This past Wednesday marked the 30th Anniversary of Freedom Sunday, a rally in Washington D.C. on behalf of Soviet Jewry. An estimated 250,000 people demonstrated on the National Mall in an unprecedented display of solidarity with Soviet Jews. Organized by a broad based coalition, activists from across the country came to demand that Gorbachev put an end to the forced assimilation of Soviet Jews and allow them to emigrate from the USSR.
In his book, When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone, Gal Beckerman points out that the Soviet Jewry movement was unique in the annals of American Jewish history in three ways.
1 The movement was grassroots. It was not initiated by established Jewish communal organizations or professionals. it was led by students and housewives and synagogue members who became activists in order to help solve the problem.
2 The movement was when American Jews found their voice. The Soviet Jewry Movement demonstrated that American Jewry had learned its lesson from the Holocaust. When Jews far away were in danger, they would not be silent this time.
3 The movement was a rare moment of unity in American Jewish history. Jews put aside their differences and worked together on a cause that they all agreed was important enough to present a united front.
Soon after Freedom Sunday 1987, the fruits of those efforts began to be seen in earnest. 30 years later there are 1 million Soviet Jews in Israel and a half million in the United States.
What is the activist cause for the Jewish community in the 21st century? What can be or should be today’s equivalent of the Soviet Jewry Movement?
One obvious contender for our activist efforts is the State of Israel. As the world turns its back on her, we need to learn from the tactics of the Soviet Jewry movement and apply them to pro-Israel activism. I recall vividly my participation in the Israel Solidarity Rally on April 15, 2002. Standing with tens of thousands of pro-Israel supporters on that day was a memory that will stay with me forever.
Another cause gaining attention and activism on its behalf is the affordability of Jewish education. One of the ways that this issue is being addressed is through involvement in political action and lobbying on behalf of government funding for elements of day school education.
What’s critical is that we choose to be active about something.
At the beginning of the Parsha we read about the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. They hate him, and conventional wisdom explains that they hate him because he thinks he’s better than the rest of them. However when we look carefully at the pesukim we see that the brother begin to hate Yosef before he tells them the details of his dreams. Knowing that Yosef is a dreamer is enough for the brothers to hate him. It would seem that the brothers embraced Yaakov’s attitude on life: Bikesh Yaakov Leisheiv B’Shalva- they want to live in peace, to live and let live, without making waves. That is not how life works. Life is to find issues that we are passionate about, and then work hard on behalf of those causes.
Yosef is the dreamer. Perhaps that is why he is called a Tzaddik; a man that understood that we must always have a cause that we are working on. Let us learn the lessons from 30 years ago, as well as our forefather Yosef and commit to finding causes that speak to our souls and then advocating on their behalf.