Op-Ed: From Let My People Go To Let My People Know
There has been a lot of noise in the Jewish media recently about the 25th anniversary of the legendary “Summit Sunday” demonstration when 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate during a visit by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
While in Israel many Russian Jews have integrated into the Jewish mainstream and made the country so much better, the sad fact remains that Russian American Jews are not quite integrated into the larger Jewish community.
There is nary a mainstream program which reaches the Russian Jews in a major way – and their background requires a special focus.
As I married a woman from the (former) Soviet Union, the Russian Jewish experience is one for me which holds a special place. American Russian Jews want to return to Judaism but come from a place where they were forbidden to know what it is, and require a different approach than others in the Jewish world.
Russian Jew, however – perhaps more than any other American Jewish ethnic group - uniquely believe in the eternity of the Jewish people.
One of the foremost books about the Soviet Jewish experience is “The Jews of Silence”, a personal report on Soviet Jewry by Elie Wiesel which detailed his first visit to the USSR.
I re-read the book today after crying proud tears of joy at a play my daughter participated in to culminate the completion of her Russian-language after-school program. I am so proud my children speak Russian in our home - what a change from my education as a student in the New York City public school system in the 1980’s about how evil the Russian empire was.
One of my earliest memories is standing outside of the Russian consulate screaming “Let My People Go”, with my Rabbi, Avi Weiss. Today, the Russian Jews are free, and they make up about 10% of the American Jewish community. At a recent conference it was estimated that there are between 500,000 to 750,000 Russian American Jews.
As any Jewish sociologist will readily admit, without Jewish education American Jewry is doomed – hence, today instead of yelling “Let My People Go”, American Jews need to join organizations like RAJE to educate and yell “Let My People Know.”
Wiesel’s book title “The Jews of Silence” referred to the Jews of the free world who were silent and didn’t shake the world for the freedom of their brethren. It is incumbent upon all of us in the Jewish community to work and do all we can to educate the Russian Jews- who can be educated - about the greatness of Judaism and Zionism and can be brought under the great Jewish tent.
As Ze’ev Jabotinsky said “Silence is Despicable”.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading Public Relations firm. He is a philanthropist who is a board member of RAJE (Russian-American Jewish Experience), the foremost Russian American Jewish educational organization.