Soviet Jewry activists from 70s lend helping hand to current LGBT battle vs. Russia

A cross-section of the Bay Area Jewish and LGBT communities came together in San Francisco last month to discuss working together to fight the rising tide of state-sponsored homophobia in Russia.

About 30 people attended an invitation-only meeting organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council to brainstorm ways to protest new legislation that punishes “homosexual propaganda.”

Human rights advocates say the law, signed in June by President Vladimir Putin, is the latest in a string of attacks on the rights of LGBT people in Russia, including bans on gay pride parades, denial of registration to nonprofits, and few consequences for physical violence or hate crimes against gay people.

Among the speakers at the Aug. 23 meeting, co-sponsored by the S.F.-based LGBT Community Center, were Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of JCRC; David Waksberg, CEO of Jewish LearningWorks; Cleve Jones, a longtime LGBT activist and co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; and Aaron Baldwin, an organizer of Bay Area protests against the Russian legislation.

Other Jewish groups represented included the LGBT organizations Keshet and A Wider Bridge, as well as the Israel Center at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Because Kahn and Waksberg were heavily involved in the Soviet Jewry movement in San Francisco in the 1970s and ’80s, both men shared what they learned from that fight. Highlighting the importance of “personalizing” the issues by telling individuals’ stories, they talked about principles and strategies that could be applied in battling Russia’s persecution of the LGBT community.

One strategy, Waksberg said, was getting the U.S. media to cover the Soviet Union’s oppression of Jews. “It was our pen against their sword,” Waskberg said. “The most important thing is to know that there’s hope.”

The two also emphasized the need to create a lifeline of support to Russian LGBT activists, given the dangers that they face. They also highlighted the use of organized civil disobedience, recalling the interfaith Passover seders held outside the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco as a way to highlight and protest the plight of Soviet Jews.

Joe Goldman, a program associate at the JCRC, pitched the idea of a joint strategy meeting because he was “horrified at the news coming out of Russia” and “what’s happening to LGBT people there now is very similar to what was happening to Jews in the former Soviet Union.”

Active on LGBT issues for more than a decade, Goldman also has a family background that includes Jews who were persecuted in Eastern Europe by the Russian Empire over a century ago. “One community I’m part of might be a great resource for another,” he realized.

After Kahn and Waksberg spoke, Jones and Baldwin led a lively Q&A session.

The group discussed direct actions such as a boycotts of Russian products; protests outside the Russian Consulate during key meetings; and legislation, such as a state Senate resolution introduced by Sen. Mark Leno, which would urge California pension programs to divest from Russian interests.

Some activists at the meeting urged a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Others tossed out ideas on how to pressure the International Olympic Committee into moving or halting the Olympics until Russia changes its policies.

One of the attendees at the meeting was San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who noted and praised the “intersecting lines between these groups, and the potential for mentorship between activists.”

Russia, he said, “is a country with a history of horrible persecution of minorities, and to see it happening in such a brazen and unapologetic way toward LGBT people has me deeply concerned.”

To get involved, email Joe Goldman at

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.