in New York, as did Jews all around the country. Over a quarter million of us gathered in Washington DC to cry out against this injustice and demand that the Soviet Jews be freed.
That’s a day I will never forget. I must have been a junior. Hopping on the bus early in the morning, we davened Shaharit, the morning service, with a minyan on the bus itself. Eating breakfast on the bus, arriving and trying to find the other buses and groups, joining together with our placards and signs and our chants, hearing the speeches – it felt like the entire Jewish people were coming together. In many ways, it was like Sinai, with hundreds of thousands of us gathering and affirming as our ancestors declared “Naaseh V’nishmah – we will listen and we will do!”
While Sinai was receiving the core of God’s message, here we acted on the message, crying out for justice, standing up for what was right and also protecting our family: the Jewish people.
That’s a day that is seared into my memory, into my very soul. Throughout the years, I have attended other rallies in support of Israel and many other issues, but that day really became part of my core identity. It continues to impact who I am as a Jew in the world and how I experience the world.
to be continued…