On Thursday evening, at an event filled with stories of sacrifice and courage, a sold-out crowd of 400 people celebrated the 30th anniversary of Freedom Sunday and today's success of Chicago's Russian-speaking Jewish community. The evening also honored several of our community's outstanding leaders.
Leaving everything behind decades ago, immigrants from the former Soviet Union jumped into the unknown to escape anti-Semitism and repression and live as free Jews in America. "I had the luxury to assume that merit would determine what I could do with my life, and that my Jewish identity would not stand in the way of my success," said Ilya Trakhtenberg, Russian Jewish Division's (RJD) Advisory Board incoming chair and a co-host of the Gala Fundraiser, in the welcoming remarks . "That certainly isn't the world in which my parents grew up, but it is definitely the world that they dreamed of for their children, and it is the world in which I gratefully raise mine."
"Most of us left the Soviet Union with nothing," said Alex Turik , the chair of the RJD Advisory Board. "Now is our turn, our responsibility, our privilege to give back to the community that gave so much to us. Tonight, we show our gratitude for living in a time and place where there are few limits to how much we can achieve."
RJD's Gala Fundraiser brought together the many strands of a shared story-the exodus of the Soviet Jewish community and their resettlement in Chicago. Gala attendees included leaders of the Free Soviet Jewry Movement, community professionals who resettled the new immigrants, host families, and most importantly, the immigrants themselves.
By the end of the night, there was no "their story" and "our story." There was only one story, one narrative. And it was inspired by the courage and leadership of those who marched and advocated and raised funds to free the Soviet Jews and those in the former Soviet Union who left everything behind and made a leap into the unknown.
"I feel so lucky that today Russian Jews are able to marry under the chuppah and have brises for our sons," said Olga Abezgauz, a member of the RJD Advisory Board and one of the evening's co-hosts. "We can send our kids to Jewish schools and youth groups and openly celebrate our Jewish culture and heritage."
Abezgauz and her husband are among the 40,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union who settled in Chicago. "The fact that we are able to give our children Jewish names makes all the hardship and the struggle worth it," she said.
RJD's Gala also marked the 30th anniversary of Freedom Sunday, the massive march and rally in Washington, D.C. that helped free nearly 2 million Jews from the Soviet Union. A quarter of a million people-including many present at the Gala-stood on the National Mall that freezing Sunday in 1987, demanding that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev let their people go.
Appropriately, the driving force behind the march-legendary human rights activist Natan Sharansky-was the Gala's keynote speaker, interviewed by JUF President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir. In 1973, Sharansky, an ardent Zionist who longed to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel), was denied an exit visa to Israel. Four years later, he was arrested on multiple charges, including high treason and spying for Americans, and spent nine years in a Soviet prison, much of the time in solitary confinement.
"Our struggle could not have survived one day if the American Jews did not struggle with us," said Sharansky, now the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. "When the KGB said I was alone and I was abandoned, I knew the Jewish people kept fighting for me."
A highlight of the evening was an awards ceremony honoring six individuals who have served the Russian-speaking Jewish community with passion and purpose.
Receiving awards were Maya Gumirov, Supervisor and Russian Survivor Coordinator of Holocaust Community Services; Suzanne Franklin, the retired director of HIAS Chicago; Turik, who co-founded the group that became JUF's Russian Jewish Division and chairs RJD's Advisory Board; Genia Kovelman, founding director of RJD; Harvey Barnett, a leading advocate for Soviet Jews and a former Chairman of the JUF Board of Directors; and Nasatir, who made the plight of the Soviet Jews a national priority and was one of the chief architects of Operation Exodus, the country-wide effort that raised $1 billion to resettle Soviet Jews. Nasatir accepted his award on behalf of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. ( Watch the awards presentations )
For Barnett and many others, the night was incredibly emotional. It brought back memories from their struggle to free Soviet Jews, and also evoked feelings of great pride in what the Russian-speaking Jewish community has accomplished.
"For us in the Soviet Jewry movement and for all who gave or participated in Operation Exodus or hosted families, freedom for the Soviet Jews was the quintessential moment of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh leh zeh -All Israel is responsible one for the other," Barnett said.
"When the Jewish people are united, they can accomplish miracles and make dreams happen," he said.
Ilia Salita, the president and CEO of Genesis Philanthropy Group, a global foundation dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide, whose partnership with JUF makes the work of the RJD possible, said in his remarks : "Tonight's powerful gathering demonstrates the kind of tremendous success that can be achieved, when American Jewish experience, knowledge, and organizational capacity combine with the rising force of Russian-speaking Jewry-for stronger community, for vibrant Jewish life, for meaningful engagement, and for staunch support of the State of Israel."
At the end of the emotional and moving evening, Abezgauz looked around the room and asked whether their parents made the right decision to leave so that their children could have better lives.
"The answer is a loud and resounding yes!" she said. "And the best way we can repay them is by living as free men and women, by expressing our Jewish identity and by giving back to the community."
JUF's Russian Jewish Division is funded in part by Genesis Philanthropy Group, a private foundation focused on developing and enhancing a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. In addition to JUF and Genesis Philanthropy Group, the RJD Gala Fundraiser is partially underwritten by corporate sponsors. For more information, please email RJD@juf.org.
Lisa Pevtzow is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area.