|Cleveland and the Freeing of Soviet Jewry
Involvement in the Soviet Jewry Movement —
by Louis Rosenblum
An American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry
Yet there seemed to be a glimmer of hope. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP) announced a pro tem conference to be held April 5-6, 1964, in Washington, D.C. The NJCRAC was assigned to organize an American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ). It appeared to us a golden opportunity: first, a chance to learn more — there were plans to have major speakers, experts on the issue, as well as political figures; then, a chance to meet others with an interest in Soviet Jewry.
We applied through the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to be appointed delegates from Cleveland. A few weeks in advance of the Conference, a mailing went out to the delegates of the agenda and the text of 14 resolutions to be voted on at the close of the conference. Among the resolutions, were the expected ones on programs and actions, such as a national day of prayer. What caught our attention was the final resolution. It stated that after adjournment of the Conference, “the presidents of the national Jewish organizations would meet to consider how to implement plans set out by the Conference.” To us, this was a red flag. What confidence could one have that this same group of ‘leaders’ — deadlocked for several months on the organization of a national Soviet Jewry effort — would now break with past behavior? With this in mind, Herb, Dan and I discussed ideas for a new resolution: a resolution to create a national Soviet Jewry organization to continue the work of the Conference. We undertook to write to a number of other delegates of our trepidations and thoughts of what might be done at the Conference.
At the hotel, on the first day of the Conference, the three of us quickly separated to buttonhole delegates. Our two talking points were a need to jump-start local activities and a need to create a national organization, adequately staffed and financed, to support and coordinate local efforts. That afternoon we caucused with delegates from several cities. In short order, we agreed on wording for a resolution for Conference follow-on and arranged with the hotel to have copies mimeographed. That evening, members of the caucus passed out copies of the resolution to the delegates. It proved to be the spark that ignited the delegates: here was tachlis (purpose).
To make a long story short, on the second day of the Conference, after the ‘official’ resolutions were passed, our resolution for Conference follow-on was offered from the floor. At that, Conference chairman, Isaiah Minkoff, executive director of NJCRAC, lost his cool. He denounced “these unspeakable Bundists from Cleveland, who circulated among the delegates this destructive resolution” and ruled our resolution irresponsible and non-admissible. A great commotion followed, shouting from the floor: “Is this a democratic meeting or not? Pandemonium ensued. Finally, the chair relented and agreed to entertain the resolution. It was seconded and passed by an overwhelming vote.
The final result was that our resolution was folded into resolution 14, which then read, “Immediately upon the adjournment of this Conference, the Presidents of the co-sponsoring national Jewish organizations will meet for the purpose of considering how best to assure that the plans set out herein will be systematically implemented. It is our further proposal that the Presidents develop the means of continuing this Conference on an ongoing basis, adequately staffed and financed, to coordinate and implement the resolutions of this Conference.” We felt elated. We had pushed through, almost unanimously, a resolution that we believed would provide us with a national organization that would be a force in promoting Soviet Jewry activities throughout the U.S. Very soon, though, we discovered that was not to be. What the CoP did do was continue the AJCSJ as an ongoing entity — without funding. And for staff, a NJCRAC employee, Al Chernin, was assigned part time, as AJCSJ’s one and only staff member. In short, it was a sham. They had taken a page out of Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin’s playbook.
(On and off, over the next five years, we and other local Soviet Jewry councils expended time and energy fighting for the AJCSJ to be given the resources needed to make it an effective organization, without success. It was like pounding sand.)