The Refuseniks and Operation Wedding

Updated: May 7

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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: The Refuseniks and Operation Wedding

In our next lesson, after students shared a range of protest songs covering a variety of social and political issues, I played a song for them: Leaving Mother Russia by Safam. After they listened, watching the accompanying video, they were full of questions. Was this about the Holocaust? Aliya Rishona? Why don’t we know about this? What was this all about?

I gave them some useful vocabulary [emigrate, USSR, Iron Curtain, Dissidents, KGB] and then a “quiz” to work on in pairs to determine what they already knew about Soviet Jewry:

The “quiz” looked like this:

1. When were Soviet Jews first allowed to freely emigrate out of the USSR?

a. 1969

b. 1989

c. 1999

2. How many came to Israel?

a. About 1 million

b. About 2 million

c. About 100,000

3. What was the unofficial policy of the USSR on religion?

a. Full religious freedom for every religion

b. Religions were ridiculed (made fun of) and Atheism was promoted

c. Everyone was able to practice their religion freely except for Jews

4. What was written on “internal Soviet passports” (passports that Soviet citizens used to move around within the USSR)?

a. The same thing for everyone – country and religion

b. The same thing for everyone – country only

c. Something different for Jews

5. What often happened to Jews who applied for, and were denied, visas to Israel? PUT THE CHAIN OF EVENTS IN ITS PROPER ORDER!

________BE ACCUSED OF THE CRIME OF BEING A PARASITE

________BE LABELED A REFUSENIK

________BE UNEMPLOYED

________GO TO JAIL

________APPLY FOR VISA

________LOSE JOB

________BE DENIED

6. What was the Leningrad Trial about?

a. People who tried to storm (attack and capture) the Kremlin (government offices)

b. People who tried to topple the statue of former Soviet leader, Lenin

c. People who tried to hijack an empty plane, and escape to Israel, disguised as wedding guests

We spent some time going over the “quiz” and the girls were excited to know the correct answers. Girls who knew a little about the situation shared what they knew. As they left class, this day, they continued talking about any aspects of Soviet Jewry they’d been exposed to and I learned, almost in passing, that one of our administrators at the Uplana had, as a teenager, been very involved with protesting and advocating for the release of Rabbi Yusef Mandelevitch!

I welcomed the girls back to class and reminded them we had begun this topic by talking about different methods people use to protest. With that in mind, we watched the trailer for Operation Wedding.


* The full lesson plan: Film screening & discussion – Operation Wedding documentary


Afterward, we had a lively discussion about whether or not my students would have done the same, knowing they would be arrested?

This led the girls to understand that Soviet Jews were fighting for a purpose larger than any one of themselves. This was an eye-opening and inspiring realization.

We continued, discussing the fact that both the Operation Wedding group AND the KGB had wanted the arrest to take place publicly, in the airport.

The girls worked through the motivations of each group and we transitioned into a discussion about protesting for the purpose of raising world awareness of a problem.

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.”