Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry: The Beginning

9 Nov

By Brandon Springer

AS THE SOVIET UNION BEGAN TO CRUMBLE in the late 1980s, a group of Jews in Boulder organized to aid and resettle Soviet Jews who faced increasing discrimination from the Soviet state and refusal of their requests to emigrate (earning them the label of “refuseniks”). These Jewish Boulderites called themselves Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry.

Listen to the first in a series of podcasts about the history of Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry.

Over the past year, interns and students from the University of Colorado, along with volunteers from the Maria Rogers Oral History Program, collected interviews with volunteers and organizers for BASJ as well as with new Americans resettled by the organization. Nearly 20 interviews have been conducted with these individuals.

Judge Murray Richtel during a trip to the former Soviet Union

The interviews ranged from the original founders of BASJ—attorneys Bill and Sara-Jane Cohen and Judge Murray Richtel—to some of the first board members; from families that served as “anchor families” to Soviet émigrés (providing them with guidance and advice on adapting to American culture and life) to professional and volunteer ESL tutors who taught English to the new Americans. In addition, of course, many of the interviews documented the lives of the Soviet Jewish émigrés themselves.

Families who emigrated from Moscow, St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad under the Soviets), Tashkent and Dushanbe all are among the narrators whose life stories now are archived at the Carnegie Library for Local History in the Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry Special Collection within the Oral History Program’s online archive. They tell us their stories of growing up in a state where being a Jew meant being second-class, where it meant discrimination and harassment, where your photo was taken by the KGB if you dared to attend synagogue. Alla Levy reminisces that the first time she realized she was Jewish was when she was called a “kike” by another child in her elementary school. As a result of these difficult experiences, many of the Soviet Jews had conflicted, or even non-existent, Jewish identities.

BASJ worked as part of a national movement to aid these Soviet Jews, particularly those Jews in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Boulder’s sister city), whose struggles were not known to many, if any, of the other Soviet Jewry advocacy organizations across the country. BASJ advocated for these Jews and resettled them once their exit visas were approved.

This podcast is the story of the group’s origins, the first episode in a series of podcasts that will describe their adventures, challenges and triumphs.

Further episodes will detail the adventures of the various members of BASJ and the experiences of Jews living in the former Soviet Union.

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