Philadelphia Fought for Soviet Jews

Philadelphia Inquirer

Mark Robbins

December 12, 2012


Growing up in New England, I associated Philadelphia with a small but potent mixture: My aunt, uncle, and two cousins; the Phillies of the late '70s; my dad's alma mater, Penn; and the movement for Soviet Jewry that culminated 25 years ago.

Through their leadership in the movement to free Soviet Jews, my aunt and uncle, along with thousands of other Philadelphians, were writing another chapter in the story of the cradle of American liberty. They were at the epicenter of a campaign that changed history, liberated millions of Jews long denied the right to emigrate, and put human rights at the forefront of American foreign policy.

Inspired by the civil rights movement, reawakened to their identity by Israel's Six-Day War victory, alarmed by memories of the world's inaction during the Holocaust, and repelled by Soviet obliteration of human rights, a generation of activists in Philadelphia and across the country stood together. They boldly demanded of that day's pharaohs, "Let our people go."

Philadelphians took the lead in the extraordinary national campaign, which raised the bar for effective human rights advocacy for generations to come. Citizens and leaders, Jews and non-Jews, were in it for the long haul, relentless and indefatigable. They maintained contact with Soviet Jews while using every opportunity to keep their plight in the spotlight for more than 20 years.

Parkway marches

Thousands of activists marched up the Parkway every year on Simchat Torah, the only holiday when Soviet Jews were allowed to gather and celebrate at Moscow's central synagogue. Activists here and elsewhere also showered Soviet Jewish refuseniks (those whose applications to emigrate were expressly denied) with Passover greetings, matzo, and other kosher food.

They traveled to the Soviet Union, too, in groups of two or three, memorizing refuseniks' addresses so as not to leave a paper trail for authorities. They hid religious articles and Hebrew literature under their garments, determined to help their Soviet brethren experience a semblance of Jewish life. They prepared meticulously for the missions, and were debriefed as thoroughly by volunteers working long nights after full days at their jobs.

Perhaps most significantly, they lobbied. They recognized that the Soviet Jews were chess pieces in the Cold War, their fate primarily in the hands of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. They lobbied Congress to tie Soviet trading privileges to emigration policy, finding a champion in Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, and pressured successive administrations to keep human rights on the table. This helped persuade the Soviets to sign the Helsinki Accords of 1975, drawing a human rights line in the sand from which the Soviets could not retreat.

Philadelphia's role in the movement is legendary. When the Flyers faced a visiting Soviet Red Army team at the Spectrum in 1976, owner Ed Snider ensured that the arena was draped with protest banners. Movement pioneers Joe and Connie Smukler were "feared by Soviet authorities more than any other Soviet Jewry activists in the world," according to Andrew Harrison, the author of a history of Philadelphia's role in the movement. Local public figures such as Arlen Specter, John and Theresa Heinz, Bill Gray, Ed Rendell, Vincent Hughes, and Nelson Diaz visited refuseniks and made the campaign for Soviet Jews their own.

Gates of freedom

The movement culminated 25 Decembers ago with Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews, when 250,000 people descended on Washington a day before President Ronald Reagan's summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. With only weeks to plan, Philadelphians Lana Dishler and Alan Casnoff, working with the Jewish Community Relations Council and other groups, shepherded a remarkable 14,000 people from the region to the rally.

Within months of the march, Gorbachev opened the gates of freedom, and more than a million Jews poured out - the majority to Israel, but many to the United States as well. Philadelphia absorbed about 35,000 Russian-speaking Jewish refugees. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia marshaled a community-wide resettlement coalition that included agencies such as HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) Pennsylvania, JEVS Human Services (formerly Jewish Employment and Vocational Service), Jewish Family and Children's Services, and the Jewish Community Centers. They softened the émigrés' landing in the region, facilitating access to social, economic, and employment assistance. Today, HIAS and JEVS still play vital roles in helping the city absorb Latino and Asian immigration.

Ben Franklin, who advocated American freedom on a grand scale, would surely be proud of his successors in Philadelphia. United by community, grounded in the aspirations to be free that have long defined the region, Philadelphia's Soviet Jewry activists stand as models of who we can be.

Rabbi Mark Robbins is director of the American Jewish Committee's Philadelphia-South Jersey region, which is sponsoring a tribute to the Soviet Jewry Movement on Sunday. He is also a member of the steering committee of Freedom 25. He can be reached at robbinsm@ajc.org.
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