Open Up the Iron Door: Mem­oirs of a Sovi­et Jew­ry Activist

Rab­bi Avra­ham Weiss
  • Review
By – May 18, 2015

One of the great tri­umphs of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish his­to­ry was the suc­cess­ful move­ment to free Sovi­et Jews. Sub­ject to dis­crim­i­na­tion, to fre­quent phys­i­cal vio­lence, and to the pro­gres­sive loss of their reli­gious and cul­tur­al her­itage, these Jews were barred from leav­ing Rus­sia. A gen­er­a­tion lat­er, the achieve­ment of their free­dom has reced­ed into his­to­ry and become a dim mem­o­ry. It is there­fore impor­tant to pre­serve as full a record as pos­si­ble of the move­ment, which stretched from the mid-1960s to the col­lapse of the USSR in 1991. Accord­ing to Rab­bi Weiss, the decades of strug­gle were ini­tial­ly inspired by the hero­ics and affir­ma­tion of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the harsh sen­tences hand­ed down by a Sovi­et court to des­per­ate Jews,who, after being denied visas to leave for Israel, hijacked a Russ­ian air­lin­er. Anoth­er fac­tor was the ide­al­ism gen­er­at­ed by the Amer­i­can Civ­il Rights Movement.

Rab­bi Weiss, spir­i­tu­al leader of the Hebrew Insti­tute of Riverdale, was a promi­nent, tire­less activist for Sovi­et Jews, and a some­what con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure. He describes him­self as hav­ing been an anti-estab­lish­ment indi­vid­ual, a spir­i­tu­al activist” who com­bined reli­gious teach­ings with his activism. He empha­sizes that the Stu­dent Strug­gle for Sovi­et Jew­ry (SSSJ),the orga­ni­za­tion he led, was devot­ed to non­vi­o­lence. In an inter­est­ing sec­tion, Weiss con­trasts his phi­los­o­phy with that of Rab­bi Meir Kahane and the Jew­ish Defense League. SSSJ tac­tics includ­ed hunger strikes, sit-ins, and prayer ser­vices in front of the Russ­ian Embassy in Wash­ing­ton, DC, the Sovi­et Mis­sion to the Unit­ed Nations in New York, the head­quar­ters of the Russ­ian air­line Aeroflot, and the Russ­ian diplo­mat­ic res­i­dence in Riverdale. Free­dom Seders fea­tured an extra matzah for Russ­ian brethren. Cre­ative street the­ater and infor­ma­tion­al dis­cus­sions brought about grow­ing pub­lic aware­ness. The SSSJ and sim­i­lar groups were the spark: they brought pas­sion and ener­gy to the move­ment; some of Rab­bi Weiss’s own stu­dents at Stern Col­lege and Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty were avid participants.

Look­ing back, the author appears to now under­stand the neces­si­ty of activists and the Jew­ish estab­lish­ment work­ing togeth­er, as they even­tu­al­ly did. In regard to his for­mer estab­lish­ment oppo­nents, Rab­bi Weiss pulls no punch­es. He names fig­ures such as Mor­ris Abram, who held high office with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and the gov­ern­ment, Armand Ham­mer, and oth­er moguls who sought lucra­tive deals with the USSR. Rab­bi Weiss claims that the so-called com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers pre­ferred the tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish pol­i­cy of appeas­ing pow­er­ful ene­mies, a tra­di­tion which Rab­bi Weiss utter­ly rejects. He blasts for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hen­ry Kissinger, a refugee from Nazi Ger­many, for his indif­fer­ence, and holds Israel account­able for accom­mo­da­tion­ist poli­cies and attempts to cur­ry favor with Rus­sia after the Six-Day War diplo­mat­ic break in relations.

This feisty account also gives cred­it where cred­it is due. Rab­bi Weiss asserts that Sovi­et Jews set the movement’s agen­da, describ­ing the suf­fer­ing of many refuseniks” who became famil­iar names and faces to West­ern sup­port­ers. Amer­i­can Jews were junior part­ners” in the endeav­or. A list of Amer­i­can vol­un­teers is sup­plied at the back of the book; most are unknown except to their com­rades. Rab­bi Weiss also express­es deep appre­ci­a­tion to Chris­t­ian cler­gy for their assis­tance. The retelling of Avi­tal and Natan Sharansky’s sto­ry is mov­ing. The leg­isla­tive and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of the Jack­son-Vanik Amend­ment, which tied eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits and cul­tur­al exchanges to Jew­ish emi­gra­tion, deserves the cov­er­age it receives.

Although repet­i­tive in spots, Open Up the Iron Door is high­ly read­able except for the final sec­tion, which lags. Like the author’s life, his writ­ing is nev­er bor­ing. One may con­clude that the author is a true believ­er in caus­es which he deems vital to Jew­ish sur­vival. Few com­mit­ted Jews would dis­agree with his major themes: that the Sovi­et Jew­ry Move­ment result­ed in unit­ing the Jew­ish world, offer­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to Jews, espe­cial­ly in the Dias­po­ra, to strength­en their Jew­ish identity.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the move­ment brought Rab­bi Weiss into close con­tact with Jews from Con­ser­v­a­tive, Reform, and Recon­struc­tion­ist denom­i­na­tions; he appears to have become impressed by their sin­cer­i­ty and respect­ful of their per­spec­tives. The author’s cur­rent project is the pro­mo­tion of a new type of Ortho­doxy, which he labels Open” Ortho­doxy. He desires to make this project an inclu­sive one. He has already found­ed two yeshiv­ot, one that embod­ies the prin­ci­ples that define his life, anoth­er that pre­pares women for ordi­na­tion. A col­lec­tion of small pho­tos dat­ing from the 1960s to the 1990s sets the mood for the text. It would have been use­ful to include a time­line of move­ment high­lights, and a list of agen­cies referred to by their abbre­vi­a­tions. Index.

Relat­ed Content:

Lib­by K. White is direc­tor of the Joseph Mey­er­hoff Library of Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Bal­ti­more, MD and gen­er­al edi­tor of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries Newsletter.

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