Triumph Over Tyranny: The Heroic Campaigns that Saved 2,000,000 Jews

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Unsung Hero of the Month

September 2008

Each month, we will identify an “Unsung Hero” - someone who, while living, made significant contributions to the Soviet Jewry Movement. This is my attempt to recognize and celebrate their efforts even though they are no longer with us.

Hal Light

On September 10, 1974, Hal Light, presiding over a conference of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews in Washington, DC suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. His seven years of active service in the Soviet Jewry movement are described in Chapters 16 and 17:

When Hal Light wrote up a set of objectives for the BACSJ in 1967 he was no stranger to social action. He and his wife, Selma, had organized a group called “Parents Mississippi” to support young people, like their son, Bill, who were in Mississippi working in the civil rights movement. Although Hal hadn’t been politically active until 1964, he sold his soda dispensing equipment business and devoted his time and energy to raising funds and testifying before Congressional committees on civil rights legislation.After the meeting at Sherith Israel, Light decided to work full-time on programs that would do more for Soviet Jews than the relatively few and ineffectual statements from the local Jewish establishment. The first BACSJ event was an all-day rally on October 22, 1967, attended by 700 people who listened to public officials and clergy of various faiths and signed petitions to the U.S. government.

David Weiss introduced Light to Lou Rosenblum, who provided copies of the constitution of the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism, as well as advice on applying for tax-exempt status. Jacob Birnbaum also corresponded with Light, sharing his experience of starting a grassroots activist organization for Soviet Jewry. Light reached out to the establishment, telling Abe Bayer of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC) that “a lot of people out there are getting excited… they’re growing more worried about the Jews of the Soviet Union.” He urged Bayer to “make use of a most important public that wants to be involved.”

In 1968 Hal and Selma Light traveled to the Soviet Union to see for themselves what their brethren were going through. They saw the fear that Elie Wiesel had described in The Jews of Silence, and were deeply moved by a man on the street who would say only two words to them, “nicht vergessen”, “do not forget [us]”. The trip intensified Light’s passion to save Soviet Jews, and he was delighted to recruit volunteers and brief people who wanted to travel to the USSR

One individual who called Light prior to embarking on a trip to Russia and Eastern Europe in 1969 was John Rothmann, a WhittierCollege student who had worked for president Nixon. Rothmann recalls the trip as “a defining moment in my life.” He visited with Rabbi Levin in the Moscow synagogue and asked, “Is it good for Jews here?” Levin said “Yes” but nodded negatively. When Rothmann asked if Russian Jews wanted to go to Israel, Levin said “No!” but nodded affirmatively. Rothmann and his group went to Kiev, and there, following Light’s instructions, took a bus to the site of Babi Yar. An old man sayingKaddish told Rothmann, “This is a terrible place. My first wife and children were killed here. There’s no future for Jews in this land. Our only hope is to leave this place and go to Israel.” And then he pointed to the ravine where 33,000 Jews were murdered in two days and said, “If they were alive, they would want to go to Israel too!”

Upon returning to California Rothmann called Light and said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do!” They first did a series of interviews, and stories of their trips were published in the San FranciscoExaminer and the Northern CaliforniaJewish Bulletin. Light organized a rally in San Francisco that drew 5,000 people and received national attention. The audience was riveted by the twenty-year-old Rothmann’s vivid and compelling account of his experience in the Soviet Union.

The next major BACSJ gathering was a candlelight vigil in San Francisco’s Union Square in December on behalf of the eighteen Georgian Jewish families who had sent their appeal for permission to emigrate to prime minister Golda Meir and to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Christmas cards were sent to Soviet ambassador Dobrynin with stickers that read, “Please let the 18 Georgian Jewish families leave.” Light personally got involved in letter writing. Using the pseudonym Gershon Lazar, he pretended to be related to the Lazar family of Vilnius and received letters from them until they emigrated in 1973. These activities, as well as the mailing of Rosh Hashanah cards to Soviet synagogues, were frowned upon by the American Jewish establishment until the Israelis reversed their position and endorsed the plea of the 18 Georgian Jewish families.

While the cautious attitude of both the Jewish establishment in America and the Israeli government were frustrating to Light, he regarded the violent behavior of the Jewish Defense League as even more objectionable. After Rabbi Meir Kahane, the chairman and founder of JDL, approved the bombing of the New York offices of Aeroflot and Intourist in 1970 but denied responsibility for the acts, Light expressed his position in an editorial titled, “Confrontation? Yes! Violence? No!!!” that appeared in Exodus, a newsletter published by the Soviet Jewry Action Group.

SJAG was a group of young adults in the San Francisco Bay Area who organized in late 1969 and created projects of non-violent civil disobedience to draw attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. One of their most memorable actions was painting “LET THE JEWS OUT!” on a Soviet freighter that was docked in San Francisco. The next morning Hal Light and activists from the BACSJ and SJAG holding picket signs that read “Free Boris Kochubievsky Now” and “Let Them Live as Jews or Leave as Jews” confronted the ship’s captain, but he told them, “I don’t want to discuss any political question.”

The founding and growth of the UCSJ was largely a product of Hal Light’s zeal, vision, charisma and organizational acumen. Light succeeded Rosenblum as president of the UCSJ. During its annual meeting in Washington, on September 10, 1974, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Fellow BACSJ founder Ed Tamler eulogized Light, comparing him to Moses as one who cared and acted for his suffering people: “Like Moses, he looked this way and that way for help for Soviet Jewry and found there was no recourse in the establishment, and so he set out to solve the problem himself.” President Gerald Ford, in a letter to Selma Light, wrote “His death is a great loss to all those who work in the cause of human rights.”