The Great Aliyah of Soviet Jewry

By Jonathan Davis

Recently, a popular Israeli singer composed a song called “Kakdila”.  Many Israelis   interpreted this song as an insult to the character of Israelis of Russian origin. In my opinion, this song was uncalled for. The many wonderful contributions of Russian Aliyah to the State of Israel is well known. Their economic, cultural, and demographic impact on the country and to Israel, the Start-Up Nation, has been profound. However, this controversy led me to travel down memory lane on a personal and nostalgic journey. What I experienced on this journey refutes everything this song implies.

Forty three years ago, I was an Aliyah emissary of the Jewish Agency for Israel, based in the office of the Consulate General in Boston. I was approached by the Office of the Prime Minister and the Nativ Organization to travel on a mission to the Former Soviet Union to visit Jewish activists and refuseniks. In 1979 there were of course no diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union.  My partner on this mission was Mark Sokoll, then the regional director of the American Zionist Youth Foundation for New England campuses, and later served as the President and CEO of JCC Greater Boston.  Our mission included visits to Moscow, Leningrad, Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

Men on a Mission. Posing as university lecturers, Jonathan Davis (left) and partner Mark Sokoll in Tashkent, one of the many places in the Former Soviet Union they visited to engage with Jewish activists and ‘Refuseniks’.

Our cover story was that we were university lecturers in the USA.  We were briefed on how to behave during our few weeks as “tourists” in the Soviet Union. For example, we were told to not bring written lists of the activists, but memorize them instead; do not talk about anything sensitive in the hotel rooms as they may be bugged and that our tour guide was probably working and reporting for the Soviet Government.  We were instructed to update the activists on current events in Israel and encourage and reassure them that we in Israel were fighting for their freedom.  Strange as it may seem now, we were to provide them with duty free items from the local tourist shop called the Birioska, as gifts for their livelihood. At night we were to quietly reach out to the Jewish Activist destinations in the most subtle way possible.

Free at Last. The writer enjoying a meal and kosher wine with a Jewish family in Bukhara who he would meet again five years later, free in Israel.

We were honoured to participate in this Zionist mission.

Amongst many memorable experiences was celebrating in Leningrad a Pesach seder – somewhat poignant as the Passover festival spotlights ‘freedom’ by celebrating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt . The seder was held in a small apartment, with at least 70 people squeezed in.  We had brought Matzot and wine from the USA, a real treat and delicacy for the locals. We led the Seder with great vigour including singing traditional songs, “Let My People Go” and “Next Year in Jerusalem“.  This was a Seder I would never forget. To my amazement the guest of honour at the Seder was Yuli Kosharovsky, the famous refusenik and Jewish activist who had been released from jail just 24 hours earlier. What an honour it was to meet this Jewish hero. Yuli was an outstanding engineer in the Soviet Union, but his ‘crime’ was to request the right to make Aliyah.

Celebrating Freedom. The writer (right) with Yuli Kosharovsky famous refusenik and Jewish activist who had been released from prison 24 hours earlier (left) and family at Seder in Leningrad.

As a result, he was persecuted and imprisoned. Together with other engineers, they clandestinely taught themselves Hebrew and prepared their Aliyah (immigration to Israel).  In every way, this hero exemplifies the qualities of a modern-day Joseph Trumpeldor, embodying courage, tenacity, leadership, and Zionist values. Ten years after our visit at the Seder, Yuli managed to receive his permit to come to Israel, where he succeeded in becoming an important advisor to the Jewish Agency and helped found a political party.  Yuli, of blessed memory passed away in 2014, but his Zionist values and spirit lives on with his family and grandchildren.

Risky Business. Trying to revive Jewish national life by teaching Hebrew, Judaism and Zionist values in the Former Soviet Union was a dangerous activity. Here, under the noses of  the KGB, the writer  (Center: fifth from the left) meets with Hebrew teaching activists in Moscow

In Moscow we had the opportunity to address 30-40 Jewish activists packed into a small apartment to help explain the current events facing the State of Israel in 1978.  They were hungry for knowledge and were carefully taking notes. Each of them was teaching Hebrew to a few dozen activists and were going to repeat what they perceived to be our Zionist words of wisdom to their students. Years later, when visiting the Knesset, the late Member of Knesset Yuri Stern, a refusenik and Zionist activist in the Soviet Union came up to me and told me:

Jonathan, you were the first paratrooper I ever met in person“. 

Memorable Moment. Hitting home the enormity of the success of the mission to the Former Soviet Union was years later when the writer bumped into  famed former  refusenik and Zionist activist, Yuri Stern at the Knesset. Then an MK, he reminded the writer that he was once one of the many sitting in a parlor meeting in Moscow listening to Jonathan and said  the impression it made meeting the first Israeli paratrooper in person.

I felt proud that he remembered.

Ten years later while working for the Jewish Agency for Israel I was sent on a special mission to Italy.  My assignment was to reach out to tens of thousands of Russian Jewish refugees in Ladispoli, Netuno, Santa Marinella and other locations to create awareness of the importance of living in Israel.

Full Circle. Jonathan Davis (right) in a fundraising event with an orphan of a fallen Israel paratrooper preparing to jump  from a Hercules aircraft in the sea off Haifa was later picked up in a rubber dinghy with the outstretched hand of a Navy Seal born of Russian immigrant parents.

It was a hard job to compete with the “easy life” in the USA, Canada, or Australia.  It was an almost impossible mission, but in the end together with a dedicated team, a few hundred families emigrated to Israel. They were mostly young couples with small children, and professionals in the fields such as medicine, music, art, engineering, and others.

Their life choice to become Israelis has certainly enriched our country. 

In 2000, I participated in a parachute jump into the sea, near the Dado Beach in Haifa.  Lt. General Shaul Mofaz led this fundraising event for orphans of paratroopers. Each veteran paratrooper jumped with an “orphan buddy“.  Navy seals in rubber dinghies were awaiting to assist us back to shore. A tall and handsome navy seal with a Russian accent assisted me. He was born in Novosibirsk and had been living in Israel for less than a decade. The navy seal, son of Russian immigrants who chose to serve in one of the most elite units in the IDF, was lending me a hand. This brought me full circle in my appreciation and recognition of an immigration which changed the face of the State of Israel.

Fruits of one’s labor. Today as head of the international school at Reichman University, Jonathan Davis savors the joy of having an ever-increasing number of students  from the Former Soviet Union.

About the writer:

Jonathan Davis is head of the international school at Reichman University (formerly the IDC) and vice president of external relations there. He is also a member of the advisory board of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Mr. Davis also serves as a Lieutenant Colonel (Res) in the IDF Spokesman’s office.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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