The 1960s and 70s were a tumultuous time for Jews in America who were trying to free their brethren in the Soviet Union. This 27-year struggle lasted until 1991. One of the rabbonim who played a part in the freedom effort was a young Brooklyn rabbi.
Rabbi David Halpern, the spiritual leader of Flatbush Park Jewish Center (FPJC) in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, for more than 60 years was niftar on Shabbos, October 29, 2016, the 27th of Tishrei, 5777, just after Simchas Torah at age 88. It is ironic that his passing took place just then because Simchas Torah played an important part in Rabbi Halpern’s platform to showcase the plight of the Soviet Jews. Protecting Soviet Jews, protesting against the denial of religious freedom and the injustices imposed upon those, was one of the greatest passions of his life.
The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), otherwise known as the Triple-S-J, an organization of college and high school young men and women, was founded in 1964 by Jacob (Yaakov) Birnbaum at Yeshiva University and Glenn Richter. The SSSJ is considered to be the first organized initiative to address the plight of Soviet Jewry and was centered at YU, Rabbi Halpern’s alma mater.
With his friendship with YU and loyalty to the cause of Soviet Jewry, it is easy to see why Rabbi Halpern aligned himself with the Triple-S-J even when it was a fledgling organization and advocated for others to participate in its efforts.
Despite the prevailing wisdom of the early 1960s that it is “better to keep silent and not provoke the Russian Bear,” a public protest rally in support of Soviet Jewry was held in Rabbi Halpern’s synagogue on November 3, 1963, according to the Bnai Brith Messenger. This protest, attended by more than 400 people, was organized by Alex Schlesinger, a Holocaust survivor and member of FPJC, in conjunction with the Zionist Cultural Society of Mill Basin, a home-grown organization. Years later, at the annual dinner of the International League for the Repatriation of Soviet Jewry, this rally was publicly acknowledged as the first protest ever held.
In April of 1965, at age 37, Rabbi Halpern brought a large contingent of FPJC members to protest peacefully at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.
“Since the first Freedom March – the Exodus from Egypt – to our present day, the fight for freedom has not abated,” Rabbi Halpern said at the time. “We are proud that our own community participated in the ‘Jericho March.’ ”
To inspire people to get involved in the movement, Rabbi Halpern issued a passionate appeal for participants to attend the protest sponsored by the SSSJ:
What important thing are you doing Sunday, April 4th in the afternoon, more important that is, than demonstrating on behalf of Soviet Jewry? The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry united themselves to speak out against the evils practiced against Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. Protests and demonstrations do help. Witness the slight improvement in the situation of Matzo for
Passover in the Soviet Union.
Your voice raised in protest does help!
Remember that the Jews in the Soviet Union dare not speak out. If you are silent, if you (and your friends and your family) do not protest, who knows the fate that may obliterate 3,000,000 Jewish men, women and children? Join the Jericho March on Sunday, April 4 at 4:00 p.m. at U.N. Plaza, but do not be among the ones who don’t care.
YOU ARE YOUR BROTHER’S KEEPER.
The featured speaker at the event was U.S. Senator Wayne Morse (D-Oregon). In his appeal, Rabbi Halpern quoted President Lyndon Johnson, saying, “It is my hope that citizens and organizations of all faiths will join in an overwhelming expression of moral concern for the Jews of the Soviet Union.”
The movement started by Birnbaum eventually led to the liberalization of Soviet emigration policies, resulting in the eventual emigration of over 1.5 million Soviet Jews. Yaakov Birnbaum’s grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, was a writer and Jewish nationalist who coined the word “Zionism.” Yaakov Birnbaum was niftar on April 9, 2014 at age 87.
Rabbi Halpern’s passion to free Jews in the Soviet Union continued the following year.
“The Soviet Union has destroyed Jewish institutions of learning and culture besides most synagogues and that only token symbols are permitted to remain, in order to provide ‘reassuring’ propaganda abroad,” he said in May 1966.
In 1968, following Simchas Torah, Rabbi Halpern wrote in the FPJC news bulletin, The Voice, that Moscow’s chief rabbi, Yehuda Leib Levin shared with him and other New York City rabbis, “how enthused he was to see the many thousands of Jewish young men and women throng to the Choral Synagogue in Moscow to sing and dance on Simchas Torah.”
The article continued:
In Moscow, they filled the synagogue and the street outside. Perhaps they didn’t know too many Hebrew songs. In many cases, they probably didn’t even know why they were there. But ‘dos pintele yid’ the inextinguishable spark of Jewishness brought them to the sanctuary. At least this one time during the year they felt the freedom and the need to articulate their identity as Jewish people.
In a spontaneous demonstration, our own Jewish Center symbolically joined with our Soviet brothers to celebrate Simchas Torah. Men, women and children, led by all the many Torahs from the Aron Kodesh, streamed from the sanctuary onto Avenue U singing and dancing the HAKAFA OZER DA-LIM, HO-SHEE-AH NAH… ‘Helper of the weak, save us; Redeemer and deliverer, prosper us; eternal Creator, answer us when we call.’ Round and round we danced. We sang Hava Nagila and Artza Aleenu. People that were driving by stopped, left their cars and joined the dancing.
In November 1969, Rabbi Halpern commented in The Voice on how he was amazed that Moscow Jews, with no Jewish calendars, no Jewish education, and no Jewish observance still filled the main Moscow synagogue on Simchas Torah. He wrote that he “wants our Soviet brothers and sisters to know that they didn’t dance alone,” with FPJC conducting their own hakafa on Avenue U to hopefully send a message of inspiration to Soviet Jewry.
Towards the end of 1969, the Soviet Union condemned eleven refuseniks to death. Rabbi Halpern sent a letter to President Richard Nixon in January 1971 commending him for supporting the commutation of execution for the imprisoned “Leningrad Eleven.” He also requested that the U.S. government continue to “press for the freedom of the oppressed Jews of the Soviet Union.”
In October 1971 Rabbi Halpern recalled in The Voice how Simchas Torah that year tied in with Soviet Jewry:
The revolving red light from the police patrol car cast an eerie light on an ancient celebration as hundreds of members of FPJC and their children danced with Torahs in the street. With the cooperation of the 63rd Precinct, Avenue U from East 63rd to East 64th streets was blocked off for 45 minutes while the first hakafa, devoted to our unfortunate brethren in the Soviet Union, was conducted on the avenue in front of the synagogue.
As a large circle of men and boys danced with and around the Torahs while within and without that circle other circles composed of separate groups of girls and women, and other boys and men, whirled in joyful, spirited dances and sang beautiful melodies as accompaniment to the dancing.
All the hakafas that evening were memorable, but the one that will remain indelibly etched in our minds is that first hakafa, in honor of our brothers in the Soviet Union, under dark skies and illuminated by the rotating light of a police car on Monday, October 11, 1971. That was indeed a night to remember.
Rabbi Halpern’s alignment of Soviet Jewry with major Jewish holidays did not end with Simchas Torah. It also included Pesach: He encouraged his congregants to set aside a Lechem Oni, a Matzah of Oppression. After all, he lamented, how can we recite the words of the Haggadah, “Today we are slaves, tomorrow may we be free men!” without remembering the three million Jews imprisoned in the USSR, without matzah at their seder tables.
He suggested that immediately after the motzei, “the leader of the seder should hold up this matzah and recite the following statement: We set aside this Lechem Oni – this Matzoh of Oppression – to remember the three million Jews of the Soviet Union. Most of them cannot have matzah on their seder tables tonight. Conceive of Passover without matzah – without that visible reminder of our flight from slavery.
“Think of Soviet Jews! They cannot learn of their Jewish past and hand it down to their children. They cannot learn the language of their fathers and hand it down to their children. They cannot teach their children to be their teachers, their Rabbis. They can only sit in silence and become invisible.
“We shall be their voice, and our voices shall be joined by thousands of men of conscience aroused by the injustice imposed on Soviet Jews. Then shall they know that they have not been forgotten, and those that sit in darkness shall yet see a great light.”
In 1972, in conjunction with a program designed by the International League for the Repatriation of Soviet Jewry, Halpern encouraged his congregants to call Russian Jewish activists to lend support to them. Additionally, he encouraged his membership to participate in rallies supporting Soviet Jewry and other Jewish causes. Halpern commented on the silence of the “free world” in trying to save European Jewry. He said that many Jews said, post-war, “If we had only protested or demonstrated, but we didn’t know the dimensions of the tragedy….
“Today, however, we do know! We know that Soviet Jews in the hundreds of thousands are trying to leave the USSR and they want to go to Israel,” Rabbi Halpern continued. “We cannot plead ignorance, for the whole world knows, and the Soviet Union will be watching our attendance at rallies.”
In March 1985, Rabbi Halpern was arrested with 100 other rabbonim from all over metropolitan New York and charged with disorderly conduct for their participation in a protest rally in front of the Soviet Mission to the UN in New York City. The rabbis wore talaisim, recited Psalms, and blew shofars to help reawaken the spirit of the anti-Soviet rallies of the 1960s and to protest the arrest of Soviet Refuseniks and the USSR’s limiting of Soviet Jewish emigration.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Jews were permitted to emigrate, Rabbi Halpern shifted his efforts to help raise funds encouraging his congregants to purchase Israel Bonds that would allow the emigres to begin their new lives in Israel.
“My father felt deeply that opportunities to help European Jewry were missed by the leadership of American Jewish organizations at the time of the Holocaust,” said Dr. Neil Halpern, son of Rabbi Halpern. “Thus, he did not want to listen to those voices that encouraged the same quiet and ineffectual diplomacy in helping to free Soviet Jewry. My father was at the forefront of activities that would help with a strong and loud voice bring the sad plight of Soviet Jewry to the consciousness of his congregants, the U.S. government, and the United Nations. He also wanted to make sure that the Soviet Union would know that Jews in the U.S. cared about the Soviet imprisonment and religious destruction of three million Jews behind the Iron Curtain. Similarly, he wanted to inspire the Jews of the Soviet Union with the knowledge that American Jews cared about them and were working for their release.
“My father constantly encouraged his congregants, both young and old, to attend public demonstrations, write letters to leading government officials, support the freed refuseniks, and contribute their time and resources to free Soviet Jews. However, I believe his proudest moments were through his incorporation of the predicament of Soviet Jews into the fabric of Shalosh Regalim celebrations in his shul, whether publicly on Simchas Torah at the annual outdoor massive and prolonged Soviet Jewry Hakafot, or privately at their own seders,” the younger Halpern added.
In 2006, long after the Iron Curtain fell, Rabbi Halpern, his wife Sheila, their son Neil with Neil’s in-laws, Avraham Chaim (Bumi) and Goldi Baum of Antwerp, Belgium, traveled to Russia. The loop of history closed, the hakafas were complete, as Rabbi Halpern read from the Torah in Moscow’s Choral synagogue, the exact location where the massive gatherings of Soviet Jews took place on Simchas Torah 40 years earlier.