Forward Thinking

Death of a Soviet Jewry Activist

By Gal Beckerman

  • Print
  • Share Share

Last Friday, June 13, Joe Smukler died.

For anyone involved with the Soviet Jewry movement — and certainly for the refuseniks who spent years struggling to get out of the Soviet Union — the Smukler name was synonymous with the kind of dogged, unrelenting, year-in-year-out activism that defined the cause. Joe and his wife, Connie, fixtures of the Philadelphia Jewish community, became intimately involved, early on, with the Soviet Jews that they were fighting for here in the States. They saw them like family, cousins, whom they had no choice but to help with everything they had to offer.

There are a few nice obituaries, here and here. Read them for a fuller picture of Joe’s life and his 20 years of Soviet Jewry activism.

What I remember most about Smukler from my research was the extent to which he himself became part of the Soviet Jewish story. Not content to be activists on the sidelines, he and Connie experienced all the travails of their friends in the Soviet Union personally.

The story that best illustrated this for me took place in 1975 when a rift broke out in the refusenik community between two groups, one devoted to a more aggressively political approach, and the other preferring to focus on cultivating more Jewish identity among Soviet Jews. The fight became personal and involved a dispute over the financial help refuseniks were clandestinely receiving from the West — should the money go to the Kulturniki, as they were known, or the Politiki? When the two groups refused to sit in the same room during a meeting with a delegation of United States senators visiting Moscow, the Los Angeles Times ran a report on the problems.

Enter Joe. Western activist were concerned about what this rift would mean for the solidarity of the movement, which could not afford to be distracted by these divisions. Smukler visited Moscow and brokered a sort of truce. Sitting with representatives of the two sides together in an apartment and calmly explaining the danger that this fight was causing, Smukler made everyone understand that they needed to tone things down for the good of the movement.

In that moment, and many others, he was one with them.

At Smukler’s funeral, a message from Natan Sharansky, the most famous by far of the refuseniks, was read out loud. The text is after the jump.

From that day in July 1975, 37 years ago, when I first met Joe and you, Connie, in Moscow, I knew instantly that I found close and dear friends and you became the symbol and embodiment of exactly what we wanted to see from American Jews in those days: Selfless Jews who use all their professional stature, public standing and talents for this struggle.

In America, Joe worked relentlessly to unite the Jewish community in this struggle. In Moscow, he spent every minute to strengthen us. Everything he did was amplified by the passion and determination of Connie, sometimes behind him and sometimes ahead of him.

After my arrest, each time the name of my accomplices, Joe and Connie, were mentioned, I felt strengthened. It was a powerful reassurance to me that my friends were out there fighting for me. And each time when Avital needed encouragement your names were among the first to come into her mind as well.

After my release, I was happy to be able to continue to work with Joe as a leader of his community, a great supporter of Israel and of Jewish people all over the world.

Connie, in this difficult hour, it is important to remember the great things that you and Joe were privileged to do together for our people. Connie, Joe will always be an inseparable part of your life and both of you are an inseparable part of our life!


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Joseph Smukler, Natan Sharansky, Soviet Jewry Movement

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.