Yakov Birnbaum’s Freedom Ride

Haggadah Section:

By Jonathan Mark

The Soviet Jewry movement began right here at Columbia, explained Rabbi Sheer, with the first meeting of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, in April 1964. Four days later, SSSJ (popularly known as "Triple-S-J") held its first demonstration outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations.

Of course, a great escape of this magnitude needed many masterminds and accomplices, but in 1964, explained Rabbi Sheer to his students, there was a man named Yaakov (Jacob) Birnbaum, and so begins a legend.

Birnbaum was 37 in 1964, a German-born Englishman who'd been director of the Manchester Jewish community council. He'd been freelancing in Jewish causes, from North Africa to helping Holocaust survivors. He was old school, the school that said if a Jew's in a fight, it's your fight, too.

Remembering those years, as he sits in his Washington Heights apartment, his voice shifts between prophetic urgency and a British patrician obviousness about duty. When there was trouble in Morocco, "I brought out many young people when bombs were going off, and all that, you see."

In those days, recalls Birnbaum, "I was looking for signs of renaissance, among Jews, among Christians, whomever, you see. My philosophy was that all patterns of living were disintegrating," and disintegration would come to the Soviet Union, too. From the beginning, he imagined the return of the Lost Tribes, the Georgians, the Bukharians, the mountain Jews, the Moscow Jews. "You can't do anything but plant points of ferment," said Birnbaum, "and you hope the ferment spreads."

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg was back in New York, teaching at Yeshiva University, when "Yaakov came around, wanting to talk." Birnbaum had begun knocking on dormitory doors, looking for allies, and he figured his friend could help. "I had been thinking about the impact of the Shoah, but Soviet Jewry was not yet an issue for me or anyone," says Rabbi Greenberg. "Yaakov pushed that button, driving home the point that for all our hindsight about the Holocaust, Soviet Jews were threatened by their government and by our indifference, and we couldn't let that happen again."

After more than four decades of anti-religious edicts, killings, refusals of emigration, and banishment to the Gulag, there had yet to be any full-time watchdog, lobbyist, or sustained campaign of protest in the United States for the Jews of the Soviet Union. And the United States, Birnbaum figured, was the one country that could exert some leverage.

"I managed to hold a rally in early 1964 at YU, a rally chaired by a student named Charles Sheer," then 21, remembers Birnbaum.


On April 27, 1964, Birnbaum convened the first official meeting of SSSJ in Columbia's Philosophy Hall, with a few hundred students from several city colleges. "We don't need committees, congresses and conferences," said Birnbaum of Jewish organizations. "We need a struggle," a student struggle.

Glenn Richter, then a teenaged student at Queens College, later to become SSSJ's national coordinator, said Birnbaum's call had a great appeal for people like him, and others such as Rabbi Arthur Green (later to head of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary), and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who were active in the civil rights movement. Richter had been a volunteer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a major civil rights group.

Activism was coming alive in America, says Richter, "and here was an opportunity to demonstrate as Jews, for Jews." This was the '60s, adds Rabbi Greenberg, and even yeshiva students were not impervious. Just six weeks before SSSJ's first meeting, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a defiant youth culture was shaping up in which the Jewish "generation gap" was exemplified by the simplistic accusation that the Holocaust generation was passive and "did nothing," but now "We are Jews, we couldn't be prouder," as the chant went.

That first SSSJ meeting ended with an enthusiastic rush to plan a demonstration for May Day, a major day on the Soviet calendar, just four days away. Rabbi Sheer remembers going down to the old Stern College dorm, "where we used stencils to paint words, such as 'Let My People Go,' on oak-tag placards. Who knew how to make placards?"

Friday, May 1, dawned with decent weather. Outside the Soviet mission, came more than a thousand Jewish students. "We all just sort of looked at each other in amazement," says Richter.


Though the inner core of SSSJ was never comprised of more than a few dozen activists, Birnbaum had a knack for attracting young talent to the movement. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, remembers being a 19-year-old graduate student in Philadelphia and going to see Birnbaum. "I believed that the Soviet Jewry issue was critical," says Hoenlein, "and he was the only one then involved. I took materials and ideas back to Philadelphia."

Birnbaum says, "Malcolm, I knew him when he was a skinny kid and came to my apartment. I gave him every phone number, every scrap of information." Later, when Hoenlein became the executive of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, says Birnbaum, "He had a hard time because the establishment really hated me. Malcolm had to disassociate himself, somewhat, from us wild guys, but we remained good friends."

The clash between the young activists and the establishment was not only about strategy - demonstrations vs. quiet diplomacy - but about personalities and commitment.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin recalls, "When I was co-president of the YU chapter of SSSJ [1967-1968], Yaakov would call me almost every night. I was aware that I was just one of many people he was in constant contact with."

Birnbaum remembers taking a young Dennis Prager with him to City Hall to meet with Mayor John Lindsay.

For the "Jericho March" in 1965, a circling of the Soviet mission with shofars blowing and SSSJ's typical evocation of biblical imagery, Birnbaum urged Shlomo Carlebach to write "Am Yisrael Chai," the rousing anthem that became a fixture at rallies ever since.

In 1965, Birnbaum recruited Yossi Klein Halevi, today a senior columnist with the Jerusalem Post and The New Republic, but then a 12-year-old who spotted Birnbaum handing out materials on a Borough Park street. Birnbaum treated the boy like a man and put him to work.

Hoenlein attributes Birnbaum's success in attracting future leaders to the fact that Birnbaum's movement "wasn't institutionalized. Everyone could be a part of it. People who were good could emerge. You didn't have to be rich or famous."

You didn't need a resume and you didn't need to fit in. Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of Amcha, an activist group that grew out of SSSJ, which Weiss chaired for many years, explained that "Yaakov's genius was tapping people in their strengths and interest. SSSJ was a place where you could take risks," something not possible in more rigid organizations.

Rabbi Greenberg adds, "Once people got turned on by Yaakov, they kept moving into other areas of activism on all sorts of other issues."

Before long, Birnbaum went from knocking on dormitory doors to successfully lobbying Congress for legislation linking Soviet trade privileges to Jewish emigration. The emotional high point and culmination of the Soviet Jewry movement was the December 1987 rally in Washington, D.C., instigated by the newly freed Sharansky, which drew 250,000 Jews. If it wasn't under SSSJ auspices, it was its spiritual child.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union a couple of years later, the story seemed to end. Forty years after that improbable spring of '64, Birnbaum is old and nearly blind, ill and nearly forgotten. He advises those more active than he, but is an unidentifiable figure in New York's Russian neighborhoods. It is no small irony that photographer for this story is a Jewish émigré from Georgia, which is like a former slave photographing Abraham Lincoln. The photographer hadn't heard of Birnbaum, nor would others who have left the FSU over the years.

Let the last word go to JWR contributor Yossi Klein Halevi, whose essay in the current issue of Azure (www.azure.org), a journal of the Shalem Center, may be the definitive history of the movement. He writes that SSSJ taught American Jews "how to fight a Diaspora-generated struggle and experience victory — not vicariously through Israeli heroism, but as active partners in their people's fate.

"American Jews came to see themselves as a major force for Jewish freedom and security, protecting endangered Jews through political means, just as Israel did through military means. In its struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews," Halevi writes, "American Jewry liberated itself as well."

New York Jewish Week

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