Celebrating a Local Hero

Washington Heights Street Renamed for Soviet Jewry Activist Jacob Birnbaum

On October 18, a street in Yeshiva University’s own neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, was renamed to honor the memory of Jacob Birnbaum, a prominent activist who began his monumental work on behalf of Soviet Jewry right around the corner from YU.

Birnbaum at the Isaiah Wall All-Night Vigil in Ralph Bunche Park, April 2, 1966

Birnbaum, who was born in Germany in 1926 and grew up in Great Britain, moved to Washington Heights in the 1960s with the hopes of helping Soviet Jews. Convinced that the key to mobilizing the American political powers lay with its student community, he used YU as a base to begin a grassroots campaign which became known as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). Birnbaum organized dozens of student-led protests in New York, including the famous May Day protest on May 1, 1964 at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, attended by 700 people carrying handwritten signs with the slogan “Why no matzohs?”

Birnbaum’s calls for free emigration of Soviet Jews and galvanization of forces across the world led to the reform of Moscow’s Jewish emigration policy, allowing for more than 1.5 million Jews to move to Israel and abroad. He lived in Washington Heights and remained in close association with YU until his death in 2014, receiving YU’s Mordecai Ben David Award in 1988 and an honorary doctorate in 2007.

“Yaakov Birnbaum stands forever as one of those rare individuals imbued with Torah, in love with humanity, prepared to devote his life to that which he believes in,” said YU President Richard M. Joel.

The initiative to rename Cabrini Boulevard between 186th and 187th Streets in his honor began with Shulamith Z. Berger, curator of special collections and Hebraica-Judaica at the Yeshiva University Library, and her husband, Jai Zion. “We thought about the Washington Heights community having been so active in the Soviet Jewry movement, particularly Jacob Birnbaum, who spent much of his adult life here,” said Berger. “It seemed fitting that there should be a street named for the person who brought  the plight of Soviet Jewry to the attention of the world in the neighborhood where he lived, which already had a street named for one of the people he helped. Also, many Jews from the Soviet Union settled in Washington Heights when they first came to the United States,  and Jacob Birnbaum had helped them leave the Soviet Union.”

Berger approached the Jewish Community Council with the idea, and the JCC worked together with the Department of Transportation and New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez to bring it to fruition.

“It is always an honor and a pleasure to have the ability to use our streets as a reminder of the individuals who brought our communities to where we are today,” said Councilman Rodriguez. “Jacob Birnbaum was a hero for the thousands of Soviet Jews he helped relocate to escape persecution under the anti-religious Soviet Union. As an activist and human rights leader, Jacob Birnbaum has left a deep and lasting impact upon thousands of lives in our community.”

“The Birnbaums are residents of our neighborhood, and Washington Heights is full of hidden gems—there are a lot of people living here who are very special personalities and do a lot of good for their community, and this was a chance to come together and celebrate one of our own,” said Anat Coleman, community affairs director at the JCC of Washington Heights. “But what’s special about Jacob Birnbaum is that he spoke up for people who didn’t have a voice, and that’s what exactly what we hope to do at the Jewish Community Council. I hope the sign bearing his name will remind people that you don’t have to know someone to be their brother. The concept of standing up for people who don’t have a voice goes beyond Washington Heights and the Jewish community—this really tells a broader story.”