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February 20, 2015 10:37 am

Memoirs of a Soviet Jewish Activist (REVIEW)

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avatar by Ronn Torossian

Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of the newest Jewish movement on the American scene: Open Orthodox Judaism.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel. To commemorate the anniversary, longtime activist Rabbi Avi Weiss is releasing a touching book, entitled “Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist,” which details American Jewish activism all over the world to raise awareness about the millions of Jews who were stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

The book – written from the front-line perspective of Reb Avi – details internal American Jewish politics, hunger strikes, inter-personal conflict, relationships, civil disobedience, and fights within the American Jewish establishment. The touching book is chock-full of great details; it is inspiring, special, and is worthwhile reading for anyone who wants to hear the story of the plight of Russian Jewry.

“Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist” belongs in every single American Jewish home that cares about the Jewish past, present, and future. The following excerpt details the unprecedented unity that the plight for Soviet Jewry inspired at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1987:

That rally, the largest held in the nation’s capital in the history of the Soviet Jewry movement, was a testament to Natan’s vision and moral leadership. In holding the rally just days before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Washington, we declared in no uncertain terms that the time had come to open the gates and release Soviet Jewry.

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When Natan first conceived the idea, I, for one, was skeptical; I did not think thousands would come. What I didn’t know was that Natan himself would travel from community to community, urging people to join. The rally was the pure result of his vision, his drive, and his belief that the amkha (the masses) would stand up to be counted.

Some of Natan’s close friends have told me how they accompanied Natan on his grueling trips from city to city, urging communities to join in the effort. Jack Lew, a close friend of Natan who went on to become the US secretary of the treasury, said: Natan did all the trips, and David Makovsky and I alternated traveling with him, whether it was Minneapolis, Chicago, or Kansas City. Wherever he went, he’d draw a large audience.

He asked people to charter buses and airplanes, and they started doing it. And it became clear that a lot of people were going to come. Other friends of Natan related that, in the beginning, the establishment declined to lend a hand. Only after it became clear that Natan was making headway did the establishment jump on board. To their credit, establishment leaders, once committed to the rally, pulled out all stops to encourage maximum attendance. They also deserve credit for pulling together the complicated logistics.

Today, more than twenty-five years later, the Soviet Jewry rally on the Mall is cited as a model example of what the Soviet Jewry movement was all about. The gathering of so many people who traveled great distances – raising a voice of Jewish conscience, of moral conscience – was unprecedented.

For me, however, the rally was not the movement’s defining moment. The Soviet Jewry movement was a visceral reaction of common folks around the world who, in small grassroots demonstrations everywhere, raised a voice of Jewish conscience. Ten people here, a hundred there, came to understand that as they stood, others stood elsewhere speaking out for their sisters and brothers with similar passion and commitment. American Jews, indeed Jews worldwide, coalesced into a family of protesters who spoke out relentlessly, powerfully, and endlessly.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss – a personal hero to me – has made such a difference for Jews around the world, and this touching book details an important chapter of the Soviet Jewish experience. The book is insightful, touching, educational, and full of yiddishkeit. It is published by The Toby Press, and will be available late March 2015 online and at local bookstores.

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