Recently, Omer Adam, a popular Israeli singer, composed a song called “Kakdila”. Many Israelis interpreted this song as an insult to the personality of Israelis of Russian origin. Yet the many wonderful contributions of Russian aliyah to the State of Israel are well known. Their economic, cultural and demographic impact on the country and on Israel, the “start-up nation”, has been profound. Indeed, this controversy led me to travel in the past in a personal and nostalgic journey. What I experienced on this journey disproves everything this song implies.
Forty-three years ago, I was an Aliyah emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel, based at the Consulate General’s office in Boston. I was approached by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Nativ Organization to go on a mission to the former Soviet Union to visit Jewish activists and refuseniks. In 1979, of course, there were no diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union. My partner in this mission was Mark Sokoll, then Regional Director of the American Zionist Youth Foundation for New England campuses, and later served as President and CEO of JCC Greater Boston. Our mission included visits to Moscow, Leningrad, Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand.
Our cover was that we were college professors in the United States. We were briefed on how to behave during our few weeks as “tourists” in the Soviet Union. For example, we were told not to bring written lists of activists, but to memorize them instead, not to talk about anything sensitive in hotel rooms because they might be wiretapped , and that our guide probably worked and reported for the Soviet Union. government. We have been tasked with keeping activists informed of current events in Israel, encouraging them and reassuring them that we in Israel are fighting for their freedom. As strange as it may seem now, we had to provide them with duty free items from the local tourist shop called Birioska, as gifts for their livelihood. At night, we had to discreetly reach the destinations of the Jewish militants in the most subtle way possible. We were honored to participate in this Zionist mission.
Among many memorable experiences was a Passover seder in Leningrad. The seder was held in a small apartment with at least 70 people crammed in. We had brought matzot and wine from the United States, a real treat and delicacy for the locals. We led the seder with great vigour, including singing traditional songs, “Let My People Go” and “Next Year in Jerusalem.” It was a seder I will never forget. To my amazement, the guest of honor was Yuli Kosharovsky, the famous refusenik and Jewish activist who had been released from prison 24 hours earlier. What an honor it was to meet this Jewish hero. Yuli was an outstanding engineer in the Soviet Union, but his crime was asking for the right to make aliyah. As a result, he was persecuted and imprisoned. Along with other engineers, he learned Hebrew clandestinely, and together they prepared for their aliyah.
In every way, this hero exemplifies the qualities of a modern-day Joseph Trumpeldor, embodying courage, tenacity, leadership and Zionist values. A year after our visit to the seder, Yuli managed to get his permit to come to Israel, where he managed to become a top adviser to the Jewish Agency and helped found a political party. Yuli, of blessed memory, died in 2014, but her Zionist values and spirit live on with her family and grandchildren.
In Moscow, we had the opportunity to speak to 30-40 Jewish activists crammed into a small apartment to help us explain the current events facing the State of Israel in 1978. They were hungry for knowledge and took carefully notes. Each of them taught Hebrew to a few dozen activists and would repeat what they perceived to be our words of Zionist wisdom to their students. Years later, during a visit to the Knesset, the late Knesset member Yuri Stern, a refusalnik and Zionist activist in the Soviet Union, came to me and said, “Jonathan, you are the first paratrooper that I met in person. “I was proud that he remembered.
Ten years later, while working for the Jewish Agency for Israel, I was sent on a special mission to Italy. My mission was to reach tens of thousands of Russian Jewish refugees in Ladispoli, Netuno, Santa Marinella and other places, to educate them about the importance of living in Israel.
It was hard work to compete with the “easy life” in the United States, Canada or Australia. It was an almost impossible mission, but eventually, with a dedicated team, a few hundred families migrated to Israel. They were mostly young couples with young children and professionals in fields such as medicine, music, art, engineering and others. Their life choice to become Israelis has certainly enriched our country.
In 2000, I participated in a parachute jump into the sea near Dado Beach in Haifa. Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz led this fundraising event for paratrooper orphans. Every veteran skydiver has jumped with an “orphan buddy”. Navy seals in dinghies were waiting to help us back to shore. A tall, handsome navy seal with a Russian accent helped me. He was born in Novosibirsk and had lived in Israel for less than a decade. The Navy Seal, son of Russian immigrants who chose to serve in one of the IDF’s most elite units, lent me a hand. It brought me full circle in my appreciation and recognition of an immigration that changed the face of the State of Israel.
Jonathan Davis is director of the Reichman University International School (formerly IDC) and vice president of external relations. He is also a member of the advisory board of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Mr. Davis is also a Lieutenant Colonel (Res) in the IDF Spokesman’s Office.