Interview with Glenn Richter

Yuli Kosharovsky’s interview with Glenn Richter on May 18, 2004

Glenn: There are several people today who are writing manuscripts or making a documentary on the American part of the Soviet Jewry movement. It might be worthwhile for you to speak to them to share some information. Two ladies doing a film are Laura Bialis and Stephanie Howard. They got involved because Stephanie lived near my wife Lenore’s cousin Shirley Goldstein in Omaha, Nebraska. Shirley, who’s now 82, became involved when my wife and I drove cross-country one summer 33 years ago, touring and speaking about Soviet Jewry.

We stopped in Omaha, where Lenore grew up and stayed with Shirley and her husband Buddy. They invited family members to hear us speak, decided to travel to the Soviet Union, and the rest is history. They then got others involved such as the young lady Ally Milder. Ally knew Stephanie, and that’s how she and Laura got interested in the story. A lot of these things are me’shamayim {from Heaven}. If certain things didn’t happen, many others wouldn’t have occurred. It’s incredible to me when you look back at it. I don’t think these things are random at all.

Yuli: How did you become involved?

Glenn: There are four of us who began the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and we got involved mainly through the American civil rights movement: Myself; Yaakov Birnbaum: Arthur Green, who’s now a very famous American Reconstructionist rabbi; and Jimmy Torczyner, a young man whose uncle Jacques Torczyner was a famous American Zionist leader from Belgium originally.

Remember that in the early 1960s there was almost no information whatsoever that was coming out of the USSR about its Jews. The Lishka {Israel’s secret Soviet Jewry office} didn’t release any information. Moshe Decter, whose former wife Midge Decter is a well-known conservative political analyst, was the editor of a left-wing publication The New Leader, and printed material on Soviet Jewry to the extent he could find information. He then wrote a groundbreaking article, The Status of the Jews in the Soviet Union in the January 1963 issue of the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs. I learned later that the Lishka had given him the information. Decter was this way able to bring the issue before an American intellectual public who read the magazine and were at the very top of the American administration.

I read the article because I was a political science major at Queens College in New York. I told my Jewish friends in the civil rights movement – remember this was 1963 – that if we’re fighting for the civil rights of others maybe we should be involved on behalf of our own Jews. Today this is brainless thinking, but then it was a leap.

Yuli: How did this relate to the lack of American Jewish response to the Shoah?

Glenn: It wasn’t an issue. Remember this was before the question of the guilt of silence of American Jews during the Shoah was publicly raised. The first book on this issue which really hit the American public – While Six Million Died – hadn’t yet been published. This was before the protest movement against the Vietnam War. This is even a year or two before Elie Wiesel wrote his book Jews of Silence. It was simply a group of us who were involved in the civil rights movement who said, wait a second. If we’re helping others, why shouldn’t we help our own people? We hadn’t yet met up with Yaakov, who was focusing in energies on publicizing the plight of Soviet Jews.

At that point in 1963 as we were finding each other, there were a couple of other groups getting together. Lou Rosenblum was beginning his Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism. There was a group of Zionist revisionists who also got together in late 1963 and early 1964 to create the American League for Russian Jews. The League ultimately didn’t do very much, but they were there at that early time, and it was a place where we met Yaakov.

Yuli: You know that the Lishka was functioning back in 1952. Nechemia {Levanon, later its director} began working there at that time.

Glenn: My wife Lenore and I first encountered Nechemia when we visited Israel in 1970. We knew about the Lishka and visited him in the Kirya {government complex} in Tel Aviv. Nechemia said to us, “Who’se telling you what to do?” My wife and I were naïve Americans. We looked at him and said, “Nobody is telling us what do do. We’re doing what we feel is right”. Nechemia couldn’t figure us out. At the end of our conversation he finally said, “Your problem is that you don’t take orders”. In his mind, how could we act without his instructions? In our minds, what did we need his instructions for? In New York, we also had in 1964 Meir Rosenne in the Israeli Consulate as the Lishka’s liason.

I look back on this encounter from a historical and psychological basis. The Lishka was Mossad. Their predecessor was Aliya Bet, the illegal smuggling of Jews into pre-state Palestine. If somebody didn’t take orders and did what he wanted to, if somebody opened his mouth, they’d jeopardize aliya. I always felt that the Lishka was living in that particular era, the late 1940s and early 1950s. That’s where their psychology is, so fine. We always had tremendous tension with the Lishka because when we didn’t do the things they thought we should they withheld information about the situation of Soviet Jews.

Yuli: You cooperated sometimes.

Glenn: I wouldn’t call it cooperation because Nechemia didn’t call us and say do this or that. When we did the things that interested the Lishka we received information or beginning in the late 1960s the publication Jews in Eastern Europe, which was printed in London by Emanuel Litvinoff with the Lishka’s material. At that point we were one of the few places which would give it away.

Yuli: Did you read Nechemia’s book?

Glenn: I read parts which were translated either by Lord Sherbourne or translated in an American book where he was allocated one chapter. If we did the things that interested the Lishka we would find that some material would come our way. If we didn’t, we were cut off. We couldn’t walk into the Israeli Consulate in New York. They wouldn’t talk to us. Each month would be a bit different. For example, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister in 1977, we had two glorious weeks. We could get anything we wanted. Why? Because they were afraid that Begin would close down the Lishka. Once Nechemia discovered that Begin wasn’t about to shut him down, the gates to us shut again. But for those two weeks there was a normal relationship with the Lishka.

As a result of the information cutoff, we and the Union of Councils together began to develop independent sources of information in the USSR by the early 1970s. That’s how the groups in Moscow, for instance, began to get some appeals and information out to us. We also considered Nechemia’s office in terms of physics – the black hole of the Jewish universe. Everything goes in and nothing comes out.

Henry Gerber (listening to the interview): We also referred to the office as Lishkat Hasheker.

Glenn: We said that Lishkat Hakesher {Liason Bureau} was Lishkat Hasheker {the office of lies}. Remember that shlichut {emissaries} from Israel to the USSR was directed by Arye Kroll of Bnei Akiva from Kibbutz Saad. He started it independently in 1968, and it was then taken over by the Lishka. There is a guy named Shlomo Rosner, who is writing about the Lishka’s efforts, and he lives in Jerusalem. We said to ourselves that we can’t spend all our time fighting the Lishka, we only had a certain amount of strength. It was very hard to go above their heads because they were an independent unit working under the Prime Minister’s office. Whatever we get is nice. We could yell and scream at them, try to pressure them, but like anything in Israel, if you can’t get through, you go around.

Along with the Union of Councils, we developed alternate sources. One of them was the same shlichim the Lishka sent. Why? Because these shlichim were often recruited by other shlichim. The guys who were recruited said we’re being sent by the Lishka (they didn’t know the word Lishka). You’re being sent and paid for and you’re told to bring them the information. You want to know the truth – all the appeals and information we bring out don’t seem to be publicized. There’s a group, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry that’s willing to publicize. We at SSSJ would get anonymous phone calls: “I can’t tell you how I’m going, but I’m traveling to Batumi and Sukhumi, and then to Kishinev and Polti.” We told the caller, “Not so many people travel that way. We’re not going to ask you any questions. We know how you’re going. Here’s the information we have. When you come back, simply make another copy of your report and simply get it to us.” We’d get copies, certainly not from everyone, but from frustrated shlichim who wanted in some way to get the information they brought out publicized.

Yuli: But in your own country, you couldn’t get information from the CIA.

Glenn: I don’t think the CIA analogy is good. We didn’t do the same thing as the CIA. We felt we were not playing the same game even though we were on the same team. We simply decided to go around the Lishka. Information was power; the Lishka used it very effectively against us for eight years from our beginning in 1964. But when we went around them, it was no longer a power to use against us. The Lishka guy in New York would always criticize us: how do you know Student Struggle’s information is correct? Maybe they’re just trying to scare people. SSSJ’s information hasn’t been verified. We at SSSJ got small echoes of the smear that would go on in Israel against local activists.

Do you know about one of the earliest activists here, Ann Shenkar? She’s from the famous family who created the textile industry in Israel. Today there’s a Shenkar College of Textiles. She lived in Givatayim. She was unafraid because she had political connections, power and money. She did incredible things when the Lishka was in a position to do bad things to people. She didn’t care because she didn’t depend on these people for political connections, money or anything else. If anyone deserves credit in Israel for the very beginning of the Soviet Jewry movement it’s Ann.

Yuli: You began in 1964 with demonstrations long before the ’70s when you began to send people to the USSR.

Glenn: We ran many demonstrations, perhaps once every one, two or three weeks. From May 1, 1964 onwards we ran regular demonstrations. Remember that this was based on little information and simply the feeling that we had an obligation. It wasn’t guilt. That came four years later in 1968 when a guy named Arthur Morse wrote a book which blew the mind of the American Jewish community called “While Six Million Died”. It talked about the silence of the Roosevelt administration during the Shoah, and the parallel relative silence of American Jews.

A couple of years before, Elie Wiesel had come out with his book, “The Jews of Silence”. But in our earliest days we only had information that Jews couldn’t get matza for Pesach, and before that in the early ’60s there was some information about Jews arrested for alleged economic crimes.

Reform and Orthodox rabbinic groups traveled to Russia between 1957 and 1959. When they came back I can’t recall hearing anything about it, though I was 12 in 1957. What got our attention was the denial of matza.

Let’s get into the psychology of young American Jews in the early 1960s. I was involved in the American civil rights movement in 1963; other young Jews were also involved. But there were many more young Jews who would have liked to be involved because at that point in time they saw it as a very moral movement. But at that time going out and demonstrating was simply something Jews didn’t do. You didn’t do it for blacks or this or that. But things changed at our first organizing meeting on May 27, 1964 at Columbia University. We had about 200 students there.

Yuli: You were a student there?

Glenn: I wasn’t a student at Columbia, but at Queens College. Columbia was a central location to meet. We decided that in four days we’d go out and demonstrate at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations. We’d have a silent demonstration because if the Jews in Russia were silent, so would we. That was the last time we ever made that mistake. Four days later we had over one thousand students marching for four hours in silence outside the Soviet Mission.

Yuli: You demonstrated for Russian Jews to have matza on Pesach?

Glenn: Yes, that was among the things. We had the Foreign Affairs magazine article by Moshe Decter from the year before in which he listed discrimination and restrictions against Soviet Jews. We’d been in contact with Decter, who gave us some other information he’d previously written.

The turnout on May 1st meant we’d touched something very, very deep among young Jews in New York who probably wanted to get involved in something moral and altruistic like the civil rights movement. And here we were presenting a Jewish alternative, a Jewish civil rights movement. It wasn’t an emigration movement at that point. Most of our early slogans were “let them live or let them leave”, rather than only “let my people go”. We didn’t think emigration was a real possibility; it was almost an impossible thing to think of.

The huge turnout on May 1st wasn’t because of our brilliance in organizing. There was a tremendous feeling among young Jews of university age that they wanted to do something important and moral. They saw the American civil rights movement, but were held back by their own psychology that says you don’t get involved. We said fellow Jews are in danger. Young Jews suddenly found within themselves the power to act for Russian Jews.

Yuli: Jewish students, no gentiles?

Glenn: There’s a very funny story. There was a guy who was very active with us named Tuvia. I don’t remember his last name. He was a ger, a convert, and had a beard and hat and nice walking stick. I told him that if the newspapers show up to our demonstration you look like the Jew. Whose photograph was on page two of the next day’s New York Times? Tuvia. To the newspapers, he was a Jew.

We started going from there. Remember that in terms of the Shoah, the only one with a personal experience was Yakov Birnbaum. Today he’s 77 years old. He was born in Germany, and remembers as a little boy being beaten up by Nazi children. His family made it out to England. His grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, who was very active with Theodore Herzl, coined the term “zionut”, “zionism”. He then changed his mind and said that the Jews can have a homeland in Uganda, then became one of the founders of Agudat Israel. Nathan Birnbaum was a man who went through different metamorphases.

After the War, Yakov helped take care of children who’d been rescued from the Nazis and Soviets. He became the director of the Jewish community council of Manchester, England. He helped rescue Jews from North Africa. So he was already involved in rescue.

The rest of us were born at the end of World War II or after. But Yakov had the background and mindset to introduce the issue of the Shoah in relation to saving Soviet Jews. He felt that Jewish students would be the group to transform the American Jewish community. He had created a civil rights subgroup with the Yavne Orthodox student organization.
Yet from the beginning there were students who immediately connected the Shoah to Soviet Jewry, such as Yossie Klein Halevi. He was the son of a survivor who spoke about his experiences. This was in contrast to most survivor parents at that time who didn’t talk about it.

We were not the quiet generation of American Jews during the Shoah. We came from a totally different impetus. After our first action we just kept on demonstrating. We said if we do this one, why not another? Yakov said, let’s call our group the Students Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and made a little rubber stamp. Working out of Birnbaum’s apartment, I took a razor blade and cut off the final “s”, and we were now Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

As we became more involved and saw more information, we got more upset. We said this is really terrible and we should do something. We’re not bound by the psychology of our parents. When I asked my parents what they did during the Shoah, they said they didn’t know what was happening in Europe, and when they did, they felt with other American Jews that they didn’t have any political power. In 1964 when SSSJ began American Jewish organizations still had some people who had been running the same groups during the Shoah, and they were more
“sha-shtil”. We weren’t bound by the wishes of the Israeli government. In contrast, most Jewish establishment groups took their lead on anything dealing with Jews outside the US from Israel. Only after the 1973 Yom Kippur War did American Jews begin to distance themselves psychologically from the Israeli government. They saw that the Israeli government wasn’t always right.

Israel was led by a socialist government, headed by Golda Meir. Dr. William Orbach, who wrote a history of the early years of the Soviet Jewry movement, said that in August 1969, Golda told a group of Israeli Soviet Jewry activists that “anyone who succeeds in emigrating must hang seven locks on his lips”. That’s the psychology. If you’re a socialist government and the Soviet Union is a socialist government…

Yuli: You try to reach agreements – not to make them angry.

Glenn: That’s exactly right, especially after 1967 when diplomatic relations were cut again. But later in 1969 when the 18 Soviet Georgian families had issued such a powerful appeal, I think the Israeli government couldn’t suppress it.

Yuli: You were an independent movement which reached out to other universities to develop more branches of Student Struggle. You already had a nationwide organization.

Glenn: That developed slowly…slowly…slowly. Our office in New York was a source of information for various groups. We didn’t care if they called themselves branches of SSSJ not. The most important issue was that you were involved in activism for Soviet Jewry. We told students that if they wanted to call themselves a SSSJ branch there were general principles of follow, such as no violence, and you must verify your information. We told them that we’re not on an anti-communist crusade; our cause is separate from anti-communism.

Especially in the early years of our movement we wanted very strongly to appeal to the political left. We wanted to get support from American civil rights leaders. We promoted our cause to them as a human rights issue.

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out very strongly in 1966 for Soviet Jews at a time when many Jewish organizations largely kept their mouths shut. This was interesting. Here was a man who was certainly associated with communists yet spoke out more strongly than many Jewish groups. We felt our appeals had to be to the Bertrand Russells and other leftists because we thought those people could possibly influence Soviet behavior. Of course we naturally appealed to people on the right. We wanted to be broad-based.

Our leadership was always a very loose group of people. Anybody who really wanted to participate in the thinking. We’d also ask people who were experts in the field.

Yuli: Were you meeting on a constant basis to discuss these issues?

Glenn: The frequency of physical meetings diminished since we constantly communicated with each other. Our meetings were to organize ourselves and learn information.

Yuli: How did you decide about holding demonstrations?

Glenn: A small group of people made the decision, about a dozen.

Yuli: Was it a committee?

Glenn: At different times we’d have different groups of people who’d meet. From his life experience, Yakov Birnbaum said early on that we had four audiences – the Soviet government, the American government, the American Jewish community, and general public opinion. The questions were how to do it. We knew the methodology of making an impression on the American administration, like lobbying members of Congress. To American Jews, we spoke to whomever wanted to hear us. We publicized information in Jewish newspapers. We tried to pump out as much information as possible. We always thought that if you’d present people with enough information they would want to help. We were still not that cynical to realize that there were many things holding people back from acting. That was really a big issue for our first six years until 1970. Some people told us that like with the Nazis, you can’t push the Soviets. If you try to annoy them they’ll squash you.

Yuli: The Soviet Union had the capability of killing millions.

Glenn: Remember the American civil rights movement. Racism was a busha, embarrassing. It got a lot of attention and pressure that was translated into American legislation like the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s. In terms of the Soviets, we tried anything that we thought might work, from publicity to appeal from leftists or civil rights leaders, to demonstrations. Then in the early 1970s Senators Jacob Javits and Henry Jackson thought of linking trade with emigration from communist countries. That proved to be the ultimate solution.

Yuli: How was the idea created?

Glenn: Senator Javits first came up with this idea. Senator Jackson, with his assistant Richard Perle, and Congressman Charles Vanik, made it into a political force and into law.

Yuli: Someone tried to persuade Vanik that it was counter-productive, and they came to us refuseniks to persuade us that we should raise our voices against the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.

Glenn: Only after the bill was passed. Vanik later became a paid lobbyist on behalf of the Romanian government, which was subject to the Amendment. Jackson-Vanik, as part of a larger trade bill, was passed by Congress at the end of 1974, and signed by President Ford in January 1975. Sometime after that the Romanians got Vanik.

Yuli: They paid Vanik to fight against the bill?

Glenn: Only after he retired from Congress in 1981. He became a lobbyist against applying Jackson-Vanik to Romania.

Yuli: I don’t understand the mechanics. You had a large and very active organization. Someone had to be guiding it 24 hours a day to keep it moving. Who was the motor? Who was the source of energy?

Glenn: Yakov Birnbaum and myself.

Yuli: Congressmen, Senators, Jewish organizations, students, information, demonstrations – it’s a huge amount of work.

Glenn: Remember that in the early day we weren’t spending time in shlichut {sending emissaries to the USSR}.

Yuli: This was a job for many people.

Glenn: We lived with it 24 hours a day. My wife Lenore and I decided when we got married that we’d do the things we wanted to. We knew we wouldn’t become rich but would focus on what was important to both of us. Lenore wanted to work in education. I decided to be active for Soviet Jewry.

Yuli: Did you go on to higher education?

Glenn: I graduated university with a political science degree and went for one year to law school. I then decided I wanted to do Soviet Jewry work fulltime. It wasn’t easy financially. Lenore began working as a teacher. We survived. A first, I had no salary, but we felt strongly about what we wanted to do. The more we got involved…

Yuli: When did you begin to work professionally?

Glenn: I was a student in 1964, and stopped my studies in the middle of 1967. I was doing two things at once – school and Soviet Jewry work. Then I decided what I really wanted to do. Lenore supported me. The more we learned about the oppression of Jews in Russia the angrier we got at the Soviet Union. We also were angry at the American Jewish community’s relative silence at that time. We weren’t angry at the Israelis because we didn’t know how much they knew and were withholding. We didn’t understand in the early days, for instance, that Emanuel Litvinoff’s “Jews in the USSR” booklets were actually the Lishka’s information. I just thought he had terrific information, and how did he get it out from the USSR? We didn’t know that much about the Lishka’s operation.

Yuli: How many branches did you have?

Glenn: It’s very hard to say. Probably dozens, if you’re speaking about universities and high schools across the United States, between groups that were specifically named Student Struggle, between groups that were Soviet Jewry committees within other organizations. Remember that we provided information to adult groups as well as to students.

Yuli: You were energetic….

Glenn: We simply said we have to scream because Jews were being arrested and going on trial.

Yuli: How did you encourage housewives to go to demonstrations.

Glenn: We got whom we got. Friends brought friends, or someone read about it. By the time of the 1970 Leningrad Trials, the psychology of motivation had changed. You had the guilt issue about silence during the Shoah. You had guilt pouring out of Elie Wiesel’s book, The Jews of Silence. It wasn’t there in 1964, but was by 1966. By 1970, that guilt really pushed people, and wasn’t yet overused. By 1969 appeals were beginning to come out of Russia, like the one from the 18 Georgian Jewish families. You heard a little bit about Jews in Riga or Vilna.

At that point there was the anti-war movement in the United States. It gave us a bit of help in the sense that students felt maybe they should go out and demonstrate against the war in Vietnam, but I can’t really, it’s pas nisht; instead I’ll get involved and help Soviet Jews. It was something that should be done and was acceptable. This was a big change in psychology.

Yuli: What did you do during the Leningrad Trials?

Glenn: Between the arrests in June 1970 and the trials in December we demonstrated very often. During the trial and sentencing on December 25th we were out on the streets almost every day with coffins, torches, menorot.

Yuli: Do you have photos of these events?

Glenn: Yes, they’re in our SSSJ archives at Yeshiva University. Remember that at the same time, coming in from another side, was the Jewish Defense League. Meir Kahane had been an editor of the Jewish Press newspaper in 1964. He was a talker, but did more once he formed the JDL in 1968 as an organization to defend Jews in Brooklyn. By 1969 he saw a vacuum; the Jewish establishment wasn’t doing as much as they could on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Remember that between 1964 when the establishment formed the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jews until 1971 after the Leningrad Trial there was no budget or its own staff. One person, Abe Bayer of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, was on loan to be the staff person, but there was no separate budget. So you had a letterhead, and individual organizations acted, such as with a Madison Square Garden rally in 1966. So the JDL saw this vacuum and walked right in.

There was a meeting of Jewish establishment organizations about Soviet Jewry in Chanukah 1969 at Yeshiva University. I went along with our spokesman, Dennis Prager, who’s today a very well-known personality on radio, tv, a columnist and author. Even then as a student he was very articulate. He heard the organizational representatives speak about how important it is to help Soviet Jews, even though it wasn’t a big deal to them. Dennis asked to speak. He said, Listen, if you don’t get together and organize well on behalf of Soviet Jewry and do what you are capable of doing, other people will come from the fringes and fill the vacuum. They stared at him. They couldn’t comprehend this. Dennis came back, sat next to me, and started crying out of sheer frustration. Three weeks later Kahane began his Soviet Jewry activities. By 1970 the JDL was well on its way to activism for Soviet Jewry.

Yuli: How did you get real information that we were in great danger?

Glenn: More information started coming out in 1968. Yasha Kazakov and some other guys got to Israel and began to speak out.

Yuli: Did they come to the US?

Glenn: Yes. We helped them because the Lishka said to the American Conference: stop them. So we helped them.

Yuli: The Israeli authorities described them as provocateurs in letters to all Jewish organizations in New York.

Glenn: Exactly true. Abe Bayer tried to stop us. The Lishka tried to stop us.

Yuli: There were two who came, Yasha Kazakov and Dov Sperling.

Glenn: These two were incredible, so we and some others said, spread them around. What could the Lishka do except say that they’re crazy and we’re crazy. Not everyone was willing to listen to the Lishka’s representatives. So that was a beginning when Jews in the Baltic states began to speak out. By 1969 the Georgian Jews wrote collective appeals. More information began trickling out. Journalists in Western newspapers began to be interested in the issue. By the early 1970s with Anatoly Sharansky and his colleagues, there was more of an organized effort to get information out of the USSR. Michael Sherbourne was making his numerous phone calls from London to refuseniks. We made calls, too. We put out a regular bulletin of two pages.

Some author quoted a memorandum from Jerry Goodman, who became the director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry: How does SSSJ do it? The answer was because we stayed up all night. That’s how. We put out information and mailed it all around, since there were no faxes or emails. We were always on the phone. Our psychology was, if you let people know the problem, they’ll want to help.

Yuli: You wanted to reach out to the Jewish community.

Glenn: Even at that time in the early 1970s it wasn’t so easy. Until 1973, the Yom Kippur War, the American Jewish mindset was tied into what the Israelis said was good for them. Even though the National Conference and New York Conference on Soviet Jews were established in 1971, they were largely creations of the Israeli government. Even though both were beginning to do good things, there was still a vacuum. Yet we had to divert energy to battle the Jewish establishment, who were still telling us that we were no good, unreliable, crazy, and all that.

Yuli: You included the National Conference.

Glenn: We were involved in the National Conference and the New York Conference because they couldn’t ignore us, though they tried to minimize us. They wanted, like the Israelis, to control. Their way of controlling was to say that you are part of a larger organization, and must use community discipline. They wanted to show that we were not a force unto ourselves but rather one group among others.

It was difficult to get the Jewish establishment to listen to the UCSJ or SSSJ. They’d say we don’t know if their information is crazy or reliable. They’re not responsible. We know what to do, that’s why we’re here. We define ourselves as your leaders. I give $100,000 to UJA, so I’m your leader.

SSSJ’s biggest annual budget was $180,000 for a whole national operation.

We were very fortunate to attract incredibly talented, charsmatic young Orthodox rabbis. Their rav was Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. He was in the US at the time of the Shoah but hadn’t spoken up, and always felt guilty for not doing so. His talmidim included Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and Avi Weiss. They came to Rabbi Soloveitchik in 1965 and asked what they should so. The Rav said, on issues like this, it’s decided by experts in the field, not by me. That was actually a psak. They went to their expert who said to speak out.

When the Rav gave the green light to go ahead, that was very important. You now had a group of young rabbis whose students had a lot of respect for. The rabbis said, let’s go – acharei.

In 1968, during an air controllers’ strike, my wife and I drove the Rav to Boston where he lived from New York where he taught at Yeshiva University. We had a three hour conversation with the Rav, which was extremely unusual. He asked about our backgrounds. My wife described hers, which was very interesting. Then we spoke about the Soviet Jewry movement. He said to us, I always felt guilty for keeping quiet during the Shoah and not telling people to speak out.

Some American rabbis were terrific supporters of the Soviet Jewry movement, and others not. For example, in the haredi community, Chabad was already doing things inside the Soviet Union for decades. Even though in the US they weren’t going out to demonstrate, we didn’t really care because of their quiet work inside the USSR. Our tourists helped bring in their material. In fact, if there was material available from the Lishka, we sent it in, too. The Agudah was different. From 1964 to 1984 they were sha shtil. In 1984, Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt headed an operation to send hundreds of shlichim into Russia. At that point, we lessened our criticism of Agudah for not joining protests because they were doing something inside.

Yuli: What is your background?

Glenn: Normal American Jew. My paternal grandfather was from a little town called Shmirovich which is near Kaminetz Podolsk in Ukraine, a shtetl. He came to the US in the early 1900s. My mother’s father came in the 1890s from Podajce, in Poland, now it’s Ukraine. My maternal grandmother was born in the US.

Yuli: How did you get the real knowledge about the situation in the USSR? Were you sending travelers?

Glenn: We didn’t have money to send travelers but would brief those who sought our advice. Sometimes we would help travelers by giving them several hundred dollars.

Yuli: There were tourists coming through the Bnei Akiva movement.

Glenn: It went far beyond Bnei Akiva, which pioneered the use of shlichim. They needed people who were intelligent and could think quickly on their feet. This operation was taken over by the Lishka. But the Lishka also sent people who were not dati {religious}, for instance, important people such as politicians.

Yuli: The connections were primarily through Bnei Akiva. There was a network.

Glenn: In the dati leumi {national religious} community, Rabbi Aaron Rakefet was a recruiter. Others who were not observant were also recruited. And travelers could also recommend other people.

Back to the matter of putting out information.

Henry Gerber (Glenn’s colleague, who’s listening to conversation): On an old IBM selectric typewriter.

Glenn: We didn’t just put out news bulletins, which went to several hundred people. I’d estimate we put out perhaps two thousand news releases, which we hoped would be picked up by a much wider group than the Jewish community. We’d send the releases not only to the JTA {Jewish Telegraphic Agency}, but also to the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, and New York Times. We wanted these places to understand, to create an atmosphere in the hopes that an editor would say to their journalist in Moscow, check it out, this looks like an interesting story. We and the UCSJ printed as much information as possible.

Physically, we first used a mimeograph machine.

Henry: An archaic reproduction technology.

Glenn: When copier machines became more useful and cheaper, we bought one. Our first office was in Yakov Birnbaum’s apartment. Then we got an office donated to us in an interesting place, in lower Manhattan, on Whitehall Street, directly across from the United States military recruiting office. During the Vietnam War, there were huge demonstrations there. Then the Jewish Theological Seminary, the home of the Conservative movement, gave us space in an apartment building that they were trying to kick people out of to tear down and build a library. So for a few years, we had an apartment. What we accomplished in that office was incredible.

Yuli: Was Yakov Birnbaum a member of the organization all these years? It began with students.

Glenn: Yakov was the driving force to begin SSSJ, and led it to the end.

As the original group of students graduated, we drew other students in. By the mid-1960s we saw that some people would associate students with radicalism, so an alternate name was developed, the Center for Russian Jewry. For a short time we had a CRJ address in the Empire State Building, the most prestigious address we could find. The rent was $1500 a month, which was a huge amount for SSSJ. After a few months it was clear that the address didn’t impress people into thinking about the issue. But it was a lot of fun. We opened our windows on the 80th floor into the clouds. Then we had a CRJ office at the Fisk Building, 250 West 57th Street, in Manhattan.

Then we closed the Fisk Building office, and moved the SSSJ office from JTS to 200 West 72nd Street in Manhattan. We stayed there for 10 years. When we were faced with a big rent increase we moved to the Young Israel of the West Side at 210 West 91st Street for 11 years. The physical conditions there were difficult.

I ended my fulltime work at SSSJ in January 1990 to take a paying job with the New York City Housing Authority because for Lenore and me it had become financially impossible. I had already been doing this work for 25 years. We were beginning to see the results of our work. Jews were coming out in large numbers from the USSR. I was burned out. The movement had become difficult with conflicts among organizations.

But we had done what we could. We helped open the doors. We created a generation of young Jews who became involved on behalf of their fellow Jews. We developed certain methodology which we learned originally from the civil rights movement and anti-war movement and adopted for the Soviet Jewry movement. We developed certain techniques that are used to today, such as publicizing and running protests, or lobbying Congress.

Yuli: After your departure, how long did Student Struggle last?

Glenn: About another year or so. Remember that the USSR dissolved at the end of 1991. Then we put the name of the shelf, and have used it occasionally since.

Yuli: Some ideological questions. What was the attitude towards neshira {“dropping out”, Soviet Jews going to the US or elsewhere other than Israel}?

Glenn: That was a very interesting story. We didn’t get involved in fights between the Lishka and the Jewish establishment, some parts of which, like HIAS or many federations, wouldn’t back the Israeli demand that the emigrants all go to Israel. We tried to keep out of it because although SSSJ preferred Soviet Jews to come on aliyah, we couldn’t in all honesty demand it if we were still in America.

A lot of people who became involved in our organization went themselves on aliyah. We didn’t call ourselves a Zionist organization, but we were probably one of the most effective Jewish groups to get students to go on aliyah. That was because of the type of people who got involved with us, and how they felt after they got involved, seeing the bravery of many refuseniks and Prisoners for Zion. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, our chairman, went on aliyah in 1983. But certainly different people had different opinions. We just felt we didn’t have the moral authority to demand that Russian Jews go on aliyah if we were in the US.

Yuli: It was a Zionist movement in Russia, fighting to go to Israel. All the activists were Zionists. There were people who tried to use the movement for their personal purposes which put at risk those coming after them.

Glenn: Each of us had different opinions. My brother went on aliyah in 1975, and the Wurtmans in 1977. We thought the issue of neshira was tearing the Soviet Jewry movement apart. We said that it’s unproductive as the bigger issue is opening the gates. We spent our effort to try to force open the gates. Remember that in 1985 only 832 Jews got out.

Yuli: The idea was to unite Jews in the Jewish homeland. Another thing was running from the Soviet Union to any place on earth because it was a hell of a life there, and it undermined all the efforts of the Soviet Union to build communism.

Glenn: We just didn’t want to get involved in the neshira fight. We had so many other things to do, to get students organized. The Lishka and Jewish organizations abroad were shooting at each other across the border. It wasn’t for us. It wasn’t our fight.

Yuli: If it wasn’t up to the stand of Lishkat Hakesher, we would have 600,000 Soviet Jews dispersed all over the world instead of being in Israel.

Glenn: Maybe. I never thought that any major statement from us about neshira would make a difference. We didn’t have the koach {strength} to deal with it.

Yuli: What was your position – the dilemma of getting Jews out of the Soviet Union or providing Jewish culture and infrastructure to Jews inside the USSR?

Glenn: Our opinion always was that when we saw the possibility of emigration, we never thought there would be any real viable Jewish life under a Soviet regime. We knew that to get Jews out they’d have to feel Jewish. Therefore we did everything possible to get Jewish material in with shlichim. We got Zionist and Jewish material from the Lishka, Chabad, and other sources. We knew it was important to develop Jewish identity in the Soviet Union which we knew would lead to dissatisfaction about the inability to live a truly Jewish life there, and therefore Jews would want to leave.

Yuli: You knew most Jews in the Soviet Union were not religious.

Glenn: The issue was to create a Jewish link. We weren’t there to create religious Jews as such. Many of us who led Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry were religious Jews, which differed from the Union of Councils. Our group was developed out of new York; our leadership was largely dati leumi {national religious, or modern Orthodox}. Outside of New York, it was very different, not a religious leadership. So our concern was Jewish identity, getting Jewish knowledge in. The Lishka had a series on Jewish history – we sent that in. Chabad had materials on Shabbat and chagim {Jewish holidays} – we sent them in. We sent these materials not only with shlichim but sometimes through the mail, which didn’t always get in.

Enid Wurtman (listening to conversation) – We had a project, RTI – Right to Identity.

Yuli: About Soviet oppression. There were people without jobs, who were arrested.

Glenn: As soon as we found out and were fairly certain a person was arrested for Jewish reasons, we’d go out to demonstrate at Soviet offices like the Soviet Mission to the United Nations; Aeroflot Russian Airlines, which had a high visibility storefront on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue; Amtorg Soviet trade office, etc.

Yuli: You didn’t use the methods of Rav Meir Kahane {head of the Jewish Defense League}.

Glenn: We didn’t use the violent methods. They weren’t for our kids. We would disrupt Soviet performances, but would never throw a bomb or endanger anyone. I’ll give an example. In September 1986, we were demonstrating at a Soviet performance in the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, the most prestigious cultural site in New York. We demonstrated outside, handing out fake programs to people going in. In cases like these, a few audience members would read our programs and say I’m ripping up my ticket and leaving.

But in this case some people with JDL ideology went in and released smoke bombs or gas. We saw people starting to come out of the theater. Rabbi Weiss, myself and one other guy tried to help audience members as they came out. They saw Rabbi Weiss and assumed he released the smoke bombs or gas, and began to scream at us. One woman came up and hit Rabbi Weiss on the back of his head. His kipa went flying off. Rabbi Weiss all of a sudden didn’t feel so good. We came back to our demonstration and Rabbi Weiss had a heart attack.

The guy who went to the Met’s door with me and Rabbi Weiss was wearing very casual clothing, and the audience members started to yell at him as well. The police came to take him away from the angry crowd. As the police were taking him away, a reporter comes from a tv station, not a very bright guy, puts a microphone under our guy’s nose and asks him, “Why did you do it? Why did you do it?”

As events unfolded, New York Mayor Ed Koch arrived. He knew Rabbi Weiss, and had spoken at his synagogue, and had a lot of respect for the rabbi. He saw that Rabbi Weiss was in trouble and helped him get into an ambulance. He then ordered his own official car to go to Riverdale and bring Rabbi Weiss’ wife to the hospital. Meanwhile, our demonstration continued. That’s the kind of stuff that went on.

Yuli: What demonstrations did Student Struggle do?

Glenn: Hundreds of them. In the case of our Lincoln Center demonstration, the FBI visited us to see if we had any tape recording. We audio taped most of our demonstrations to take quotes from the tapes for news releases. I gave the tape to the FBI, since we had nothing to hide; they returned the tape three days later. The FBI found those responsible for the violence and they went to jail for 2, 3 or 4 years.

Yuli: All this struggle for Soviet Jews from your point of view –

Glenn: Until 1989, when the satellite countries like Poland and Hungary started revolting, we didn’t realize that the Soviet Union was crumbling from inside. We couldn’t conceive of it.

Yuli: Because something was not correct inside the Soviet Union. People were fighting inside the USSR. They could cut off our heads very easily if it wasn’t for you.

Glenn: All we saw was the KGB and didn’t see what some others did, that the Soviet Union was rotting from the inside, and even trade credits wouldn’t save the system.

Yuli: What you have done for Soviet Jews, to help Jews get out, one million, 200 thousand came to Israel. What you have done for us is clear, with glorious results. What did it do for Americans?

Glenn: Excellent question. I think as early as 1974 we began to understand the real difference it made to our community. We had gone from a period of quiet to a period where American Jews were helping to shape and pass legislation – the Jackson Amendment, which would determine a good part of Soviet-American relations. That was an enormous responsibility.

In 1974, Morey Schapira from San Francisco was very active in SSSJ and become chairman of the Union of Councils, and I went to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks. We sat with Dina Beilina, Prof. Lerner, with you, and some of the other leaders in the Slepak’s apartment. I remember saying that as much as we understand we are helping you, you are helping American Jews discover who they are as Jews and that they have the ability to change things, in contrast to the previous American Jewish generation which thought it didn’t have the power.

There were many forces tearing apart American Jewry – all sorts of fights – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, left-wing, right-wing. But the Soviet Jewry movement was the one issue besides Israel that would unite most American Jews. In some large sense it put them all together, whether a person stayed home and sent letters to refuseniks or was demonstrating.

Yuli: What do you think we should impart to the young generation of Jews to instill in them pride in being Jewish?

Glenn: You can change the shape and course of history, if you want to, on behalf of fellow Jews.

Yuli: I always had the feeling that we are fortunate enough in our generation to live in times when we can really carry our destiny in our own hands, and unify the Jewish people around a noble, national cause.

Glenn: I think today Israel is the issue. I think if we try we can become a little more unified. Today the conditions and situation are different. Back in the 60′s and 70′s Israel was not under the incredible world attack it is today, a total delegitimization of Israel. There was that UN resolution in 1975 equating Zionism with racism, but I think today there’s a much deeper attack on Israel. The sense that we could be unified whether we agreed or disagreed on many things, at least going in the same direction, if not at the same time or in the same way – I think that’s something we should strive to achieve.

Yuli: World Jewry was tired after this struggle for Soviet Jewry – or because Israel is much more stable and strong. We need a new national cause, understandable and clear enough to unite world Jewry.

Glenn: The only issue really is Israel. American Jews let the political power they exerted through the Soviet Jewry movement slip out of their hands. The high point was the mass Soviet Jewry rally in Washington in December 1987 which Natan Sharansky inspired, and then was taken over by the Jewish establishment because they saw it was inevitable.

Even though big Solidarity Day for Soviet Jews rallies were taking place in New York once a year, it was very difficult to organize a national rally. But Gorbachev was coming to Washington. There was still the whole issue of whether to compromise on the Jackson Amendment, which was the law. Jewish organizations were quieting down on the issue of the quid pro quo of the Amendment, trade credits to Russia for emigration. Even though the Jackson Amendment was signed into law 12 years before, the Soviet Union was trying to wipe it out. We were trying to implement its success and deny trade credits to the USSR. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, emigration was terrible, at its lowest point. American Jewish organizations were told to be quiet again and not push the issue too much.

Sharansky came to the US and he started a tremendous movement with the help of Rabbi Avi Weiss and others that the Jewish establishment could no longer ignore. The establishment said, no signs about the Jackson Amendment at the big rally in Washington. We made hundreds of big, beautiful signs about the Jackson Amendment for the march through Washington and rally. Yosef Mendelevich carried one of the signs, and others followed suit. Still at that time American politicians viewed Soviet Jewry as the number one Jewish issue, even before Israel. After the rally, American Jews let that power slip from their hands.

Henry Gerber: I want to give you a little perspective. When President George Bush made his infamous statement about being surrounded by all these Jewish lobbyists, which was very denigrating, I happened to be in Washington lobbying with the Zionist Organization of America. We went to our Congressmen and asked them not to interfere with loans to Israel. At this time, a tremendous number of Congressmen were defeated or retired and new people came in. There were a lot of changes in the Congressional offices. When you walked into some Congressional offices, it was interesting and gratifying to see headings on file drawers: Human Rights – General; and Human Rights – Soviet Jewry.

A large rally was held in Washington on behalf of Israel on April 15, 2002. It was similar to the rally Natan Sharansky inspired in 1987 because Rabbi Weiss just the week before, having pulled off a large rally for Israel in New York after having no demonstrations for Israel for many, many months said to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, we’re going to Washington. At that point the establishment organizations became very concerned and said they’ll hold a rally – and organized it in one week. Having failed to act for a long time with all its power and resources, it took a gadfly like Rabbi Weiss to embarrass the Jewish establishment into doing what they should have all along.

Yuli: I thank you very, very much. You are inside this machine – inside the computer. Your voice and thoughts will be remembered for thousands of years. You made history. I’m going to use this interview for my book. Glenn, you made a major contribution to the cause.

Henry: As Natan Sharansky said, students and housewives made the difference in the Soviet Jewry campaign, and they became a large base, one drop at a time. There were thousands of drops.

Glenn: People came out of nowhere and did wonderful things. We felt so good because that’s what sustained us in addition to what was happening in the Soviet Union. What sustained us was we could actually influence other people’s opinions.

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