Michal Grayevsky, Ronit Hasin-Hochman, Chaim Chesler, Matthew Bronfman, Ron Lauder and Steve Linde.
(photo credit: INBAR ASHKENAZI)
NEW YORK – Helping Soviet Jews immigrate to the US throughout the 1980s was, for US president George H.W. Bush, a “point of pride,” as he wrote in a letter to Matthew Bronfman, son of the late philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, known for his role in rescuing Jews from the former Soviet Union.
The letter, written last year, was unveiled Thursday evening at a gathering held in honor of Edgar Bronfman and other important figures of the Soviet Jewry movement. The event, which took place at the Harvard Club of New York, was held in the presence of top leaders of Limmud FSU, including chairman Matthew Bronfman; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, as well as of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry; and Jerusalem Capital Studios president and Limmud FSU board member Michal Grayevsky.
In the letter, Bush, who served as vice president to Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989, and then as president from 1989 to 1993, recalls speaking at the December 1987 “Freedom Sunday” protest for Soviet Jewry in Washington.
“President Ronald Reagan and I both felt that this was an important issue to press with the Soviet leadership,” he wrote. “When we look back at the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and provide them the freedoms we are used to in the United States, it was a momentous occasion.”
Matthew Bronfman told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that while his father received many accolades during his life, “still, every time somebody of that quality, that reputation, responds, of course it gives [him] a very warm feeling and additional respect, if that’s even possible, for the work [his] dad did.
“My father knew president Bush and worked closely with him to get the ‘Zionism Equals Racism’ [resolution] repealed at the UN, so I think when the letter got to president Bush he knew the family connection and he responded which was really very gracious of him,” he said.
As president of the World Jewish Congress from 1981 to 2007, Edgar Bronfman played a key role in rescuing more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union.
After Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985, Bronfman went to the Kremlin as the first World Jewish Congress president to be received in Moscow by the Soviets. There, Bronfman initiated talks regarding a Soviet-Jewish airlift with Gorbachev and lobbied him to allow the free practice of Judaism, Jewish education and Hebrew language teaching, all of which were forbidden at the time.
Hoenlein told the Post, “I think that we can draw inspiration from the example set by others and especially somebody who had every opportunity to be involved in anything he wanted but chose to reinforce his Jewish identity, his Jewish involvement.
“I think it sets a model for not only those who are wealthy but for all of us that his identification is what fulfills one’s life. It is a critical component to a meaningful life,” he said.
“We can make contributions in many realms but we also have to look at ourselves and what it means to be a Jew, to be a knowledgeable Jew and a contributing Jew,” Hoenlein continued. “A handful of people stood against the Soviet Union, and they won. I think that this is the importance of this evening: remembering and reminding and talking about those who did it from grassroots people, whose names we’ll never know, to the most important people whose names we know, but it was the combination of all of them that made it powerful.”
Hoenlein added that the legacy of those who fought for Soviet Jews can be an inspiration for young Jews today as they face challenges on and off North American campuses.
“We have to stand up and you can find a voice,” he said. “There is nothing you can’t achieve if you do it in an intelligent and committed way.”