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Guide to Major Soviet Jewry Collection Available Online

Yeshiva University Archives is pleased to announce that a comprehensive guide to its Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry Collection may now be viewed online.

About the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ)

Founded by Jacob Birnbaum in 1964, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was one of the first concrete, communal steps in the awakening of American Jews to the oppression of their brethren in the Soviet Union.  The civil rights movement’s successful use of open protests and civil disobedience led to Birnbaum’s belief that students would be more likely to respond to calls to action than their elders. Birnbaum moved to Washington Heights, near Yeshiva University, which he used as a base to mobilize students on behalf of Soviet Jewry, laying the groundwork for a national movement that energized a post-Holocaust generation of Jewish activists.

For over 25 years, the SSSJ tried to hold weekly, and sometimes even daily, events and to provide a steady flow of information to the media and to other organizations. From its mantra “Let My People Go”, to events such as the Jericho, Geulah, and Exodus marches, the SSSJ viewed its mission in historic terms, and tenaciously strove to send a message to the US and to the Soviet Union that the Jewish community would not remain silent.  Natan Sharansky stated that “students and housewives” helped free him. These “students and housewives” were the backbone of the SSSJ.

About the SSSJ Collection

In 1993, Birnbaum donated the SSSJ records to Yeshiva University Archives.  This collection, one of the largest in the Archives’ holdings, documents the full scope of SSSJ’s activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry, as well the condition of Jewry and individual Jews in the Soviet Union through numerous firsthand accounts. It includes case files of hundreds of individual refuseniks, correspondence, especially with Jewish “establishment” organizations and members of the United States and Israeli governments,  newsletters and other SSSJ publicity information, clippings, thousands of photographs of SSSJ events, posters, buttons and other artifacts from SSSJ demonstrations, reports, and hundreds of sound and video recordings.

Highlights of the collection include footage of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach singing “Am Yisrael Hai” for the first time, which he wrote at Birnbaum’s request and became the movement’s “theme song”,  figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel, Senator Jacob Javits, Alan Dershowitz, Avraham Burg, and refuseniks such as Anatoly Shcharansky, Yosef Begun and Yosef Mendelevich.

Since it was donated to Yeshiva University, the research value of the collection has been utilized by historians, documentary filmmakers, authors and numerous others in their work documenting the American Soviet Jewry movement, an area of growing interest among both scholars and the general Jewish public.  In 2007, Yeshiva University granted Jacob Birnbaum an honorary degree for his achievements on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

A detailed description of the collection, known as a “finding aid”, with background information on the SSSJ and a comprehensive list of the collection contents, can be found here.

About Finding Aids to Collections at Yeshiva University Archives

The SSSJ online guide is the latest of a growing number of finding aids to collections from the Archives’ rich and diverse trove of organizational records and personal papers relating to modern Jewish history and culture in the United States and abroad that are available on the web.  The full list of online finding aids can be viewed at the Finding Aids main page.

More information about Yeshiva University Archives can be found at the Special Collections website.  For questions about the SSSJ collection, finding aids, or other holdings in the Yeshiva University Archives, send email to archives@yu.edu or call (212) 960-5451.

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