Saturday, Jul 13, 2024

Uncle Yankev z”l, A Most Unlikely Unsung Hero

He was 85 or 86 years old. He was legally blind, he could barely walk a few steps without tiring, he had multiple serious medical conditions, and his doctors really had no idea how he was still alive. We knew, however. It was his spirit. With all of that, he was a “young” 85-year-old. He was totally with it, with a comprehensive understanding of every new development in the Jewish world.

It was after a long conversation with him about developments in the Jewish world. He was fully cognizant of what was going on, and in the course of the conversation he said something sort of “by-the-way” that jerked me out of my reverie: “I haven’t been able to sleep at night when I think of the situation in Eretz Yisroel. Both the difficulties with those wanting to kill us and the difficulties as a result of the inner strife between us fill me with trepidation about the future.”


Who today loses sleep about such things? Who really cares enough to do more than sigh and say, “The matzav is bad. We need rachamei Shomayim. Pass the ketchup…”


My uncle, Yaakov Birnbaum, who passed away a few days before Pesach, not only thought this way. He lived his entire life this way. He devoted his entire life to not only agonizing and losing sleep over the plight of his fellow Jews, but following up with critically important action, galvanizing a complacent establishment, never resting, no matter how much bizyonos he absorbed, until he was able to witness the freedom of nearly two million Soviet Jews from oppression and jail behind the Iron Curtain.




I beg my readers’ indulgence in this column. Rarely do I write about something so personal in these pages, and because it is something so close to home, my words and thoughts may be a bit disjointed. Nevertheless, there is so much to learn from the life of the great unsung hero and founder of the Soviet Jewry movement, Reb Yaakov Birnbaum, or Uncle Yankev, as we knew him. It would be a colossal loss of opportunity if we didn’t stop to contemplate his life and try to learn some lessons from this remarkable Yid, who, with a heart throbbing with endless ahavas Yisroel, never tired and never gave up, despite the fact that he was pushed away, ignored and treated shabbily by so many who should have known better.


Indeed, on the 9th of Nissan, in his hospital room in the Cardiac Care Unit at Columbia Hospital, we were around his bed as the heart monitor began its descent. With the cries of Shema Yisroel and other pesukim, the monitor slowly ground to a halt and the thought arose, “How could this heart stop? How could this massive, all-encompassing heart — which throbbed with such love of his fellow Jews, with such urgency for decades, impelling an indifferent world to worry about Jews in trouble – just cease to beat? That heart was weak for a couple of decades, but he never stopped caring for his fellow Jews, fellow human beings, for every tzelem Elokim, doing and cajoling. And now it stopped. How could that be?”




Several years ago, well-known Oxford historian Sir Martin Gilbert wrote, “As a cautious, pedantic historian, I am naturally reluctant to call anyone the ‘Father’ of anything…but I have no hesitation whatever in describing Jacob Birnbaum as the Father of the Soviet Jewry movement…”


How did Uncle Yaakov, a frum yeshiva bochur from England, end up devoting his life to the plight of Russian Jews? How did this most unlikely of men lobby and have his voice heard in New York, Washington and Moscow, and eventually bring the forgotten millions of Russian Jews into the consciousness of the Jewish community and then the entire world?


The answer, in two words, is he cared. He cared so much that he didn’t let anything deter him. As many times as he was pushed away, he just kept on coming back. He started an organization called the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) together with Glenn Richter and a few students, and the entire operation was run from his Washington Heights apartment. It had almost no money. It and he were ostracized by the “official Jewish establishment,” but Uncle Yankev, with the conviction of the justness of his path, with the moral and Jewish calling that said, “I am my brother’s keeper,” “Let my people go,” and, “Let my people know,” he just kept at it, until he was heard.


These stories of the great heroes who bucked public opinion and transformed a generation are supposed to have a “happy ending.” The entire establishment is expected to eventually put that courageous leader on a pedestal and hail him for his vision, give him his rightful place in history, take care of him, and treat him like a national treasure.


Tragically, that is not what happened. Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and one of Uncle Yaakov’s early “foot soldiers,” wrote last week: “It is surely no stranger to history that some of its main actors die penniless and in obscurity, unknown or underappreciated, as if their efforts on this mortal coil left no footprint, as if the world came and went none the richer for their lives. It is certainly no stranger to the historical record that some people long forgotten enjoy a glorious posthumous career that would have stunned them in their lifetime, when they peered from between cracks in the latticework onto an indifferent world that acted as if they were minor players, if even that. We have no prophetic knowledge as to how history will treat Jacob Birnbaum; we do know how he was treated in his lifetime, certainly the last 30 years of it…” 




I remember my grandmother, Uncle Yankev’s mother, telling me as a child how special Uncle Yankev was. “He gave up his entire life, all of the things that regular people so need, on behalf of the cause,” she said.


He delayed marriage, because he was too busy trying to save Soviet Jews. He barely ate and slept, eventually damaging his health irreparably. In fact, the last 30 years of his life were full of health challenges. He never collected a normal salary for his activism, and he and his super devoted wife and partner Freda lived in a modest apartment, filled with books. He wasn’t an ascetic. It was just that his focus was on things of far greater substance, and thus the standard creature comforts simply played no role in his life. 


Giving for a Cause with No Recognition


If one would ask the average Jew, “Who were the major players in the Soviet Jewry movement?” numerous names would be mentioned, but the man who started it all, who “midwifed” it, who gave his life for the movement, would probably not be mentioned.


The reason for this is that Yaakov Birnbaum was about the cause, not about himself. It wasn’t about him. He was an absolute marketing genius. His slogans of “Am Yisrael Chai,” “Let My People Go!” “The Geulah March,” “The Jericho March,” and “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” were absolutely uniquely and ingeniously crafted slogans for which marketing companies would have charged six-figure fees. Nevertheless, with all of his marketing genius, he never marketed himself. So many activists today spend their lives marketing themselves, engaging in shameless self-promotion and the like. Yaakov Birnbaum was never like that. There was a purity about his public service, perhaps to a fault. It just wasn’t him. As soon as he had reached one goal, he proceeded to the next goal with the same bulldog tenacity. He didn’t have the time nor the stomach and arrogance for self-promotion, even when it was necessary.




Later, when others took credit for his accomplishments, he was bewildered and at times disappointed that people could do such things.


One of the undercurrents of the remarks of several speakers at his levayah, some of them now major figures in the official Jewish world, was a degree of guilt, a “klapping al chet” of sorts, over the fact that many did not show the requisite hakoras hatov to him during his lifetime. After all, many major public figures in the official Jewish establishment really “cut their teeth” under Reb Yaakov Birnbaum. He infused them with idealism. He urged them to worry about their fellow Jews and get involved.


Parenthetically, we can possibly suggest that some soul-searching is in order in all segments of Jewry, right to left, in how we treat our heroes. How do we treat those who really care, who give their lives for a cause, but are not haughty and arrogant self-promoters, and seek neither power nor money?


Perhaps we can say that Uncle Yankev’s model of Jewish leadership was taken from the age-old, timeless words of the Torah, the place where he derived his wellsprings of inspiration. Chazal teach us that when Hashem entrusted Moshe Rabbeinu with the task of leadership, Hashem said, “Do you think I am placing rulership and honor upon you? Avdus, slavery, subservience to the cause, is what I am placing upon you.”


That was Uncle Yaakov, the quintessential servant to his people, every one of them, even the downtrodden and those forgotten by everyone else. He was an eved, a servant, with a mission. He never forgot that.



On a personal note, he was a beloved uncle who deeply cared about his nieces and nephews and their children. We all looked to him as an additional father and grandfather, and during our visits and phone calls, we were always amazed by his ability be totally up-to-date and focused on developments across the Jewish world, despite the fact that he was essentially housebound.


Now Uncle Yaakov has gone. Rabbi Hillel Goldberg summed it up succinctly when he wrote last week, “Perhaps history will one day see him for what he did. One thing is clear: Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have never heard his name owe an incalculable debt to this unadulterated, unwavering idealist, this blessed son of the Jewish people, Jacob Birnbaum.”


Uncle Yaakov and Aunt Freda did not have biological children, but they have millions of children. All of those Jews from the former Soviet Union and their descendants are their children. They perhaps do not know him, and most haven’t even heard of him, but Hashem knows.




As for us, at the kevurah, as we were lowering the mitah into the earth, we were thinking about Uncle Yankev, Reb Yaakov ben Reb Shlomo Asher, going before the Kisei Hakavod to receive his just reward, and the thought burst forth: Uncle Yaakov, is there anyone like you who can beg Hashem and intercede like you did so ably down here? You are surely the best advocate to go and beg Hashem, “Let my people go!”


The Jewish people are so beaten and bruised. We are torn by inner strife and by haters in so many dark places who seek to destroy us. We are still a lamb among 70 wolves. Ask Hashem to finally let His people go and bring the ultimate redemption. You always spoke about liberation and redemption. Please, intercede so that we can finally experience the final redemption and the arrival of Moshiach, may it be speedily in our days.




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