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  • Writer's pictureLisa Melamed

Protesting in the time of Soviet Jewry

A personal word about the lesson

Growing up on Jewish social activism, I remember, clearly, my youth group participation in the March for Soviet Jewry. I looked forward to sharing as much as I could about this issue with my students. As we started learning, I saw the girls were keenly interested and fully participating. Encouraged by this, I expanded the lesson to several class-periods, focusing on different aspects of the Soviet Jewish experience. This, almost organically, turned into a mini-unit and, as much as I loved teaching it, my students loved learning it.

Lisa Melamed, Ulpana Beit Chana, Israel

Lesson title: Protesting in the time of Soviet Jewry Within a unit on poetry and protest music at the Ulpana, it came to light, when discussing the different protest movements of the 1970s – civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war, etc., that my 9th grade English students were unfamiliar with the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. How could this be? We live in Israel! Former Soviet Jews make up more than 15% of the population. To make it personal, I asked the girls if any of them had had family trapped in Eastern Europe after World War II. One did! I told them to ask their parents if they had been assigned a Soviet Jewish “twin” for their bar/bat mitzvah, as I had. One did!

Finally, I asked if any of the girls’ parents had been living in the Washington, DC area in 1987 – several hands shot up. When I told them about the March for Soviet Jewry, several immediately messaged their parents who then confirmed that they, too had participated.

It was exciting for the girls to realize we were learning a piece of history that was not just relevant to them as Israelis and as Jews but that somehow connected to their own family’s experience. Once the girls recognized how the awareness raised by Operation Wedding, and the ensuing Leningrad Trials, among other things, had led to increased support for Soviet Jewry abroad, we watched “Freeing Russian Jewry: The Refuseniks” clip to get a sense of what the Free Soviet Jewry Movement looked like outside the Soviet Union. This fast-paced clip was full of information and we spent some time discussing the different activists and events mentioned in the clip.

The girls were excited, with a lot of questions and realizations. This class seemed to leave the girls feeling empowered with knowledge and they thanked me for the lesson. I turned Karen Guth’s Jewish Press article about the Volvovsky family, “The Enduring Strength of the Jewish Spirit,” into an “UNSEEN” by adding several reading-comprehension questions. The girls were fascinated by the article and one realized that Ari Volvovsky was her brother’s teacher in Machon Lev! We spent some time discussing the impact of the 6-Day War on Soviet Jews (strengthening their desire to live as Jews), some of the types of activity which were considered criminal (bible study, teaching Hebrew, trying to go to Israel), the persistent efforts both inside and outside the Soviet Union to effect change, and the anti-Semitism and persecution faced by Soviet Jews. Getting back to forms of protest, we discussed the short-term goals of different types of protest methods. This was a particularly timely discussion and, while we agreed that all protest methods have the long-term goal of effecting real change, we also recognized a range of different short-term goals – including to shock, to educate, to wake up world awareness, to enlist largescale support, to express rage, to shame, and to win hearts and minds. Armed with a basic understanding about Soviet Jewry that had been lacking two classes earlier, we again listened to the protest song, Leaving Mother Russia. This time, the girls were able to identify and explain more of the historical references and allusions in the song. Finally, the girls were asked to write a brief reflection about our lessons on Soviet Jewry. They wrote but they asked if we could also talk about how they felt – they were very enthusiastic and had a lot to say! They enjoyed learning about Soviet Jewry and encouraged me to keep this lesson in my curriculum for next year.

A sample from their written reflections:

“I really liked these classes. They made me notice many of the protests that were going on around me that I had not even noticed. You should definitely teach this again next year and include the part about Soviet Jews because I didn’t know anything about them before this class.”

“I liked the lesson. It’s not something we usually learn about in school but it’s very important and interesting. I liked the mix of different materials – writing, reading, songs, video clips, etc.”
“The classes about Soviet Jewry were very interesting and I think they were also very important because I never knew most of these stories and the real things that happened there. I also liked that we included movies and songs in our lessons.”


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