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Rallying Cry

Barbara Bensoussan

For young Jews of the 1960s and 1970s, the cry “Let my people go” didn’t refer only to Pharaoh and Mitzrayim. This was also the battle cry of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the first major grassroots organization that protested on behalf of Jews trapped in the Soviet Union. Dr. Jacob Birnbaum, now 85, who founded the movement five decades ago, looks back on a life of unceasing activism.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One could say that Dr. Birnbaum got his first taste, literally, of the problem of being a Jew in a totalitarian country while he was still a young child. His family was living in Germany in 1933, the year when Hitler rose to power. His father, Solomon Birnbaum, was brutally attacked on the street by thugs. Even six-year-old Jacob didn’t escape. “I was attacked inside our garden,” he remembers. ”A group of boys hopped the fence and stuffed dirt into my mouth — it was terrifying. I resisted vigorously and ran away. Curiously, my first reaction wasn’t resentment, but a sense that they were Nazis and what else could one expect?”

Solomon Birnbaum moved his family to England in the late 1930s, before war broke out. While the family was in London, the young Jacob was sent to a Jewish school started by Rabbi Avigdor Schonfeld, the father of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who organized the Kindertransports out of Germany and Austria.

Jacob Birnbaum began his own career as an activist after the war, when he was just 19. Small groups of Holocaust survivors, many of them young people, were arriving in England. Penniless and without friends or families, these young people often had nowhere to sleep, except the floor of a shul. Birnbaum fought on their behalf, attempting to convince the British authorities to provide these young survivors with a place to live and food to eat.   

The challenges of working with these battered survivors brought forth his skills as a leader: “Some of them had fought with the partisans, and they were wild! I still remember one — his name was Yosef Yehoshua — who had a scarred face. The other fellows rushed over to me, exclaiming, ‘Yosef Yehoshua has a whole suitcase full of knives!’ Well, I was big and he was small, but he was strong. I told him very quietly and politely, ‘Yosef Yehoshua, give me the knives, and I’ll look after them. I’ll show you where I keep them, and if you need them I’ll give you the key.’ ”

Birnbaum smiles. “That fellow eventually became a gabbai of a shul where he blew shofar on the Yamim Noraim and is a respected balabos!”

With time, the survivors settled into their new homes. But this didn’t mean that Birnbaum’s career as a communal activist had come to an end — it just changed its focus. Following the establishment of the State of Israel and the beginnings of unrest in Algeria, conditions in North Africa for the Jews had become highly precarious. A small group of young men were therefore brought from Morocco to a yeshivah established by Rabbi Shamai Zahn in Sunderland, UK, and Birnbaum found himself helping out. He also contacted the son of the head of the Jewish Committee of France and proposed sending student volunteers to Morocco to help send young people to England, Switzerland, and elsewhere. To his surprise, he easily amassed a group of volunteers and set off for Morocco with one of his Moroccan students as a guide.

Birnbaum traveled to all the major cities of Morocco, visiting all the schools. “You can see the level of Yiddishkeit in the schools,” he says. “The largest was Otzar HaTorah in Casablanca. I’d speak to the parents and encourage them to send their children on for further education.”

It was a great adventure, and the end result of Birnbaum’s meanderings in Morocco was that a lot of young people were helped to emigrate to pursue a higher education and given a chance at a better life. After wrapping up his Morocco project, and finishing yeshivah studies at Eitz Hayim and evening college (where he “read” modern European history), Birnbaum took a job in 1957 as director of the Jewish Community Council of Manchester and Salford. He stayed on the job for two years, but found himself disappointed with the level of the Jewish community. He began meeting secretly with young people, discussing how to re-inspire Jews in an uninspired generation.

Then, in the early 1960s, he left for Eretz Yisrael. While there he become friendly with several Americans, among them a 20-year-old rabbinical student from Yeshiva University named Shlomo Riskin, and began to think the US might prove more fertile ground for the sort of revival movement of which he dreamed.


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