National Conference on Soviet Jewry (U.S.)

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The National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) served as a coordinating agency for major national Jewish organizations and local community groups in the United States. The NCSJ acted on behalf of Soviet Jewry through public education and social action, which aimed to stimulate all segments of the community to maintain interest in the problems of Soviet Jews. To this end the NCSJ also published reports, memoranda, and pamphlets and sponsored special programs, organized public meetings, projects and forums.

The National Conference on Soviet Jewry was created in June 1971 as a result of the reorganization of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ, 1964-1971). The NCSJ was devised to be an umbrella organization; a structure representing the effort of the main Jewish communal organizations to aid Soviet Jews and to attract the attention of the U.S. government to the plight of Jews in the USSR. Its main functions included development of planning and strategy on behalf of Soviet Jews, coordination of the work of all constituent members of NCSJ and assignment of particular tasks and the collection and distribution of information on Soviet Jews, refuseniks and prisoners of conscience (POC) and Soviet policies towards them. Refuseniks were Soviet Jews who applied for emigration but were refused exit visas and had to remain in the Soviet Union, usually losing their regular jobs and being able to find only unqualified menial jobs. Prisoners of conscience (POC) were Jews and non-Jews imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for their beliefs, usually under some fabricated criminal charge. Dissidents were members of the broader democracy movement in the USSR which included both Jews and non-Jews.

The precursor of NCSJ, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (AJCSJ) came into being as a result of the efforts of individual activists and community leaders, and its emergence may be considered as the beginning of the American Soviet Jewry Movement (ASJM). However, the Movement formally "commenced" with an event, the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews, held October 21, 1963, prepared by Moshe Decter, editor of the New Leader magazine, and (behind the scenes) the Israeli Liaison Bureau. The Conference took place at the Carnegie Foundation and its sponsors and participants were Saul Bellow, Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Herbert Lehman, Bishop James Pike, Walter Reuther, Norman Thomas, Robert Penn Warren. This initial assembly led to the establishment of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry with a more formal assembly a year later, on April 5-6, 1964. April 1964 also saw the birth of the militant student movement, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) following a march in New York of Columbia University students to the Soviet UN mission.

The leadership and coordination work by AJCSJ were provided on a rotating, part-time basis between member organizations, and in 1966-1970 its staff coordinating agency was the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), which provided full-time executive and clerical personnel, housing and other direct administrative overhead and expense costs. The focus in the early years of the AJCSJ and the Soviet Jewry Movement was to obtain equal rights for Soviet Jews as an ethnic and religious minority within the Soviet Union. Eventually the focus shifted to the right for Soviet Jews to emigrate.

The situation for Soviet Jews deteriorated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The USSR's break of diplomatic relations with Israel and increased Jewish activism, followed by a massive crackdown against Soviet Jewish activists, needed an adequate response and allocation of resources. After a set of recommendations was adopted at a joint meeting, chaired by Rabbi Herschel Schacter and Abraham Bayer, of the AJCSJ and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, combined with the proposals of Stanley H. Lowell (American Jewish Congress), Philip Bernstein (Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds), Charlotte Jacobson (World Zionist Organization), Yehuda Hellman (Presidents Conference) and Isaiah Minkoff (National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council), the National Conference on Soviet Jewry was created in June 1971. The name change from AJCSJ to NCSJ was approved by the Plenum on December 13, 1971.

NCSJ determined its objectives through a consensus of a Board of Governors, which met 3-4 times a year. The Board of Governors consisted of representatives from all member agencies, as well as twenty-five representatives and twenty-five alternates from local communities. The Board of Governors annually elected the Executive Committee and officers of NCSJ.

The plenum of the National Conference included all members of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry as well as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and stipulated a number of representatives of welfare funds and community relations councils designated jointly by the National Jewish Community Relations advisory Council (NJCRAC) and the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds.

With the establishment of NCSJ in 1971, Jerry Goodman was appointed executive director of the NCSJ (replaced by Mark Levin in 1987) and Richard Maass was elected its chairman (subsequent chairmen were Theodore (Ted) Man and Morris Abram).

In one of its leaflets the NCSJ described itself as, "an autonomous body working to develop programs designed to be helpful in relieving the problems of Soviet Jews: to aid Soviet Jews who seek their right to leave for Israel and elsewhere; to combat rising anti-Semitism in the USSR; to help Jews live in the Soviet Union with the rights, privileges and freedoms accorded other religious and national minority groups; [and] to help protect the civil and personal rights of Jews within the USSR." At the peak of its activities the NCSJ included about fifty national organizations, among them the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Public Affairs Committee, American Zionist Federation, American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith and B'nai B'rith-Women, Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization; the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and, on the local level, by hundreds of Jewish communal organizations.

The NCSJ created a network of support groups, which engaged a broad range of Americans, both Jews and non-Jews, and included doctors, lawyers and Congressional spouses. It used contacts with U.S. Presidents, members of the administration, and members of the U.S Congress and Senate to put pressure on the Soviet authorities to allow the increase of the number of Jews attempting to emigrate from the USSR and to ameliorate the condition of Soviet Jews. While presidents before Reagan were reluctant to exercise full-scale intervention on behalf of Soviet Jews for fear of jeopardizing the policy of détente, the U.S. Congress was less apprehensive and more willing to assert itself as a guardian of democracy and a moral force in the wake of United States political scandals and the Vietnam War.

From the beginning, NCSJ leaders cultivated ties with power brokers in Washington, D.C. to further their cause: influential entrepreneurs Armand Hammer and Donald Kendall, prominent lawyers Telford Taylor and Alan Dershowitz, entertainers Joanne Woodland, Jack Gilford and Jane Fonda as well as writers and intellectuals such as Elie Wisel and Alfred Kazin.

A new chapter in the NCSJ and all Soviet Jewry Movement activities was introduced when Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanik joined with the NCSJ to introduce legislation that would link trade benefits (the Most Favored Nation status) and credits to the emigration policies of foreign states. The campaign in support of the Jackson-Vanik bill started in 1972 and culminated with the signing of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of the United States, passed in 1974 and enacted in January 1975. The amendment forced the Soviet authorities to yield, and the years 1975-1979 showed a steady increase in Soviet Jewish emigration from the USSR, reaching its peak in 1979 with 51,320 people. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, American-Soviet relations rapidly deteriorated, resulting in a reduction of the number of Jews allowed to emigrate from the USSR, and increasing the vigor of the "anti-Zionist" (an euphemism for anti-Jewish) campaign in the 1980s.

In 1984-1985, with a virtual halt in emigration from the Soviet Union, the NCSJ recognized the need for significant changes and admitted that the organization's most important goal, that of "maximizing the involvement of all segments of the Jewish and general communities," in the U.S. had not been achieved. It made steps to enhance its image as "the address for the Soviet Jewry advocacy efforts, guidelines, programs, materials" focusing on work with the national agency members and local federations "to create an integrated and cooperative approach." The involvement of local communities, mostly symbolic so far, was invigorated by attracting local leaders and local communities to participate in decision-making and regular information briefings. The primary purposes of the NCSJ were reformulated as follows: "To enable Jews to leave the Soviet Union in accordance with international law; to help those Jews who choose to remain in the Soviet Union live as Jews with the same rights accorded every other nationality and religious minority, and to assure that the plight of Soviet Jewry is kept in the forefront of deliberations of our Government, as well as the public and private sectors."

The new realities of a strong, determined and popular president in the United States (Ronald Reagan, from 1981) and the new policies of "perestroika" and "glasnost" in the top echelons of Soviet power, which included reforms liberalizing Soviet political and ideological norms, opened new opportunities of advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jews. On December 6, 1987, on the eve of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting, about a quarter of a million people marched in Washington to support the struggle of Soviet Jews for their human rights and the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The rally was attended by presidential candidate and then vice-president, George H.W. Bush, and a group of recently released refuseniks and prisoners of conscience, among them Ida Nudel, Yosef Begun, Natan Sharansky, Vladimir Slepak and Yuli Edelshtein. It was the largest national event ever held in the nation's capital for any Jewish cause. Created and coordinated by a special NCSJ task force with determination and solidarity, the event brought together all organizations involved in the Soviet Jewry Movement.

The following years brought a drastic increase in Soviet Jewish emigration. By 1991, the year that the USSR ceased to exist, restrictions on all refuseniks were lifted. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NCSJ continued to serve as an agency coordinating aid to and advocating on behalf of, Jews living in countries that were former territories of the Soviet Union. The NCSJ now operated under the name "NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia," with the head office in Washington, DC.

Today, the NCSJ continues its work as a not-for-profit agency on behalf of the 1.5 million Jews in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The organization stresses, in its own words, the "commitment to safeguard the religious and political freedoms of Jews living in the successor states, protect their right to emigrate without impediment, monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and ensure that Jews have full access to Jewish education, culture, and heritage."

From the guide to the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, records, undated, 1949, 1954, 1956, 1958-1993, (American Jewish Historical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf National Conference on Soviet Jewry (U.S.). Correspondence to Chaim Potok, 1978-1992. University of Pennsylvania Library
referencedIn Pamela B. Cohen, papers, Papers, undated, 1968-2005, 2007, 2009 (bulk 1978-1996) American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Charlotte Gerber Turner Papers, undated, 1976-1977, 1980, 1985, 1987 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Zionist political history collection, 1894-1985. New York State Historical Documents Inventory
referencedIn Laurel Gould (1931-2008) and Alan J. Gould (1929- ), papers, undated, 1963, 1969-1982 (bulk 1970-1980) American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Philip Lax, papers, undated, 1915, 1917, 1944-2003, 2005-2008 (bulk 1970s-1980s) American Jewish Historical Society
creatorOf National Conference on Soviet Jewry, records, undated, 1949, 1954, 1956, 1958-1993 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry Records (Formerly Papers of Carolyn W. Sanger, *P-870), undated, 1962, 1965-2001 (bulk 1970-1990) American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn David H. Hill (1921- ), Papers, undated, 1958, 1963-1974, 1976, 1979-1998, 2000 (bulk 1963-1990) American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Betty Golomb Papers, undated, 1964, 1968, 1971, 1975-1979, 1982-1984, 1986-1989 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Doris H. Goldstein Papers, 1979, 1981, 1987-1988, 2009 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Philip S. Bernstein, papers, undated, 1926-1995 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Abraham Silverstein Papers, undated, 1975-1976, 1985, 1987-1989, 1994 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Elaine Pittell Papers, undated, 1974-1991, 1993, 1994, bulk 1975-1988 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Rabbi David Goldstein and Shannie Goldstein Papers, undated, 1982-1984, 1987-1989, 2005, 2007, bulk 1983 American Jewish Historical Society
referencedIn Garber, Akiva. Akiva Garber Soviet Jewry collection 1970-1990. Yeshiva University
referencedIn Babette Wampold Papers, undated, 1969-2003, 1976-1991 American Jewish Historical Society
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Begun, Iosif, 1932- person
associatedWith Bernstein, Philip S. (Philip Sydney), 1901-1985 person
associatedWith Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich, 1906-1982 person
associatedWith Bush, George Herbert Walker, 1924- person
associatedWith Carter, James Earl, 1924- person
associatedWith Cohen, Pamela B. person
associatedWith Ford, Gerald Rudolf, Jr., 1913-2006 person
associatedWith Garber, Akiva. person
associatedWith Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeevich, 1931- person
associatedWith Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Kennedy, Edward Moore, 1932- person
associatedWith King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968 person
associatedWith Kissinger, Henry Alfred, 1923- person
associatedWith Kosharovsky, Yuliy person
associatedWith Kuznetsov, Eduard person
associatedWith Lax, Philip, 1920-2012 person
associatedWith Nixon, Richard Milhous, 1913-1994 person
associatedWith Nudel, Ida person
associatedWith Panov, Valery person
associatedWith Reagan, Ronald Wilson, 1911-2004 person
associatedWith Sakharov, Andrei, 1921-1989 person
associatedWith Shcharansky, Anatoly (Sharansky, Natan) person
associatedWith Shcharansky, Avital person
associatedWith Slepak, Vladimir person
associatedWith Taratuta, Aba person
associatedWith Wampold, Babette person
associatedWith Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry person
associatedWith Zalmanson, Silva person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Former Soviet republics
Soviet Union
Bar mitzvah
Bat mitzvah
Emigration and immigration
Human rights
International law
Jews, Soviet
Political activists
Psychological abuse
US-USSR Relations

Corporate Body

Active 1978

Active 1992



Ark ID: w6d55dqj

SNAC ID: 18761205