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Jews in America: Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ)

The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) was the first American national movement created to help free Russian Jews.

In action from 1964 to 1991, SSSJ’s combination of imaginative demonstrations, Congressional lobbying and information dissemination helped generate the wave of international public pressure which ultimately forced open the gates of the Kremlin to mass emigration and the release of refuseniks and Prisoners of Conscience. A grassroots effort, SSSJ became a unifying factor among the diverse streams of American Jewry, and continually challenged the Jewish Establishment to act with greater vigor on behalf of its Russian brethren.

SSSJ was founded just months after the famed March on Washington at a meeting at Columbia University on April 27, 1964, initiated by Jacob Birnbaum, Glenn Richter, Arthur Green and James Torczyner, all involved in the American civil rights movement. Four days later, it staged a public demonstration of over 1,000 students at the Soviet Union’s Mission to the United Nations, which garnered a page 2 story in the New York Times the next morning. Within months, SSSJ drew political figures to its rallies. In 1965, noted Jewish singer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach penned SSSJ’s marching tune “Am Yisrael Chai!” (the people of Israel live!) It became the signature song of the Soviet Jewry freedom movement, both without and within the Soviet Union.

SSSJ saw four main pressure points: the Kremlin, the US government, public opinion and the American Jewish community. From 1964 to 1971, much effort was spent sparking a slowly growing interest in the issue and pressuring Establishment Jewish organizations to allocate a budget and staff to deal with the crisis. After the notorious Leningrad Trials which began in December 1970 of Jews who sought to escape from the USSR, SSSJ initiated, along with its adult activist counterpart of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ), widespread Congressional lobbying to first pass, then maintain, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The bill linked trade credits to the USSR with freedom of emigration. Intense pressure was kept on Establishment Jewish bodies not to abandon the Amendment despite pressures from the Nixon Administration, which had been so supportive of Israel to do so.

SSSJ differed from many other Jewish groups in that its leadership consisted of activist young rabbis, such as Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, Yitz Greenberg, Charles Sheer and Avi Weiss. They inspired many students, who were soon further motivated by books revealing American public political and Jewish inaction during the Holocaust. This generation, raised in less self-conscious times, swore to be different. Israel’s spectacular victory during the Six-Day War spurred more visible young American Jewish identification, and SSSJ provided a suitable vehicle. SSSJ continually utilized overt Jewish symbols, such as the shofar, and biblical phrases, such as “Let my people go.”

By the early 1970s, SSSJ had developed methods to bring out from the USSR. an increasing stream of information about and appeals by refuseniks (Jews denied exit) and Prisoners of Conscience (Prisoners for Zion), which were widely disseminated. These efforts bypassed the control of the Israeli government, which attempted to keep a lid on this documentation. SSSJ’s method was to focus on individual stories to understand the plight of millions of Russian Jews. To that end, SSSJ encouraged both popular and legislative mail and phone communication with refusenik and prisoner families, despite widespread KGB interference, as well as missions into the USSR to visit these Jews.

The enthusiasm of SSSJ’s many volunteers far exceeded the movement’s meager budget, raised in part by sale of protest buttons, bumper stickers, stamps, Prisoner of Conscience and refusenik bracelets. The successful effort to rescue a fifth of world Jewry, so soon after the Shoah, became a transformative experience for many young American Jews. They learned advocacy skills that were soon put to use for Israel and other causes, and understood that in their hands could lie the seeds of Jewish redemption.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.