Shabbat Dvar Torah

Commemorating 40 Years to the Soviet Jewry Struggle,

Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Moreshet Avraham Community, Jerusalem, January 5, 2008

A fragment from the ancient Aleppo Codex of the Bible recently arrived in Jerusalem. It contained the verse from Exodus, "Let My people go!"

Its arrival at this time was most appropriate, since we have just begun to commemorate the 40th year of the campaign to free Soviet Jewry which used this phrase as its main slogan. Indeed, in many ways the modern struggle to free Soviet Jews was very reminiscent of the ancient struggle of Israel to emerge from Egyptian bondage. Soviet Jews may not have been slaves in a technical sense, but they were locked into an oppressive system that did not permit them freedom to live fully as Jews and prevented them from leaving the land, much as Pharaoh did. In the end, after much hardship and struggle, they too – like the ancient Israelites – were able to leave the land of oppression and make their way to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

We can only imagine the great chutzpah it required on the part of Moses to stand before Pharaoh –– the most powerful man in Egypt – perhaps in the world – a god to his people, and demand that he free his slaves. It took even more than that – it took great heroism and courage. So, too, in the case of the modern exodus, the modern redemption from slavery. What courage it took to stand up to the Soviets. That courage was not on the part of those of us in America, England or Israel who demonstrated –  or even on the part of those of us who went to the USSR and felt that we were endangering ourselves even though we really were not – but on the part of Soviet Jews who really put themselves in danger and suffered through the loss of work, loss of livelihood, loss of freedom, even imprisonment or exile. I want to pay tribute to them today.

As one example, let me mention a couple whom I met in Moscow in 1978. I was one of the many who were privileged to be sent to the Soviet Union as a messenger from Israel. I was one of a series of professors of the Jewish Theological Seminary who lived in Israel but had American passports, who were sent to meet refusniks, convey messages and materials to them and participate in seminars on Judaism held throughout the Soviet Union. The Soviet authorities surely suspected what we were doing. We were followed by KGB agents wherever we went. Our hotel rooms were obviously bugged, as were the homes of the brave refusniks where we met and lectured. I was fortunate in not being bothered by the authorities, but others were briefly interrogated and held in custody. But what we endured was nothing in comparison to the suffering of those we visited.

It was a privilege and an honor to meet those Jews who were sacrificing so much to remain Jews. Helen and Arkady Mai, for example, were in charge of the Moscow circle where I spoke. Arkady was a soft-spoken professor who had lost his position because he had applied to leave for Israel. An expert on the study of tyranny and tyrants, he knew the subject first hand. Helen was an exuberant woman of great linguistic talent, a translator of many Jewish books into Russian which were then circulated in secret. My most poignant memory is of her meeting me in Red Square to say goodbye and the realization we both had that I was free to leave the Soviet Union and would soon be back home in Israel while she would remain behind – perhaps forever. Fortunately, they eventually made their way to Israel where we were reunited and enjoyed a friendship for many years. Not that their absorption here was an easy one, but at least they realized their dream of living in Israel. Arkady passed away several years ago and Helen died just this last year. Their memories are a blessing to me.

Regarding the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah mentions four promises made by G-d (Exodus 6:2): "I will take them out"; "I will rescue them"; "I will redeem them"; "I will take them to Me" – and the commentators state that each promise refers to a different stage of the redemption. The first means the end of physical enslavement, the second the end of spiritual enslavement to Egyptian ways, the third to the realization at the Sea that this is part of a Divine plan, and the fourth means being part of a covenant with G-d made at Sinai.

The struggle for the freedom of the Jews in the USSR was also –  and remains today –  a process. More than one million Jews have come to Israel from there. Not all were prisoners of Zion, or even refuseniks. Many are simply people who came in order to better themselves.

The first stage – physical freedom – has been accomplished, but not all the others. In many cases, their integration into Israeli life has been less well achieved. Some still cling to habits and customs acquired in the USSR that are strange here. Their spiritual freedom has not yet been achieved. Some are easy prey for missionaries or Jews for Jesus, because they lack a firm foundation in Judaism. Some feel alienated here, not integrated into Israel, not accepted as Jews. Many who are not Jews according to Jewish Law cannot convert, because the Israeli Rabbinate places obstacles in their path and doesn't understand what needs to be done. Some of their youth become problematic, even delinquent, because they feel rejected. For them, the exodus is just immigration without greater meaning.

The fault is not theirs but ours, because Israel has failed to realize that you cannot expect people to suddenly jump from one civilization to another. Much more needs to be done to make them feel part of the Jewish people, part of Israeli life, part of the Jewish heritage – the fourth stage. It is our responsibility as individuals, as congregations, as a movement, as a society, to work to integrate them and strengthen their identity as Jews and Israelis.

Those heroes of the struggle we honor today led the way and achieved physical freedom for millions. It is up to us to finish the task of bringing about a more complete redemption.



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27 Apr 2008 / 22 Nisan 5768 0