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Archiving the struggle: Local Jews begin to document efforts to free Soviet Jews
Washington Jewish Week / August 28, 2008

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON — When Oscar and Joan Dodek traveled to Moscow in 1978 on a 22-member synagogue mission to meet local Jews, they certainly didn't expect to get arrested by the KGB and interrogated.

"My life was never the same after our trip," said Oscar Dodek, a retired Bethesda physician who became an activist with the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry. His wife Joan served as the group's president from 1980 to 1990.

Moshe Brodetzky, WCSJ's founder and first chairman, remembers raising $20,000 for a full-page ad in the Washington Post publicizing the organization. Betty Miller got involved with WCSJ thanks to her son, who came home one day from Hebrew school asking about the plight of Soviet Jews.

"My home served as our first office. I no longer had tables to eat on because everything was covered with Moshe's papers," she recalled. "Since I live in the District, my home was a convenient location, so it served as a home for Soviet Jews who came here to plead for their families. Unfortunately, I did not keep a guest book. I should have."

Miller, Brodetzky and the Dodeks were among 30 former Soviet Jewry activists who gathered Thursday night at Washington's Congregation Ohev Sholom. There was plenty of schmoozing and reminiscing, but the meeting's main purpose was to discuss how to preserve for future generations the story of how local activists struggled on behalf of Soviet Jews from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

"We need to create some kind of record while we're still capable of doing it," said the meeting's organizer, Bert Silver of Bethesda.

Earlier that day, five former Washingtonians now living in Israel met in Jerusalem for the same purpose; among them was Joseph Hochstein, a former Washington Jewish Week editor.

Silver, 77, said he was moved to act now because of last month's release of Laura Bialis' highly acclaimed documentary, "Refusenik." The 107-minute narrative film, in English with Russian and Hebrew subtitles, chronicles the American Jewish community's 30-year struggle to liberate Soviet Jews but mentions barely a word about Washington.

"People don't realize what we did here," Silver told WJW. "I'm looking at getting something together within a month or two, then turning it over to the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. We just want to preserve the stories and archive them, so they don't die when we die."

Claire Uziel, a staffer at the Jewish Historical Society, urged the group to "speak about your memories, because after you are gone, we won't have you anymore to ask."

In addition to tape-recorded oral histories, Silver encouraged his fellow former activists to donate anything they might have sitting around their homes — including protest signs, "Free Soviet Jewry" buttons, posters, bumper stickers, Russian-language Jewish New Year's cards and tzedaka boxes.

Brodetzky, 84, lives in California but came to D.C. for last week's meeting. He said the local Jewish community's most important contribution to the struggle was the daily vigil it maintained in front of the Soviet Embassy at 16th and K Street for more than 30 years, often joined by groups from other parts of the country.

"About 10,000 people came over that time. Once, we had a cantorial concert with 20 cantors. We blew the shofar, we lit Chanuka lights, we fasted. Then the Soviet Union passed a new constitution; it had beautiful words but it was meaningless as far as Jews were concerned. So we dug a hole in the sidewalk across the street and buried it."

At its peak, the group had a mailing list of 3,500 to 4,000 supporters who sent money, wrote to members of Congress, marched in rallies and participated in other acts of solidarity with their Jewish brethren who had been denied permission to leave the USSR.

"On Lenin's birthday, I made up my own little flyer and cut out a picture of Lenin and got a quote from a Soviet magazine attacking anti-Semitism," Brodetzky recalled. "I made copies and stood right in front of the embassy to give to the Russians coming out. Oh did they get mad. The cops threatened to arrest me."

Brodetzky added: "One of our members snuck into a Soviet Embassy event in a tuxedo and started passing out flyers. He got beaten up and suffered a few broken ribs." Not all the protesters were Jewish. Rev. John Steinbruck, former pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church, used to bring his parishioners to take part in the vigil on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, when observant Jews could not be present.

In 1984, soon-to-be-married Shoshana Reimer — a regular at the daily vigil — decided to take a novel approach to publicizing the plight of Soviet Jews.

"As I was standing across the street from the vigil, thinking about my upcoming wedding, I wondered why only bar-mitzvah and bat-mitzvah children were twinning their ceremonies with a Soviet child," she recalled. "Why couldn't a married couple do it?"

The answer was simply that no one had thought of it before. So it was big news when Reimer and her groom, Elmer Cerin, twinned their Sept. 11, 1984, wedding at Washington's Congregation Adas Israel to prominent refuseniks Vladimir and Maria Slepak of Moscow.

"When the Slepaks were finally freed [in 1987] and came to the U.S. to thank everyone, I asked Vladimir if he'd speak at Adas Israel," said Reimer, whose husband died in 1995. "He was so gracious, and our shul was so proud of the fact we had helped them."

"What we in the movement did was fulfilling, interesting and important, it should never be forgotten that the true heroes of the story were the Soviet Jews themselves," said Silver. "They were the bravest people I have ever met."

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