(RNS) — I had just finished giving a talk on my new book on the state of American Judaism, post-Oct. 7.  It was at the 92nd Street Y in New York, in conversation with Rabbi David Ingber. A man approached me and introduced himself, in a soft Russian accent. 

He told me his name was Slepak. 

“As in … ?”

“Yes,” he replied. “My father was Vladimir Slepak.”

That name instantly carried me back, decades ago, in Jewish and world history. That name had been on the lips of a generation of Jewish activists — a name spoken with deep reverence.

The late Vladimir Slepak was a Russian dissident and one of the heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement.

For those of us too young to remember, the Soviet Jewry movement was an international human rights movement that advocated for religious freedom for Jews in the former Soviet Union (or, more accurately, the future former Soviet Union).

Those freedoms included the right to study Judaism, to worship freely and openly, and to emigrate from the USSR to Israel. Those who had applied for permission to emigrate, and had been refused such permission by the Soviet authorities, were known as refuseniks.

Their lives were wretched; once you applied for permission to emigrate, that information would make its way to your employer, you would lose your job, and that would plunge your family into a financially precarious position.

Read the indispensable history of the movement: “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” by Gal Beckerman.

The Soviet Jewry movement flourished in the 1960s through the 1980s. It captured the imagination of a generation of Jews. It involved massive rallies (especially the Freedom Sunday rally in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 1987 — 200,000 people), letter writing campaigns and surreptitious missions to Russia to visit refuseniks.

If my memory serves me correctly, I had met Slepak on my own trip to Russia, back in 1983. His son confirmed it was possible; their apartment in Moscow had been a gathering place for such activists. “Natan Sharansky was arrested in our apartment,” he told me proudly.

On that trip, in the darkest days of the oppression of Soviet Jews, I visited a major bookstore in what was then Leningrad. An entire section of the bookstore featured anti-Israel and antisemitic posters. One poster depicted Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Hitler, goose stepping over the bodies of dead Palestinians. 

Let us also remember: The “Zionism is racism” canard, peddled in the United Nations in 1975 and still parroted to this day, was a Russian export — pure Soviet propaganda. 

The Soviet Jewry movement galvanized the entire Jewish world. Activism for Soviet Jewry was a key part of my Jewish youth and young adulthood; my first public act of Jewish solidarity was attending a Soviet Jewry rally at Eisenhower Park on Long Island, in 1966 when I was barely 12 years old. It was hardly to be my last; such demonstrations for Soviet Jewry were part of my youth group days, wherein we spent many evenings protesting at the United Nations.

We wore bracelets adorned with the names of the refuseniks, the “prisoners of Zion.” Years later, young people would symbolically share their bnai mitzvah ceremonies by “twinning” with young Russian Jews who had been denied the ability to learn and practice Judaism. 

But there was something else about the Soviet Jewry movement. 

To quote the old Levy’s rye bread commercial: You didn’t have to be Jewish to care about Soviet Jews.

Some years ago, I spent a social evening with the actress-activist Jane Fonda. In preparation for our time together, I had read her autobiography, and I told her how much I had enjoyed it.

She told me she had originally written in depth about her deep friendship with the Soviet Jewish activist Ida Nudel, who was known as the “Guardian Angel” for refuseniks. Jane had made such visits to Russia to visit refuseniks.

Alas, those pages were left, somehow, on the cutting room floor.

Consider all of the other causes, many of them controversial, that occupied Jane’s time and energy. Soviet Jewry was part of her moral portfolio. That fact speaks volumes — not only about her, but about the times.

And then, there was the late Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary. She was also part of that 1983 trip to the Soviet Union. She was also not Jewish. An enduring memory: her concert at the Moscow residence of the United States ambassador, when she sang the song “Sweet Survivor” and dedicated it to the Jews who were captive in the Soviet Union.

And then, of course, there was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which most people, to this day, simply call “Jackson-Vanik.” Its intent: to deny favored nation trading status to countries that restricted Jewish emigration and other human rights (since repealed in 2012).

Neither of its sponsors — Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Rep. Charles A. Vanik of Ohio — was Jewish. Neither of them had particularly Jewish constituencies. They did it because it was the right thing to do.

The Soviet Jewry movement cared about Jews being free to live as Jews. But it saw the plight of Jews as being a universal human concern — a cause all decent people might embrace. Those rights did not only include the right to learn Judaism; it meant the right to live in the Jewish state (and yes, many of those Russian Jews wound up in the United States). No matter: Human rights advocates knew we were all in this together.

The Soviet Jewry movement was uniquely Jewish and yet also universal in its appeal. 

And it was, perhaps, the last time that happened. Since those heady days of the Soviet Jewry movement, I cannot think of another time when a particularly Jewish cause has aroused international and universal sympathy.

Moreover, the vulgarity and the sheer horror of such Soviet-era images as the ones on that poster — Begin and Hitler walking over Palestinian cadavers — have become mainstream, both visually and verbally.

Those images far exceed any criticism of particular Israeli policies. The only people who are subject to attack because of their co-religionists’ policies — on the other side of the world — are Jews. Nine-year-old Jewish kids in public schools in California now pay the price for what Israelis are doing in the Middle East. In such a way, the hateful protesters have gotten their way; the intifada has been globalized. 

But, getting back to my surprise encounter with the son of one of modern Jewry’s great heroes.

It was a pleasant conversation — after which we embraced, almost as long-lost brothers.

As we parted, I thought of the old song of the Soviet Jewry movement, which the late Theodore Bikel had sung and which we sung in Jewish summer camp — in Russian!

“I shall not be afraid of anyone, and I shall not believe in anyone, except for God alone.”


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