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Winner of 2010 National Book Award to speak at CU

Gal BeckermanFROM 1987 to 1997, dozens of volunteers and members of the Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry advocated for Soviet Jews, who were being persecuted in the former Soviet Union. The group helped resettle approximately 250 Soviet Jews in the Boulder area.

During that time period, Gal Beckerman celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in Los Angeles and participated in the Soviet Twinning program, where activists matched 13-year-old American Jews with Jewish children in the Soviet Union, who were denied this rite of passage. The idea was to personalize the problems that refuseniks faced.


Beckerman never forgot his twin, Maxim Yankelevich, and although he never met him, the experience led him to research the Soviet Jewry movement and ultimately to write a book about it.


Beckerman will speak about his book, When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, which won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award, at CU-Boulder, March 14, 7:30 p.m. in the Center for Community’s Flatirons Room.

The talk will mark the launch of the Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry’s oral history project.

BASJ was affiliated with the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, a nationwide network of local activist groups that brought awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews to their local communities.

Beckerman said the Soviet Jewry movement was important because it helped the American Jewish community gain political power as it rallied for this issue.

It was also important for Soviet Jews, who for decades were cut off from their Jewish history, and who now were able to reconnect with it.

“At one level this is very much a Jewish redemption story about two communities after the war that needed to assert themselves,” Beckerman said.

“American Jews needed to overcome this feeling that they hadn’t done enough during the Holocaust for their brethren, and the movement was a way to channel that energy.”

CU-Boulder Jewish studies program students and interns along with volunteers from the Maria Rogers Oral History Program at the Boulder Public Library have been interviewing former residents of the Soviet Union and BASJ founders, staff and volunteers for the BASJ oral history project.

The goal is to chronicle the group’s origin and its challenges as well as the experiences of the Soviet Jews who were directly impacted by BASJ’s work.

BECKERMAN’S book chronicles the effort to save the nearly three million Jews who were trapped in the Soviet Union after WW II and leading up to the mass emigration that began in 1972. Until 1989, Jews were forbidden by a Stalinist state to congregate together, or study Torah or Hebrew; they also were not allowed to emigrate, and they were denied higher level jobs.

Those who congregated with other Jews or tried to emigrate were forced into menial labor, internal exile or imprisoned.

“It’s important to emphasize that this story is an important story for Jews, but this movement played a critical role in the Cold War in making human rights an element in American foreign policy,” Beckerman said.

“It’s not just a Jewish story. It had a huge influence on how the two superpowers interacted and eventually forced the Soviets to start respecting human rights.”

Beckerman is a reporter at the Forward. He was a longtime editor and staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review and has  written for The New York Times Book Review and the Jerusalem Post.

He was a fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin and the recipient of a Pulitzer traveling fellowship from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Authentic Russian desserts and refreshments will be served starting at 7 p.m. during a reception preceding the event, which will include an opportunity to meet several Soviet Jews who resettled in the US as a result of the work of the Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry.

Information: or (303) 492-7143.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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