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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Save Soviet Jews…N.F.T.Y. Social Action in the 1970’s

I wrote the following article and submitted it to the NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) at 75 series.  Whether they publish it or not, I wanted to share it with you.  In addition:  Happy holidays to all.
Save Soviet Jews…N.F.T.Y. Social Action in the 1970’s

Jerry Kaye, who it seems, has been the Director of Olin-Sang-Ruby since before Moses descended with the tablets, and I actually started out together in the U.A.H.C. camp business in 1970.  I was the Assistant Director of the camp but also the Advisor to the Chicago Federation of Temple Youth (CFTY).  That summer, David Forman rambled through camp with a troupe of performers presenting songs and dramatic readings to raise awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews.  My awareness was raised…to a very high level.  I wanted to carry that ball to CFTY.  As I look back on it now, I recall that along with that emotionally dramatic presentation at camp, I also attended a Soviet Jewry rally in Washington D.C. with a few CFTYites.  In any event, we, in CFTY caught the Soviet Jewry bug and decided to create our own Soviet Jewry Caravan, to carry the message to the Chicago area Jewish community. 

In communications with the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, an organization from the  West Side Temple in Cleveland, OH. I gathered material on the backgrounds and stories of Soviet Refusnikim.  These were Jews who stood up for their rights and were refused exit visas to Israel.  Many were jailed.  For the first time we encountered names like Anatoly Sharansky, Ida Nudel, and Boris Kochubievsky.  My wife Juca and I listened to recordings of Theodore Bikel singing in Russian and Hebrew and an album of underground Russian songs smuggled out of Russia and recorded in Hebrew in Israel.  We transcribed the words so we could learn the songs.  Some of those songs, Adpusti Narod Moi (Let My People Go), Kachol V’Lavan, Ani Ma’amin, Artzi Artzi, B’Dumiah, and Bo’i Ruach would become the mainstays of our Chicago Federation of Temple Youth Soviet Jewry Caravan presentation.

I enlisted Rob Weinberg, then a CFTYite, and his brother Michael to develop and create the caravan’s music.  Both Rob and Michael would go on to be seminal camp song leaders at Olin-Sang-Ruby and at the Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, IN.  Don Rossoff helped as well.   Don was a Northwestern U. student at the time and a terrific flautist. 

In total, eight CFTY members joined the caravan and we put together a forty minute presentation of songs and dramatic readings.  Somehow along the way someone donated a spotlight, so the group included a tech person to run it.  The goal was to encourage synagogues to take up the banner for Soviet Jewry.  We thought we would be presenting our “show” to youth groups and schools in the area but soon found ourselves invited to perform for all sorts of adult audiences.  I even recall performing on the 60th floor of the John Hancock building, surrounded by glass windows overlooking Lake Michigan while a thunderstorm outside underscored our songs. 

In all, during the years 1970 through 1972 we presented over forty Caravan performances in and around Chicago.  Our experience culminated at a North Shore Congregation Israel event where we sang and the recently released Boris Kochubievsky appeared.  We had presented his story during all of those performances, and there he was in the flesh.  Deep down we knew that we really had not been a major factor in his gaining freedom, but I think we all shared a bit of pride anyway. 

And who do you think laughed the hardest when Gilda Radner proclaimed on Saturday Night Live, “What’s all this talk about Soviet Jewelry, anyway?”  Only to be told, “It’s Soviet Jewry, not Jewelry…Jewry.”  And she replied, “Oh.  Never mind.”  I’m pretty sure it was the members of the Chicago Federation of Temple Youth’s Soviet Jewry Caravan.  Pretty sure.

 Rabbi Ron Klotz, N.F.T.Y. Life Member

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