The Jerusalem Post and Limmud FSU commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Struggle for Soviet Jewry with the opening of an exhibit of extraordinary photographs at the headquarters of the UJA-Federation of New York. The exhibition curator is Asher Weill.
The 50-image exhibit will be displayed in California, Washington, DC, Florida, Canada, Jerusalem and in other cities throughout the world.
Created by Limmud FSU in cooperation with the Post, the exhibit, which opened June 9, features works of Robert A. Cumins, prime photographer for the national United Jewish Appeal during the height of the struggle. Curator Asher Weil incorporated Cumins’s photos and pictures from the archives of the Post to create an exhibit that visualizes this volatile historic period.
“These photographs capture the moments,” said Stephen Greenberg, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
In 1984, Greenberg was chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
“It was an important part of my life – the North American Diaspora community was totally united. We now celebrate not only that Russian Jews got out, but they could live freely as Jews.”
Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, participated in the Washington march. He was joined by a quarter million others rallying for the right of Jews to leave the Soviet Union. He described the photo exhibit as a “significant part of our ‘collective memory’ – a lesson in the power of communal action.”
Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, said “people are anxious to reconnect with their roots – a truly wonderful thing.” Standing at an easel he described a exhibit photograph of his father meeting president Mikhail Gorbachev at that critical time.
The event was highlighted by a panel discussion including Peter May, past chairman of Operation Exodus, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, and was moderated by Eric Goldstein.
Sharansky, jailed as a refusenik for 12 years, became a symbol and spokesman for those still caught behind the Iron Curtain. He recalled his first moments of freedom, “I didn’t sleep many nights after this release. I felt this was a dream, that I would awake in the punishment cell.
Soon after his aliya, Sharansky came to the US to work on the 1987 March for Soviet Jewry. Many in the Jewish community leadership hesitated, fearing Jews would be seen as “warmongers.” Sharansky disagreed. He secured a meeting with president Ronald Reagan, and assured the president that the march was not against the interests of the United States. Reagan encouraged the demonstration, promising “I will do what I have to do. “The president later wore a bracelet depicting a Jewish refusenik to a meeting with the Soviet premier, Gorbachev.
“To be in Natan’s presence is wonderful,” Peter May said. “An incredible feeling.”
May’s active participation in the Jewish community started by understanding the refuseniks. “Gorbachev let Jews leave the Soviet Union but not go to Israel.” As chairman of the “Passage to Freedom” campaign, May helped to raise $38 million to bring Jews to New York.
When pressure on the USSR made it possible for Jews to go to Israel, May initiated “Operation Exodus.” He assumed leadership of that campaign and raised more than a billion dollars. The number of emigrants was estimated at “about 300,000- 400,000. More than triple that number, came to Israel.
“The intelligentsia of Russia were coming. It was extraordinary. Almost everyone of them came off the gangplank and kissed the ground. “The Jewish community recognized its responsibilities. Everyone responded,” May said.
Looking toward the future, Goldstein said “the Jewish narrative is the strongest collective magnet in the history of time. Yet, it needs a push. Jews must be engaged as Jews, be connected and identify as Jews. Limmud FSU is part of that.”
Sandra Cahn , Limmud FSU co founder who initiated the event at the NY federation notes that about 300,000 Jews in the Metropolitan area have Russian heritage. "Our audience is the young, often unaffiliated, Russian Jewish population.
A million Jews are still in the FSU." she reminds. "Limmud FSU is an open platform for Jewish learning." The former Chair of UJA's Business and Professional Women's Division now volunteers for Limmud FSU "all the time. Where ever one is on his or her Jewish journey, there is a place at Limmud FSU!"
“Everybody has to look after his own.” said Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSY. “This is the essence of kol Yisrael haverim (all Jews are friends). Two million Russian Jews were stuck behind the Iron Gate. I felt the spirit of concern for my people. Limmud FSU helps build a Jewish future.”