Almost 25 years to the day that a massive Soviet Jewry rally drew 250,000 protestors to the National Mall in Washington, former activists and emigrants gathered at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva to recall the milestone event.
Speaking to students at the Edison school on Dec. 7, they described the struggles and eventual triumph of those involved in the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
Avital Chizhik, an RPRY graduate whose parents fled the USSR, told the students that when they light the Hanukka candles, they should “remember there were miracles not only in the time of the Maccabees.”
She was joined on the panel by her father, Dmitry; Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, who in the ’80s had delivered Judaica and kosher food to “refuseniks” during the Cold War; and Dr. Jay Blum, a Highland Park physician and a former leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Schwarzberg, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Ahavas Achim, said attending the 1987 rally was “one of the most incredible events of my life.”
“I remember driving down the NJ Turnpike and seeing bus after bus, all from the metropolitan area, of Jews all heading to Washington with one thing in mind, ‘Let my people go,’” said Schwarzberg, currently on the senior staff of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.
Blum, founder of the SSSJ chapter at the University of Pennsylvania and leader of the Jewish Student Union of Philadelphia, organized a Freedom Bus for Soviet Jewry that visited 33 American cities in 1971.
As one of the early voices for Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Blum spoke of enlisting professors, college administrators, students, and government leaders in the fight.
“We would handcuff ourselves outside the Russian embassy,” recalled Blum. The activists would put gum into the handcuff locks, which cost the police more time to remove them and allowed the news media more time to get there.
Schwarzberg and two other rabbis traveled to the USSR in 1987, impersonating history teachers. One of his colleagues, Rabbi Neal Turk, now also a Highland Park resident, refused to let the customs agents at the airport confiscate his Bible.
In what Schwarzberg called “the most humiliating experience” of his life, soldiers swarmed them, took apart their luggage, and dragged the trio into back rooms, where they were strip-searched, purportedly as suspected drug smugglers.
Avital Chizhik, who lives in Highland Park and is a business writer, related how her great-great-grandfather, a journalist, was arrested in 1937 for being a Zionist and sent to a labor camp. They later found out he had been shot a week after his arrest. Two of her great-grandmothers died at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev where, in 1941, 33,771 Jews were systematically shot by the Nazis.
Because the only way Soviet Jews could be allowed out of the country was to have a “letter of invite” from Israel, her grandfather came up with an ingenious way to thwart the authorities.
“He cut open and took the elastic band out of his underwear,” writing down dozens of names and addresses on it before sliding it back. Letters of invitation were later sent to those on the hidden list, she said.
Dmitry Chizhik, a radio engineer, recounted the dark days of his childhood when practicing Judaism or attending a religious service could result in a loss of job, harassment, or even imprisonment. He himself faced discrimination and malicious teasing in school.
His family arrived in Manhattan’s Washington Heights in 1979 with just three suitcases and $500; the Jewish community took them under its wing, helping them learn English and find housing and employment. Now an observant Jew, Dmitry said the abundance of goods, services, and religious freedom in America “was a shock to us.”
“We had little knowledge of Jews or Judaism,” he said. “My grandparents were the last to attend religious school. It was not talked about at all.”
In the 1980s, Dmitry recalled, his grandmother came to the United States from Kiev for Passover. Showing her an orange juice container marked kosher for Passover, Dmitry said he was stunned when she read the Hebrew words “kosher l’Pesach.”
“I didn’t know she could read Hebrew,” he said. “They tried to take our history from us.”