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“Why No Matzohs?” Dr. Jacob Birnbaum and the Soviet Jewry Movement

Jacob Birnbaum - Isaiah Wall Vigil 4-2-66

Dr. Jacob Birnbaum passed away on April 9, 2014, after this was posted.
May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

המקום ינחם אותם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים

On Passover, Jews celebrate the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. May 1, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of another Jewish saga of deliverance, the story of Russian Jews. The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) was born at a student meeting called by Jacob Birnbaum on April 27, 1964. The momentum Birnbaum generated at this gathering culminated a mere four days later in a ”May Day Demonstration” at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.   This protest, attended by 700 young people carrying handwritten signs with the slogan: “Why no matzohs?” set the pattern for future SSSJ action. Jacob Birnbaum, the founder and creative force behind the SSSJ, unleashed the power of the biblical depiction of the Exodus in the effort to free Jews from the shackles of Soviet Union.  Birnbaum pierced the Iron Curtain by uniting the majesty and awe of Jewish symbols with peaceful, legal, demonstrations and civil rights techniques. This approach galvanized a generation of students, many of them children of Holocaust survivors, determined not to stay silent in the face of oppression of their Jewish brethren.
Yeshiva University awarded Jacob Birnbaum the Mordecai Ben David Award in 1988 and an honorary doctorate in 2007.  The records of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, including correspondence, telegrams, photos, audio recordings and video, are housed at the Yeshiva University Archives. This photo of Dr. Birnbaum at the Pre-Passover All-Night Vigil at the Isaiah Wall at the United Nations on April 2, 1966 is just one of thousands of items in the SSSJ Collection.

Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger