Modern Exodus

The Midrash (Tanchuma Beshalach 10) relates that when the Jewish people left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea,  the water was divided into twelve different paths, twelve bridges, one for each tribe. But why couldn’t we all cross on one bridge – why did each tribe need its own bridge?

I think the answer is that in redemption, as in life, one size does not fit all. Even in leaving a bitter exile, we did not all leave the same way (and we don’t all leave the same way), nor do we leave at the same time with the same motivation. Some bridges are smooth, others filled with potholes. Some have tolls – quite exorbitant tolls, which extract a very high price from us – and some are free, and include beautiful vistas. Some are heavily trafficked, and others are smooth sailing. But each tribe found its own way to cross.

Recently, I read a fascinating history of the Soviet Jewry movement that I recommend, published in 2011 by Gal Beckerman and entitled “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone” (from the Safam song of the late 1970’s). It depicts what is nothing less than a remarkable and miraculous chapter in Jewish history that today we take for granted. I knew some of the broad strokes and details, but much of it I did not know. It behooves us to learn it, to know about and to draw conclusions from it. Because we lived through it, as our Sages state (Nida 31a), we have trouble seeing the miracles that took place right before our eyes. What miracles?

It was a miracle that a semblance of Jewish identity remained after so many decades of Communist suppression of Torah, and paradoxically it endured because the Soviets were so obsessed with controlling the lives of their citizens that the government recorded their Jewish nationality on their internal passports. But for that, Jews could have completely assimilated. In essence, they were made to feel like they were Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc. – but not completely. Still outsiders. Even intermarriage didn’t help the Soviet Jew conceal his Jewish roots.

It was a miracle that Jewish groups were able to accomplish anything, with all the infighting that took place. As in most successful enterprises, a few passionate people led the way often against strong opposition until too many establishment Jews thought to make amends for what was largely American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust. Israel had an intelligence unit already in the 1950’s designed to encourage aliya with agents in America, and it also met resistance from American Jews who had a much more modest, even timid, profile back then. There was a long-running dispute between political refuseniks (who pressed the issue of human rights, freedom for all, etc.) and the cultural refuseniks, who wanted to deepen their connection to Judaism, Torah and Israel. They didn’t always work together, and the Soviets treated them differently as well.

There was a long-running dispute between those who favored quiet diplomacy and those who supported active, and occasionally violent, protests; those who supported Scoop Jackson – one of the righteous Gentiles of the last half-century – and his linkage of human rights and freedom of emigration to trade benefits for the Soviets, and those who were vehemently opposed to linkage (think Kissinger, et al); those who wanted to coddle the various presidents and those who wanted to challenge them. (As nothing ever changes in history except the names and the dates, the exact same debate is taking place today over the United States’ dealings with Iran, the threat of renewed sanctions, and the call in Congress for legislation that would immediately implement sanctions when the talks break down in June. And – again, echoes of the past – between those who want to indulge the President thinking that access and photo ops equate to power and influence and those who want to challenge and publicly defy him.)

We should never underestimate what President Reagan did to liberate Soviet Jews, along with George Schultz and even then-Vice President George Bush. The Reagan administration was the first to raise Jewish rights at every meeting in every forum with the Soviets, alternately surprising, antagonizing and even insulting a parade of Soviet dictators. It was Gorbachev who, initially opposed to Jewish rights and emigration as were his predecessors, realized soon after taking power that the jig was up. Kremlin archives now reveal minutes of the Politburo meetings when he informed his cohorts that their nation could not sustain itself without Western assistance, and that assistance would not be forthcoming without human rights and freedom for Jews. (Brezhnev and others had stated among themselves in the 1970’s that the Soviet empire would not survive an open emigration policy. They were right.)

And Reagan was astute enough and humble enough to tell Gorbachev that he can do it at his own pace and announce it for his own reasons – as long as he does it – and that Reagan would not claim credit for it, and would not gloat or embarrass Gorbachev. And that is what happened.

The Soviet dictators present as something out of ancient history even though it was just a few decades ago – the evil, the capriciousness, the insecurity they bred throughout the public. They were true believers, at first incredulous that anyone would want to leave their Communist paradise, and then offended beyond reason when so many did. The numbers fluctuated – from tens of thousands of emigrants in some years to hundreds in others. (That was based largely on politics, trade, pressure, and other events on the world scene.)

Above all, the mesirat nefesh (the self-sacrifice) of the Jews is exhilarating to re-visit. The Holocaust loomed over everything. Even so, people with little connection to Jewish life knew that once they applied for emigration, their lives would never again be the same – loss of job, sometimes residence, sometimes imprisonment, family disruption, divorce, alienation from children, internal exile, Siberia, labor camp, eavesdropping, KGB harassment, etc. And yet they did it, by the tens of thousands, and later by the hundreds of thousands.

And the Jews did not know from one day to the next year what would happen to them – why some people were released quickly and others not for many years. There was no rhyme or reason to the decisions, part of the mind control fostered by the dictatorship. Even Natan Sharansky, before he was released, was moved from his labor camp to Moscow for two weeks, and not told anything about what is happening to him until the night before he was flown out of the Soviet Union when he had to sign documents renouncing his Soviet citizenship. People lived in the dark, and in constant fear.

The courage and dedication were inspiring – and legendary. Sylva Zalmanson telling her sentencing judge that she will live in Israel someday, regardless of her sentence, and saying in Hebrew – while being reprimanded by the judge for speaking a foreign language – “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand wither…” Unforgettable.

The road out of exile has twelve bridges, but always requires self-sacrifice like that of Nachshon who jumped first into the water – before the Red Sea had split. Someone had to start and great things then happen. Ironically, the greatest despair among the refuseniks occurred in 1985 – right before Gorbachev changed his mind. They felt there was no hope, no future, all avenues blocked, and no options left. And then, G-d’s salvation came in the blink of an eye – “the heart of the king is in G-d’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1).

When we think of miracles and astonishing events in Jewish history – we need not go back 3700 years; 37 years also works. When the history of the ingathering of the exiles as was prophesied in the Torah is written, we can say we lived through it. We saw it up close, even if we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. The exodus of Soviet Jews was unlikely at the time – and impossible to fathom in retrospect. It is no exaggeration to say that the Soviet Jewry movement brought down a mighty empire. It also brought American Jewry out of its shell, partly atoning for its silence during the Holocaust.

As in the original exodus, it was only at the end of the process of redemption that the people acknowledged G-d’s great hand. And we do today as well, even in this transition stage from exile to redemption. When we want to teach our children of heroes and heroines, of self-sacrifice, we need not go back millennia and centuries – decades will suffice. It is good for them to know that Jews – our contemporaries, people who still walk among us – sacrificed for Torah, for the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. And they inspire Jews even today.

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15 responses to “Modern Exodus

  1. Beautiful! Shavua tov Reuven

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. See an outstanding and inspiring book, *The Underground: The untold story of how a handful of Jews helped spark a spiritual revolution in the Soviet Union by Yaakov Astor with Mordechai Neustadt*

    http://www.judaicapress.com/The-Underground.html

  3. So well said. Thank you. I look forward to reading the book.

  4. Excellent Article. It doesn’t seem like the struggle for Soviet Jewry is one that is discussed much anymore. I hadn’t heard the name Scoop Jackson in a while. I remember being very impressed with his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews, especially since it seemed like he didn’t have much to gain politically( If I recall correctly he was from a state with not much of a Jewish Population)

  5. Steven Pruzansky

    Andy, you are correct in everything – the lack of attention paid to the movement, and the disregard of Scoop Jackson, a real hero.
    – RSP

  6. Phillip Slepian

    Don’t forget, Sen. Jackson was among the the U.S. G.I.s that liberated the camps in WWII. I believe much of his work on behalf of Soviet Jews was inspired by what he witnessed. They don’t make them like that anymore.