The lids are twisted out of shape on the mailboxes stuffed with dusty fliers. I’m searching for a woman named Yelena in this large apartment building in a not-yet-gentrified, what the British might call “dodgy,” section of Jerusalem. A bearded neighbor carrying a carton of matza doesn’t know her. Then his voice lowers: There are immigrants living in the storerooms in the basement. No name marks the storeroom door.
An elderly woman’s voice answers my knock in Russian. She opens the door a crack, narrowed eyes. “Keren Klita,” I say, smiling, pointing to the cover of the a Russian-language Haggada. I tear open the envelope of supermarket food coupons for holiday food. She invites me in, thanks me, wishing me a happy holiday.
Such is the volunteer work for Keren Klita. It’s gotten easier over the decades, with cellphones and GPS. At the beginning, it was pure exploration. I discovered streets where odd and even numbers might sit side by side, and found a world of questionable legal apartments, attached like space capsules to 1950s public housing projects. This is where newest immigrants from the former Soviet Union live, up in fourth-floor walk-ups and down in musty cellars. In the years of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, I ventured forth – aided by husband, children, even visiting relatives – with armfuls of holiday packages. Now, my husband and I have but a few parcels to deliver before Pessah, Hanukka and Rosh Hashana as the wave of immigration has become a trickle.
I’VE SERVED as a Keren Klita foot soldier for 21 years. Delysia Jayson, founder and commander-in-chief of this volunteer army, died two weeks ago. I join the tens of thousands of immigrants, volunteers and former refuseniks who pay tribute to her.
Jayson hailed from Elstree, Hertfordshire, a northern suburb of London, where she headed the local branch of another organization she helped found called the 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. The name comes from the first Prisoner of Zion they supported, Silva Zalmanson, who was then 35. For young people today, terms like Prisoner of Zion and refusenik have little meaning. Even Iron Curtain is as far removed as iron lung to those of us who grew up after the Salk and Sabin vaccines.
But how many of us honed our Jewish identity and Zionism on the struggle to free Soviet Jewry? Those brave Soviet Jews who risked imprisonment in the gulag for their Zionism remain our modern heroes. Many of us – like the Jaysons of Elstree – set seats at our Seder table for refuseniks and lifted the Matza of Hope for the freedom of 3.5 million Russian Jews.
Jayson made three perilous journeys to Russia to meet refuseniks, and in London she chained herself together with baby Edmund to the Russian Embassy. Recently, at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of FZY, a British Zionist youth movement, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the most famous refusenik, was shown a photo of one of those London demonstrations attended by his wife, Avital. Jayson was there. He knew the photo well.
Sharansky was on trial for his life, accused of treason. He was acting as his own defense attorney and demanded to see the evidence against him. “I had been isolated for a year and told the world had forgotten me. You can’t imagine what seeing the demonstration in London and my wife there did for me.”
The Soviets offered him a deal: freedom for his condemnation of Israel and the protesters. He refused. Pointing to the photo, his interrogator mocked him: “Who will save you from the mighty Soviet Union? These students and housewives?” But the Soviet oppressors, like Pharaoh of Egypt, underestimated those housewives like Delysia Jayson.
“We didn’t understand how significant our mother’s work was because she always seemed to be there for us, too,” said the grown-up baby Edmund, now Rabbi Yehuda Jayson, an educator here. Those housewife protests brought about the freeing of the Jews and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.
AFTER SHE moved to Jerusalem, Delysia Jayson founded Keren Klita to mirror the grassroots 35s. The floodgates of Russia had opened. A million Jews arrived. The same refuseniks for whom Jayson had set an empty plate in London were now sitting at her table.
When she left Russia on her trips, she and the refuseniks would cry on each others shoulders and say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Among those she met were Sarah and Daniel Frudkin, whom the community in Elstree subsequently adopted. In 1988, the Frudkins were among the million immigrants who made aliya. The Jaysons took them under their wide wings. Of course they came to the Seder. They sang “Next year in Jerusalem” with tears of joy streaming down their faces. Then Sarah Frudkin threw out the challenge: “We are okay because we have you. What about the other 71 people who came on our plane?” Jayson smacked her forehead and said, “You’re right.” The next day, on Hol Hamoed Pessah, she got some friends together and set up Keren Klita.
She knew they needed more help than the government could provide. Volunteers could be mentors and provide basic goods, furniture, retraining. Jayson’s Jerusalem kitchen would become the command center. As one of her many recruits in the late 1980s, I visited each new family with a bright plastic market basket, oil and sugar, a floor-washing squeegee and knit cloth, coffee and chocolate. I shared my own hard-earned immigrant wisdom and experience with “newercomers,” and had the satisfaction of helping them become Israelis. Many of my friends did the same.
Delivering Haggadot this week, I feel the same sense of exhilaration and pride in Jewish peoplehood I had then. The final delivery is on the fourth floor, to a newcomer from Ukraine, recovering from heart surgery here, and his already fluently Hebrew-speaking young adult daughter. I flip through the Haggada with her. Next year in Jerusalem.
Through the righteousness of optimistic Jewish women, insist the sages, came the redemption we celebrate on Pessah. Delysia Jayson died on her 67th birthday, and as befits a righteous person, she was surrounded by her husband, children and children-in-law, quietly singing.
The Israelite women in Israel took their tambourines on that night of hasty packing. How did they know there would be cause to sing?
At the Jayson household, in London and Jerusalem, no family member would dare leave the table until they’d sung the last Seder song with Delysia. Then, like Miriam, she got them up in a circle dance, to the promise, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Joyce Simson, one of Jayson’s fellow- 35s, phoned me from London in
connection with this column. She reminisced about their many protests,
the furtive visits to the Soviet Union and even desert trek
fund-raisers. “I was thinking of the Exodus from Egypt,” said Simson.
“There was no Jewish people outside of Egypt to help the refuseniks.
But for our present-day exodus, they had us.
“One last thing,” says Simson on the phone. “We had a wonderful
experience. It was the greatest expression of the ethics of the Jewish
people, and we were inspired. But you shouldn’t think it was all
drudgery. Delysia and the rest of us – we also had a lot of fun.”
The author is a Jerusalem writer who
concentrates on the wondrous stories of Modern Israel and its people.
She also represents the women of Hadassah in Israel.