Title: Here We Are All Jews: 175 Russian-Jewish Journeys
By Rabbi Jonathan Porath
Gefen Publishing House
“I was a personal witness to the unfolding of one of the great sagas of modern Jewish history, the near loss and ultimate revival of Soviet Jewry after more than seventy years of Communist rule.”
So writes Rabbi Jonathan Porath, author of the widely-acclaimed, “Here We Are All Jews, 175 Russian-Jewish Journeys,” (Gefen Publishing House). Like many others in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, he had no idea when in 1964, at age 19, and still a college student at Brandeis University, that a year later he would find himself behind the Iron Curtain – the first step in an ongoing journey that would continue for the next fifty years, as a witness and participant to free Soviet Jewry.
And that is why “Here We Are All Jews” stands on its own as a valuable contribution to the story of the modern exodus and an essential book on Soviet Jewry.
As Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, President and Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Torah Institutions, put it: Rabbi Porath’s “inspiring and compelling memoir can be seen as most moving and almost miraculous response to Elie Wiesel’s agonizing Jews of Silence.”
During the Cold War, Rabbi Porath would lead groups of American USY Jewish teenagers behind the Iron Curtain, with the express purpose of making contact with Soviet Jews. They would visit the few open Soviet shuls, lead services, teach Jewish boys how to put on tefillin which the Americans brought with them. They would give away tallitot, tefillin, and Jewish prayer books. They would meet Jews on trams, in Pioneer camps, and on the beach; Jews who had been forced to hide their religious beliefs from the authorities. Frequently, they would whisper to Soviet Jews, “you are not forgotten.”
These ten trips were not your usual tourist jaunts to Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev and Odessa and beyond. Tension reigned. They were watched by the Soviet security services. The KGB often would search their rooms and suitcases. They were threatened and warned and targeted in shuls. If they stepped outside of the synagogue to speak to Jews, Jewish men in charge would escort them back inside. As one of the old-timers in the Moscow synagogue told Rabbi Porath, “What can we do. That is how it is here.” On one trip, they almost didn’t make it out of the country, as border guards harassed them until they finally let them go.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Rabbi Porath’s mission would continue for 165 more journeys. He worked for the Joint Distribution Committee’s Russian Department rebuilding Jewish life in the post-Soviet-Union. The Joint has a rich history of humanitarian and social services aid to Russian Jewry. As a student, guide, author, educator, public advocate and activist in Israeli absorption of Soviet Jews, he and the Joint and others recreated Jewish life in the FSU. He noted Chabad built a Russian Jewish infrastructure all across the FSU.
From 1993 to 2008, he was responsible for overseeing JDC field operations in the Urals, Central Russia, St Petersburg and the Northwest and Belarus, with special focus on academic Judaica, Hillel and creating YESOD/St. Petersburg Jewish Community Home. And he achieved all that while commuting every month for 15 years, to the FSU from Jerusalem where he made aliyah in 1984.
That’s how he assembled vast material for this all-important tome, packed with many anecdotes that make the book an intriguing and informative read.
As Jerry Goodman, former founding executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry put it, Soviet Jews were freed as a “result of pressure from outside, as well as courageous resistance inside.”
Rabbi Porath added: “We Jews stood with one voice in supporting our brothers and sisters.”
As for the title: “Here We Are All Jew.. In 1992, just after the FSU collapsed, Rabbi Porath was visiting a school in Kiev. He asked fifth graders: “Last year you were in a state Ukrainian school and today you are in a Jewish School. Which do you like better?
They responded: “Zdes me fse yevrei!” (“Here We Are All Jews”).