Sounding the Shofar on Behalf of Soviet Jewry

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In 1976, Harry Koenick brought his shofar to the daily vigil for Soviet Jews outside the Philip Murray Building in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Ida Jervis. Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

In 1976, Harry Koenick brought his shofar to the daily vigil for Soviet Jews outside the Philip Murray Building in Washington, D.C.
Photograph by Ida Jervis. Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

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“It shall be on that day that a great shofar will be blown, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come, and they will prostrate themselves to Hashem on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”

-Isaiah 27:13

The tone of a blown shofar resounding through the halls of a synagogue during the Jewish High Holy Day season is more than just a call to repentance. It is a call to rally around Judaism, to take pride in our people and in our faith, and most importantly to take responsibility for our society.

Isaiah used the symbol of the shofar blast as a harbinger of the Messianic Age, when all the dispersed Jews of the world would be gathered to Eretz Israel. In 1976, a shofar emerged amidst a vigil across from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. Donning a bright, prominent yarmulke, an elderly man — apparently an experienced shofar blower born in Russia and then living in Maryland — solemnly displayed this symbol of Jewish return.

Koenick’s shofar, and the many great deeds performed on behalf of Soviet Jewry, formed a great movement that demanded that Jews and the entire world recognize the legitimacy and righteousness of Judaism.

These activists watched as the Soviet Union mercilessly crushed the Jewish spirit behind the Iron Curtain, suppressing Jewish faith and strangling Jewish culture. Soviet oppression treated Judaism as a backwards lifestyle that deserved to be trampled under the foot of Communist progress.

Yet, for the activists, Judaism was more than this; it had to be more than this. It had to be a religion advocating the highest ideals of human rights in modern society. The words of Deuteronomy drove them forward, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” while the phrase “Never Again!” and the memories of the Holocaust reminded them of the potential consequences of passiveness.

Though anti-Semitism is by no means dead, Soviet Jews are now free to practice their religion and culture, and to immigrate according to their own free will. However, the struggle to legitimate Judaism and Zionism as models of the best human values remains an ongoing activity. Today’s activists can find great insights into Jewish activism (what I often call “Jewish public diplomacy”) in the stories of the Soviet Jewry movement activists.

This website’s goal is to serve these activists by identifying the various personality types that contributed to Soviet Jewry advocacy, what motivated them, and how they created a movement. I’ve conducted extensive interviews and archival research, but more work remains to be done. On this site, you will find a number of stories from the movement in Baltimore prepared for the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s October 2013 celebration of the Exodus of Soviet Jews to America and Israel. If you would like to support this project by offering your own stories or financial assistance, please contact me.

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