I made Aliyah approximately six years ago in February 2002 and currently work in the Education Department of the Jewish Agency, as a Senior Advisor to the Director of the Department. I completed my BA in International Relations at Columbia University in New York and my MA in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Israel.
I was born into a Jewish, Zionist family in Long Island, New York. My father, Bruce Ginsburg, is a Conservative rabbi. My mother, Rachel Ginsburg, works as a social worker and as a Jewish educator in the community. As far back as I can remember, my family was always very involved in Jewish communal life – both locally and globally.
This account is more about parents' activism than my own. The stories I am about to tell are from the 1980s when I was still a young child. I, therefore, asked my parents to help supplement my own memories with factual information prior to this interview in order to enable me to present as full a picture as possible.
I was born in 1979 – the very same week that my then 27 year old father started working as the rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in Bethpage, Long Island. The congregation was relatively small with 300 or so families.
In this capacity, my father organized a successful, NY-wide conference on Israel and the Middle East, gaining the reputation as a young rabbi and activist who could serve as a link between activist circles and the established Jewish community.
In the early 1980s, both the establishment and grassroots organizations felt it was important to draw attention to the plight of Soviet Jews within the Jewish community, the mass media and the international community. Several people turned to my father and urged him to bring this issue to the attention of the Jewish community and the media.
A group of five rabbis – my father, two other Conservative rabbis, a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi (Avi Weiss) – decided to commit an act of non-violent, civil disobedience and force their way into the headquarters of the TASS Soviet Telegraphic (News) Agency in New York. They chose TASS, rather than a different location, because it was a well-known Soviet institution but was more accessible than other, high-security, diplomatic offices.
The act of civil disobedience was carefully planned. At the TASS offices, the rabbis knocked on the door, were let in, and declared that they had a message for the Soviet government in Moscow. Taking off their hats and donning kippot and tallitot, the rabbis issued a number of demands, including one about medical care for Anatoly Sharansky, and issued an ultimatum saying that they would not leave TASS until their demands were met or transmitted to Moscow. Two of the TASS staff reacted in a particularly condescending manner and somehow the rabbis understood that they were Jewish themselves.
Although the press had not been given prior notice, Glenn Richter, a well-known Soviet Jewry activist, stood outside the building, updating the media about the developments inside. A couple of hours later, the police came on the scene to remove them from the building and they were held in custody for a few hours. By this time, press correspondents from the secular and Jewish media were already outside the TASS building.
This arrest remained a front-page item for about a month, particularly in the Jewish press, after which point in time it became a topic for the op-eds for another couple weeks. Despite the fact that this protest was carried out by only five rabbis, it generated a great deal of publicity.
My father soon became one of three rabbis who served as the rabbinic advisory committee for the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry, under the Chairmanship of Lynne Singer, who simultaneously chaired another ad hoc organization, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry.
It was then resolved to move to a larger scale, once again with the assistance of rabbis who represented the different streams of Judaism. Another non-violent act of civil disobedience called "Operation Redemption" was carried out. "Operation Redemption" was the mass arrest of 120 rabbis – the same number of seats in the Israeli Knesset and the Sanhedrin – at the Soviet Consulate in New York.
About 80% of the rabbis arrested in "Operation Redemption" were Conservative or Reform. My father was in charge of recruiting them to participate. Both the establishment and the grassroots Jewish organizations supported this event. The 120 rabbis, my father among them, were held by the police for several hours.
After "Operation Redemption", there was one further major protest action that my father was involved in. 20 rabbis, including my father – who was one of the organizers – picketed the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
Now, for my own memories of these events: I am not sure how old I was, but I clearly remember proudly announcing in school that my father had been thrown in jail. The other children and the teacher were surprised that I was not ashamed of the fact that my father had been imprisoned. But, to me, it was clear that he had been arrested fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews. I understood implicitly that it was a source of pride, not shame. I remember telling everyone with great pride, "My Abba's in jail – my Abba's in jail!"
Other rabbis in different parts of the country undertook similar acts of protest. Five rabbis from Washington D.C. initiated a similar protest, which resulted in their arrest for a longer period. They were held in police custody for over a week.
Every winter, we would visit my grandparents in Florida - a two or three day car trip from New York. I remember one time we stopped in Virginia to visit one of these five Washington DC rabbis in jail. My siblings and I waited in the car while my father went inside to see them.
My father also organized a month-long, hunger strike opposite the Supreme Court in Long Island. A different rabbi would be on a hunger strike every day. My father was constantly involved in getting rabbis from the different movements of American Judaism to join the protest, and all the movements were represented at the hunger strike: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
Another memory is that we often went to Soviet Jewry rallies. On Tisha B'Av, there would be a large demonstration called the Tisha B'Av Vigil, which we always went to. I do remember, however, that my parents decided not to take me to the big rally in Washington DC and I was very disappointed.
I remember chanting a popular Soviet Jewry movement protest song:
"One, two, three, four,
Open up the Iron Door!
Five, six, seven, eight,
Let our People emigrate!"
This protest song still echoes in my mind.
I also remember the Bar and Bat Mitzvah twins at my father's shul. I think the Bar Mitzvah twinning program started in Long Island and then spread to other parts of North America. This program twinned American Jewish children celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah with children of the same age behind the "Iron Curtain." The American Jewish kids would receive information about Refusenik families and write to their peers in the Soviet Union, although they generally did not receive replies.
When families celebrated a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the shul, there would be a cardboard, cut-out figure placed on an empty chair on the "Bimah" alongside the chairs of the rabbi, cantor and president of the shul. This cardboard cut-out would bear the name of a Jewish child of the same age in the Soviet Union. The speech given by the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student would be dedicated to his or her Soviet Jewish "twin." Everything was done to simulate the celebration of a double Bar or Bat Mitzvah. So, we grew up knowing that there were children who were unable to observe Jewish traditions and we thought of them as we celebrated our special moments.
On one occasion, sometime in the mid-1980s, a Soviet Jewish family received their exit visa approximately a week before the date of the planned "twinned" Bar Mitzvah for the child within our community.
The American Bar Mitzvah boy and his family knew that the twin had arrived in the United States, but the members of the shul knew nothing. It was the usual set-up: the cardboard cut-out on the Bimah, the empty chair with the name plaque of the Soviet Jewish child, the rabbi's seat, the Chazan, the Bar Mitzvah boy. The ceremony proceeded as usual and the Soviet Jewish boy's name was read out loud, with information about his family. The Bar Mitzvah boy then said he was proud to announce that his "twin's" family had received an exit visa and was already in the US. At this point, the Soviet Jewish boy stood up in the middle of the shul and approached the Bimah with his parents accompanying him. There wasn't a dry eye in the shul. I remember being deeply moved by this as a young girl - everyone was crying with happiness.
Several years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, my father came home one day and told us that he had performed a marriage ceremony between a young, Russian-speaking couple and had been moved by the fact that all those present at the wedding had been Russian speakers. He saw this as the fulfillment of a dream. Twenty years before, this would have been inconceivable. It had been assumed that several thousand Jews would be allowed to leave – he could never have imagined that over one million Jews would come to America, Israel, and other countries, or that he would officiate at a large wedding with so many Russian-speaking Jews.
Anatoly Sharansky entered American consciousness as a symbol. I don't really remember being aware of the names of the other refuseniks. But, I clearly remember attending demonstrations in support of Sharansky as well as my father's meeting with him.
Shortly after Sharansky was released from prison and made Aliyah, he came to the US on a visit – I believe it was his second. Several rabbis, who had been active in the Soviet Jewry movement, were invited to greet his plane in Kennedy Airport, among them my father. I was still young at the time (about eight years old), but I remember asking my father to take a camera and get an autograph. My father, who is a modest man, refused to do so, saying that he didn't want to bother Sharansky. Later that day, my father came home laughing – all the other rabbis had asked for Sharansky's autograph and taken pictures except for him.
Fast forward approximately 15 years later: On my first week in the country after having made Aliyah in 2002, I heard that Sharansky, who was a Minister in the Israeli government at the time, was scheduled to meet with a young leadership mission of American Jews staying at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem. Knowing some of the participants in the mission, I decided to take this opportunity to hand-deliver a copy of my resume to Natan Sharansky.
I waited in the hotel lobby until the end of Sharansky's talk and then, going straight through his security guards, I approached him, saying something like: "My parents were activists in the campaign for your release and I remember my father meeting you on one of your first visits to the US. I made Aliyah this past week and am privileged to now be a citizen of the same country and to have you represent me as a Minister in the Israeli government." I then handed him my resume and said that it would be my honor to work with him as either a paid staff member or a volunteer. Sharansky shook my hand, congratulated me and asked a few questions about my recent Aliyah.
Not surprisingly, no one from Sharansky's office ever followed up on my resume. But, approximately two and half years later, I ended up running a large-scale initiative under the auspices of Natan Sharansky and his Office of the Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. Serving as the International Director of Yavneh Olami, a religious Zionist student organization, I helped start and run a program called the "Sharansky Initiative," which trained thousands of young Jews to be pro-Israel advocates on university campuses abroad. During my time at Yavneh, I had the opportunity to attend monthly meetings in Sharansky's office at the Prime Ministers Office with his senior staff and meet Sharansky on at least a dozen different occasions.
I can't say that I became close to Sharansky nor would he recognize me today if he saw me on the street. But, there was a time a couple of years ago, when he knew my name and when we had the opportunity to sit on the same panel or share the same stage. For me, that is very special.
I remember that in the early 1980s several Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union passed through our home. They would often be our guests on Shabbat or holidays. My childhood memories include, for example, a girl called Masha Feiginova, who spent a lot of time in our home. She came to America with her mother and uncle.
Everything related to the Soviet Jewry struggle was especially important to me in my childhood. I felt that I was part of what was going on with the Soviet Union and the Cold War: I would regularly mail letters to the children of Refuseniks, and despite the fact that I never got a reply, I understood that someone in the Soviet Union knew that there were children who were concerned about the fate of other children. It was exciting. I remember feeling like I was some kind of James Bond for the Jewish community.
These events were undoubtedly formative experiences for me and my Jewish identity. My interest in this subject played itself out on a number of levels. It is no coincidence that I chose to write a seminar paper for my BA in International Relations at Columbia on the subject of the "Jackson-Vannik Amendment." In retrospect, I think I wanted the opportunity to study in-depth a historical period that had had so much of an impact on me as a young girl. I wanted to understand what had happened "behind the scenes" to mold my own Jewish identity.
The last memory I would like to share is from a more recent period in my life when I was an undergrad at Columbia University during the beginning of the Al Aksa Intifada in 2000-2001.
Over the years, my father continued his Jewish political activism. During the Al Aksa Intifada, he was responsible for spearheading several large demonstrations of support for Israel in New York.
Prior to one such rally, I assumed responsibility for recruiting students from Columbia University and other universities in New York. I have a distinct memory of taking the subway from Columbia downtown to the site of the rally. The entire subway car was full of students headed towards the pro-Israel rally. A conversation started and one of the students recalled that as a child his parents had taken him to demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Another student said that he had also attended Soviet Jewry rallies with his parents. Quickly, it became clear that almost all of the students in that subway car on their way to a pro-Israel rally had been to Soviet Jewry demonstrations as kids. I found this to be significant. I realized how important it is for parents to educate their children to participate in communal affairs and how much of an influence movements like the Soviet Jewry struggle have on people even years later.
One does not necessarily expect a small child to have a grasp of these matters. But the fact that these issues continue to be important to me today and that my professional responsibilities are connected to world Jewry demonstrate that my childhood experiences impacted various aspects of my adult life. One should not underestimate that influence.