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The Beginnings of The Soviet Jewry Movement in Cleveland
Herbert S. Caron PhD
 

Introduction

In December 2012 Jewish Cleveland celebrated the 25th anniversary of Summit Sunday. learn more), an event designed to put pressure on the USSR to stop restrictions on Soviet Jews.. To provide background to those attending, an essay on the beginnings of the Soviet Jewry movement was distributed.

Its author, Herbert Caron, one of the movement's founders, was the executive secretary of the Cleveland Committee on Soviet Jewry. He has graciously furnished an excerpt from his essay for this website.

He gives us, for the first time, an account of the thoughts and actions of the small group that planted the first seeds of wide-spread public concern for the millions of Soviet Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Dr. Caron earned his PhD in Psychology from Harvard University.

photo - Cleveland Jewish News - 1964

 
 

The Beginnings of
the Soviet Jewry Movement in Cleveland

Herbert S. Caron


In the autumn of 1963, I and three others from Beth Israel - The West Temple, the small synagogue on Cleveland’s west side, proposed a dramatic plan to Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. We wished to publicize the plight of three million Soviet Jews whose culture and identity were being destroyed. Rabbi Silver complimented us on our "good Jewish hearts" but assured us that negotiations by savvy political insiders would soon reduce Soviet abuse of its Jewish population. He also warned us that meddling in international affairs would be useless and probably damaging to the effective negotiations already in process. Clearly, Rabbi Silver was not going to join in some impulsive trek led by untested amateurs.

However, after consulting with other information sources, we concluded that the rabbi’s assurances and warnings were not valid. We'd had considerable background experience during the prior four years, reading widely, and conferring with Jewish activists, leaders and historians, and were able to evaluate organizational denial, hang-ups, and timidity. Accordingly, we resolved to act on our own to create a strong movement that would raise public concern about the dangerous circumstances of Soviet Jews. By 1975 this effort would culminate in the Jackson-Vanik amendment, followed in the next two decades by a major exodus of Jews leaving the USSR for Israel and the United States.

We four young activists shared painful awareness of the failure of our parent's generation to effectively counter Nazi atrocities, but also, our own teenage non-response to the developing Holocaust. I resolved "never again" to avoid a challenge to Jewish survival, now again manifest in Soviet abuse of its Jews. These feelings were shared by my new  friends at Beth Israel:  Don Bogart and Bob Steinberg, NASA engineers, David Gitlin, M.D., and Daniel Litt, the new rabbi.  We were disappointed but not surprised by Rabbi Silver's negative response, and soon after, another door opened.

The Soviets had a poor wheat harvest in 1963, and President Kennedy announced the release of wheat for shipment to the USSR. Don Bogart and I quickly wrote a telegram to the president suggesting that some of the U.S. wheat shipment be allowed for Jewish matzah, which was prohibited in the USSR. With signatures from almost all local rabbis, and copies to United Press and the Associated Press, our telegram was printed in newspapers all around the country. This was a first step toward our goal of making the plight of Soviet Jews a conversation topic in many homes!

Strengthened by this success, we persuaded a distinguished board of directors to head a newly formed Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism (CCSA). Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher served as Chairman.



The October 18, 1963 Plain Dealer ran the story on the
formation of the committee in the Religion section.

In our dedication, we proceeded at a frantic pace, one project after another, determined to open the world’s heart to this most important and urgent of problems. We were supported by Irv Levine of the American Jewish Committee, Israeli Consul Meir Rosenne who sent us weekly translations of the pertinent Soviet press, and by Max and Leonard Ratner, and the AHS foundation, who sent cash.

We wrote editorials for Cleveland newspapers and mailed them and other editorials to over 40 Jewish weeklies. We prepared a booklet entitled "Appeal to Conscience", directed to chairman Khrushchev, signed by Mayor Locher and released with press fanfare. Dave Gitlin prepared a slide show to accompany informational lectures. We delivered about 60 such talks in northern Ohio. West Temple artist Mort Epstein prepared a visually striking poster and stamps that were available to satellite groups that we helped form in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Florida. Rabbi Litt became host of a weekly radio program featuring news about Soviet Jews. Youth groups picketed Soviet dance performers and carried petitions to Soviet consuls. We developed and distributed nationally a literate newsletter, Spotlight. We publicized an anti-Semitic Soviet booklet and its "Stuermer-like" cartoons. There were dozens of projects, many of which made national news.

When a Soviet Jewish editor was sent to America by Moscow to allay concerns about Soviet Jews, Cleveland was his first stop. We immediately challenged him to a public debate. Our challenge was carried on the front page of the Cleveland Press alongside the news of Kennedy’s assassination. When the Soviet group refused to debate, we celebrated a significant PR victory. We had made major efforts to publicize the viciously anti-Jewish "economic crimes trials", which the soviets terminated after wide publicity. The unceasing efforts of our group had sparked wide interest and made people aware of the plight of Soviet Jews. Holding a demanding research and teaching job, I was getting little sleep during a two year initial period. Exhausted, we recognized the need for new initiatives.

In 1964, fresh impetus came from our temple president Lou Rosenblum, a division head at the space agency NASA. Abe Silverstein, NASA chief and honorary chair of our Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism, gave Lou full backing, knowing his administrative skill. Within six months Lou was essentially in charge of new initiatives, directed largely to promoting an exodus for Soviet Jews who were now feeling safer in applying to emigrate. Lou persevered in a super-human, decades-long effort, supporting the Jewish "refuseniks", and culminating in the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Although the Cleveland Jewish Federation opposed our efforts at first, they later joined strongly under leadership of Bennett Yanowitz and Sid Vincent, and when Soviet émigrés started to appear in Cleveland, CJF performed well in helping find housing and jobs.

Our Cleveland group was one among many that made significant contributions to the goal of saving Soviet Jewry, an outcome that Rabbi Silver could not have contemplated on that autumn day in 1963.

Many played pivotal roles in this struggle. Among these are Jacob Birnbaum and Glenn Richter whose New York "Student Struggle to Save Soviet Jews" was among the first activist groups. Harold Light and Zev Jaroslavsky were highly effective in California, and Mark Talisman, a Clevelander, was important in creating "Jackson-Vanik". Some Cleveland people were central in stirring attention to the problem: Rabbi Daniel Litt, Lenore Singer, Don Bogart, David Gitlin, Mort Epstein, Henry Slone, Abe Silverstein, Gerald Tauber, Anne and Goldie Robinson, Marvin and Ieda Warshay, Maish and Carole Mandel, and Max and Leonard Ratner. Others also played strong roles: Jerry Cohen, Robert Steinberg, Rabbi Phil Horowitz, Herman Mark, Alan Riga, Irene Eber, Frank Stern, Rhoda Rosen, Reuben and Dorothy Silver, Al Gray, and many others who visited refuseniks in the USSR. Jim Caron and Milane Abrams led a youth movement that made a major impact. 

 
An Editor's Note

Photo: Marc Golub

The first page of the January 4, 2008 Cleveland Jewish News featured a story by Ellen Schur Brown "Soviet Jewry movement born on Cleveland's West Side." The photo caption is "Herb Caron (left) with Lou Rosenblum, were leaders in the charge to allow Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel and the U.S." They are shown seated in the library of Beth Israel - The West Temple, where the Soviet Jewry movement began.

To learn more:
  ● Read the start of the story in the online CJN Digital Archive
  ● Read Lou Rosenblum's memoir of the movement on these pages

Arnold Berger  March 1, 2013
 

 

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