Jacob Birnbaum dies began movement to free Soviet Jews

Jacob Birnbaum, a seminal leader in the movement to free Soviet Jews, has died.

Birnbaum, the founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry 50 years ago, died April 9 at the age of 87.

Jacob Birnbaum

A native of Germany, Birnbaum escaped with his family to England after the Nazis came to power and later moved to France. When he moved to New York in 1964, he set out to mobilize students to call on the Kremlin to stop oppressing Soviet Jews, believing that Soviet Jews should not have to suffer the way Eastern European Jews did under the Nazis.

In April 1964, he held a student meeting at Columbia University in New York, and on May 1 of that year, more than 1,000 students from Yeshiva University, Columbia, Stern College and other campuses demonstrated outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations calling for freedom for Soviet Jews.

“New York City is the largest center of Jewish life in the world, and from New York we could generate pressure on Washington,” Birnbaum said in 2007. “The goal was always Washington — first to convert the Jewish community, and then convert Washington.”

The protest would spark a worldwide movement that led to the largest Jewish exodus in history and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Jacob Birnbaum was the first to insist    

that we must cry out collectively to save Soviet Jewry,” wrote Avi Weiss, senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry from 1983 to 1991. “[He was] the first to lead the masses onto the streets in front of Soviet missions and embassies around the world; the first to understand the spiritual power of the movement and incorporate it with religious slogans and songs.”

Weiss added, “Sadly, Birnbaum often would be peremptorily cut off by establishment figures who understood far less than he about the issue at hand.” Calling Birnbaum the “unsung hero” of the Soviet Jewry movement, Weiss said, “They eventually co-opted many of his original ideas but accorded him virtually no credit for his pioneering work.

Yeshiva University awarded Jacob Birnbaum the Mordecai Ben David Award in 1988 and an honorary doctorate in 2007. Also in 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives honored Birnbaum for his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews. — jta