For those Soviet Jewish refugees who resettled in Metro Detroit, their opportunities were possible thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers unwaveringly committed to the Soviet Jewry cause.
In the early 1970s, a slow trickle of Soviet Jewish refugees resettled in Metro Detroit. They gave up life in the USSR to pursue religious freedom and better opportunities for their families.
What started as a few hundred immigrants steadily began to pick up speed. By the late 1980s and particularly the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the trickle turned into a wave and thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees left the Iron Curtain for good.
It’s estimated that by the time the mass emigration finally slowed down, some 2 million Jews escaped the Soviet Union to start new lives in the United States, Israel, Canada and Australia, among other countries. For those resettled in Metro Detroit, their opportunities were possible thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers unwaveringly committed to the Soviet Jewry cause.
Everyday individuals like Metro Detroit-based Jewish community members Jeannie Weiner and Beverly Yost worked relentlessly around the clock to advocate on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Getting the Word Out
In the early years of the Soviet Jewish exodus, the Soviet Jewish struggles still weren’t publicized.
“It wasn’t something that was widely known or thought about in those years,” explains Yost, who at the time worked for the Jewish Community Council. There, she focused on international concerns, which led to cause of Soviet Jewry eventually entering her life.
“It was an issue that had really developed after the 1967 Six-Day War,” she said, “when Soviet Jews wanted to get out of the Soviet Union and get to Israel.”
In the early days of the movement, an organization separate from the Jewish Community Council known as the Detroit Committee for Soviet Jewry was organized by a small group of deeply committed activists. This, Yost explains, paved the way for a wider communal movement to launch several years later.
Piece-by-piece, awareness of what Soviet Jews were experiencing daily made its way to Jewish leadership in the Metro Detroit community. They learned that many Soviet Jews experienced constant antisemitism, had limited education and work opportunities, and couldn’t openly practice their religion. Children born after World War II had little-to-no knowledge of Jewish life, often never having been exposed to Jewish holidays or culture.
“It was a gradual awakening to a very serious problem,” Yost says.
Yet in the years that followed the Six-Day War, the issues of Soviet Jewry became entangled in other major problems facing the Jewish community. There was the Yom Kippur War, worry about domestic issues and overall concern for Israel. A dedicated group of individuals continued to push for Soviet Jewry, though, and moved the issue to the forefront of Jewish concerns.
“The Jewish Community Council was able to get a grant from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit to focus on Soviet Jewry,” Yost recalls. “They were able to hire somebody to specifically work on Soviet Jewry, and that was me.”
In the early 1980s and on, Yost and other supporters dived straight into raising awareness for Soviet Jewry, a cause that was quickly gaining speed and becoming a major issue not only in Metro Detroit, but across the entire United States. They advocated with elected officials, worked with members of Congress and pushed awareness for the cause through community education.
Jewish youth who became bar or bat mitzvahed in the 1980s often participated in a twinning program, where they would receive a Jewish “twin” in the Soviet Union who couldn’t have their own bar or bat mitzvah. American Jews would recite the name of their Soviet twin at their service, honoring the individual while also driving awareness for the struggles of Soviet Jewry. Many of these Soviet twins were “refuseniks” or Soviet Jews denied the right to emigrate.
Fighting for the Refuseniks
Freedom concerts, fundraisers, runs and more were also put on by various Jewish community organizations and synagogues to spread the message about the issue of Soviet Jewry and catch the attention of the government. Many local families also participated in an adopt-a-family program where they would write letters to a family in the Soviet Union.
“This was a challenge because many, if not most, of these letters didn’t get through,” Yost recalls. “People were making phone calls. A lot of the time the calls wouldn’t go through.”
Activist Jeannie Weiner, meanwhile, remembers writing letters that would receive censored responses. “Probably 30% of it was missing,” Weiner says, “but it caused me to learn even more.”
Weiner, advocating for the Soviet Jewry movement since the mid-1970s and involved with the Jewish Community Council like Yost, was alarmed by the censorship. She pushed hard for awareness and quickly became one of the leading voices of the cause.
Between 1984-1989, Weiner served on the board of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. She, along with hundreds of others, wore bracelets bearing the name of a Soviet Jewish refusenik. They marched, protested and continued to write letters to the government. “Most of it was to bring attention to the issues so that every single congressperson, every single senator or person in the State Department, and certainly the president, was aware of it,” Weiner says.
At Passover, many American Jewish families also left out extra matzah on the table in honor of fellow Soviet Jews unable to celebrate the holiday. As more Soviet Jewish families resettled in Metro Detroit and the rest of the country, knowledge about the widespread issues they faced in getting approval to emigrate continued to grow.
“There was a lot of red tape,” Yost recalls. Some Soviet Jews waited upwards of years for approval, often losing their jobs in the meantime. Others, like the refuseniks, waited years and were still denied, becoming ostracized from society and pushed into a state of limbo.
In 1983, Weiner and a group of volunteers decided to take matters into their own hands. They boarded a plane en route to Moscow and later Leningrad with luggage full of clothing, religious articles, medicine and electronics Soviet Jews could later sell, like cameras. “We went as tourists,” Weiner recalls, “and at night we’d sneak out after dinner to see Soviet Jewish families.”
While in Soviet airspace, they didn’t dare utter a word of their mission in fear of being overheard. They worked undercover in partnership with national organizations that provided them with the names and addresses of Soviet Jews in need. In addition to the religious artifacts that helped teach these families about Judaism, the electronics and clothing could later be sold to secure much-needed cash for the lengthy emigration process.
The process often involved a carefully organized pipeline that ran from Vienna to Rome, which refugees would spend months traveling through. Prior to leaving, Weiner and others secured as many donations of blue jeans as possible from local merchants, which were a hot commodity in the Soviet Union and sold for high prices, helping families secure temporary housing in Rome.
In 1987, Weiner also co-chaired a trip to Washington, D.C., for Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews, a national march and political rally held on Dec. 6. There, 250,000 Jews and non-Jews gathered to rally for more American governmental support in the fight for Soviet Jewry. That afternoon, three planes full of Detroiters (plus buses) went to Washington, D.C. to join the rally.
“It was a massive demonstration,” Yost recalls, who also attended the march.
The relentless efforts of Weiner, Yost and hundreds of others eventually paid off. Now, thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees and their American-born families call Metro Detroit home. They’ve become an essential part of the Jewish community and workforce, but no one, not even those behind the movement for Soviet Jewry, could have imagined the extent of the impact.
“We were up against a brick wall,” Yost says of the movement’s early days. “There seemed to be no way to break through it. That’s how it felt for a long time until things changed. It was a moment that stands out in my life.”
A Telephone Soldier
By Jackie Headapohl, Director of Editorial
Rae Sharfman of West Bloomfield calls herself “just a small soldier in a big movement.”
She started volunteering to help save Soviet Jewry shortly after the first Leningrad Trial, which happened on Dec. 15, 1970. In it, a group of Soviet Jews was charged with attempting to hijack a small Soviet commercial plane. Their aim was to reroute it to Sweden from where they would make their way to Israel.
On the planned day, the group knew the authorities had been alerted, but went through with it anyway, prepared to be arrested and inspire a movement to free all Soviet Jewry. As they walked toward the plane, they were beaten and arrested.
The sentences the participants received were harsh, even according to Soviet standards. Two were sentenced to death, and two others were handed long prison terms.
Soon after the trial, “A woman came to West Bloomfield and was speaking at one of the synagogues. Her daughter had been arrested,” Sharfman recalled. “She stuck her finger at the audience and said, ‘Your grandparents left, your parents split, or you could be standing here begging for the life of your child.’ That hit me right in the heart. And I said, ‘OK, we have to get involved.’”
Sharfman, whose parents were from the Soviet Union, began looking for people to work with and got in touch with Glenn Richter at the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which had been founded by Jacob Birnbaum in 1964 and was among the first grassroots movements for the liberation of Jews from the USSR. “He became my mentor,” Sharfman said. “Then we formed a group in the Michigan area.”
Armed with a telephone and a list of Soviet Jews who had been arrested, harassed or refused exit, Sharfman made calls. “There was a whole network of people like me making calls. We were a part of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. Whatever news we found, we could send to prominent Soviet Jewry activist Michael Sherbourne, who became the center of information in London. We became very good friends.”
Sharfman remains friends with many of the people she met in the 1970s in the movement. “We get together and we’re in touch all the time, whether we’re in Israel or not,” said Sharfman, who moved back to Michigan from Israel two years ago but hopes to return soon.
One of those friends was Pam Cohen, whose book, Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union, was published in July.
During her years as a volunteer, Sharfman went to the Soviet Union twice and constantly lobbied people in Congress. “People in Congress were absolutely fabulous.”
She recalls a trip to the Soviet Union in 1989 with the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. “The Soviets were not too happy we were there,” she said. “People came from all over the Soviet Union to speak. It was amazing.”
Once the Soviet Union began to break up in the late 1980s, Soviet Jews were finally free to go. “Until then, it was a big struggle, but, thank God, we made it,” Sharfman said.
Sharfman said she knows of someone in Israel working on a curriculum for high school students to learn more about the history of the Soviet Jews and what a “miracle it was that we won.”
Sharfman is uncomfortable getting accolades for her volunteer work that helped make that miracle happen. “It’s not me. It was a whole group of us doing the same thing,” she said.
Sharfman said a majority of the Jews who fled the Soviet Union came to Israel, where more than a million of them live now. “They have made an amazing contribution to Israel. They’re just fabulous people,” she said.