By Maxine Dovere
Limmud FSU commemorated the 25th Anniversary of The Struggle for Soviet Jewry with the opening of an exhibit of extraordinary photographs at the headquarters of UJA-Federation of New York June 9. The fifty image exhibit will be displayed in California, Washington, DC, Florida, Canada, and in cities throughout the world.
Created by Limmud FSU in cooperation with The Jerusalem Post, the exhibit features works of Robert A. Cumins, prime photographer for the national United Jewish Appeal during the height of the “Struggle.” Curator Asher Weil incorporated Cumins photos and pictures from the archives of The Jerusalem Post to create an exhibit that visualizes this volatile historic period. Ronit Hassin Hochman, The Jerusalem Post‘s Executive Director, told eJP, “We have made the decision together with Limmud FSU to create this moving exhibit which will tell the incredible story of Soviet Jewry and those who have worked on their behalf to create a historical process which has changed the face of both the State of Israel and Jewish communities.”
“These photographs capture the moments,” said Stephen Greenberg. President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. In 1984, Greenberg was Chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “It was an important part of my life – the North American Diaspora community was totally united. We now celebrate not only that Russian Jews got out, but they could live freely as Jews.”
Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation participated in the Washington March. He was joined by a quarter million others rallying for the right of Jews to leave the Soviet Union. He described the photo exhibit as a“ significant part of our ‘collective memory’ – a lesson in the power of communal action.”
Matthew Bronfman, Chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, says “people are anxious to reconnect with their roots – a truly wonderful thing.” Standing at an easel he described a exhibit photograph of his father meeting President Gorbachev at that critical time.
The event was highlighted by a panel discussion including Peter May, past Chairman of Operation Exodus, Natan Sharansky, Chair of The Jewish Agency Executive and moderated by Eric Goldstein.
Sharansky, jailed as a refusnik for twelve years, became symbol and spokesman for those still caught behind the Iron Curtain. He recalled his first moments of freedom, “I didn’t sleep many nights after this release. I felt this was a dream – that I would awake in the punishment cell.
Soon after his immediate aliyah, Sharansky came to the United States to work on the 1987 March for Soviet Jewry. Many in the Jewish community leadership hesitated, fearing Jews would be seen as “war mongers.” Sharansky disagreed. He secured a meeting with President Ronald Reagan, and assured the president that the March was not against the interests of the United States. Reagan encouraged the demonstration, promising “I will do what I have to do.” The president later wore a bracelet depicting a Jewish refusnik to a meeting with the Soviet Premier, Gorbachev.
“To be in Natan’s presence is wonderful!” declared Peter May. “An incredible feeling.” May’s active participation in the Jewish community started by understanding the refuseniks. “Gorbachev let Jews leave the Soviet Union but not go to Israel.” As chairman of “Passage to Freedom” campaign we raised 38 million [dollars] to bring Jews to New York.
When pressure on the USSR made it possible for Jews to go to Israel “Operation Exodus” was initiated. Peter assumed the leadership of that campaign and raised over a billion dollars. The number of emigrants was estimated at “about three to four hundred thousand; more than triple that number, came to Israel. “The inteligencia of Russia were coming. It was extraordinary. Almost everyone of them came off the gangplank and kissed the ground.”
Sharansky continued: “We discovered our identity, our history. We recognized what our Jewishness means. All these ‘number ones’ came.” Peter May concurred. “The Jewish community recognized its responsibilities. Everyone responded.”
“Israel is much more dynamic, more open, more competitive, and more professional.” says Sharansky. “The potential changed the population. Israel felt the energy.”
Looking towards the future, Goldstein cautioned that “the Jewish narrative is the strongest collective magnet in the history of time. Yet, it needs a push. Jews must be engaged as Jews, be connected and identify as Jews. Limmud FSU is part of that.”
Founded 10 years ago by Chaim Chesler and Sandra Cahn, Limmud FSU is active in the former FSU and in countries including Australia, Israel and the United States. Says Cahn, “when the Jewish community comes together, Limmud FSU and UJA-Federation can do great things. With more than one million Jews left in Russia, Limmud FSU has much work to do!”
“Everybody has to look after his own.” says Chesler. “This is the essence of c’lal Yisrael havarim. Two million Russian Jews were stuck behind the Iron Gate. I felt the spirit of concern for my people. Limmud FSU helps build a Jewish future.”
For information about bringing this incredible exhibit to YOUR community, please contact Sandra Cahn: [email protected]
Photos via Limmud FSU and The Jerusalem Post