Rabbi Avi Weiss is no stranger to highly charged political causes. He was thrown out of the Auschwitz death camp in 1989 for protesting the presence there of a Carmelite convent; in 1985 he lambasted then-president Ronald Reagan for visiting a German military cemetery that held the graves of SS troops; he’s advocated for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard; and he’s supported a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing same sex couples to marry.
But of all the causes he has promoted, it is the one to support freedom for Soviet Jews that tugs closest to his heartstrings.
“It was a humble hero movement,” Rabbi Weiss said.
Rabbi Weiss was a young man when he first took to the streets to push for freedom for Soviet Jews. It was 1964, at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement, when Rabbi Weiss first got involved as a leader with Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Now 71, Rabbi Weiss is author of Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist, a book he wrote in 2015. He was scheduled to reminisce about his activist days at a public lecture at Beth Tikvah Congregation on April 3.
Beth Tikvah is intimately connected to the movement for Soviet Jews, Rabbi Weiss explained on the phone from New York before the event. Avital Sharansky, wife of then “Refusenik” Natan Sharansky, spoke there on several occasions. Her relative, Stan Solomon, is a member of the shul and was very active in the movement, Rabbi Weiss noted.
Back in the day, young activists butted heads with members of the Jewish establishment during discussions over the extent of the pressure the United States should exercise in promoting Soviet emigration .
“We were young, hard-hitting, raised in the shadow of the Shoah,” Rabbi Weiss explained.
In the early 1970s, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was a hot topic in the United States. It tied trade to Soviet emigration and it divided young activists from many establishment Jews, who feared the Nixon administration’s efforts at detente would be hampered by confronting the Soviet Union.
Going back even before Jackson-Vanik was being debated, Rabbi Weiss said the movement for Soviet Jews resulted from “a confluence of several factors. I think Jews, 20 years after the Holocaust, began to stand up and the clarion call was, ‘never again.’”
At the same time, the civil rights movement was in full bloom and many young people were influenced by Rev. Martin Luther King, who himself spoke out in support of Soviet Jews.
You can add to the mix Israel’s remarkable victory in the 1967 Six Day War, which “instilled pride in Jews, to stand up,” he said.
It took many years before the doors of the Soviet Union were flung open and in 1985, recalled Rabbi Weiss, he and others, including Moshe Ronen – at the time a student activist who would go on to become president of Canadian Jewish Congress – were arrested in Geneva during the first Reagan/Mikhail Gorbachev summit over a sit-in at the Aeroflot Soviet national airline’s offices.
He spent two days in a maximum security prison for the act – just one of 50 times he’s been arrested for his activism, 36 of them connected to the Soviet Jewry movement.
With the perspective of years, Rabbi Weiss now says, “there are certain things I did that I regret.”
Despite his disagreements with the establishment, he believes both were working towards the same goal.
There was “a cacophony, [we were] at each other’s throats,” he said. “In the end, we were a symphony. We needed the activists. We needed the establishment.”
“It took the activists to push the establishment to be more aggressive on this,” he said.
“It’s the way it works. Movements start on the fringe.”
Looking back, Rabbi Weiss believes advocacy for Soviet Jewry was something momentous.
“It was the most important Jewish human rights movement since the Holocaust,” he said.