The Refusenik Exodus From Slavery to Freedom United the Jewish World and Brought Down the Soviet Union

What lessons can we learn from them today?


It is this process of Jewish rediscovery that makes this story so important and relevant. “This is not just the story of Soviet Jews. It’s the story of our nation,” said Zalmanson-Kuznetsov. After she finished her award-winning documentary film Operation Wedding, she realized that her mission was not yet over. “It’s about the whole story,” she said. “At the age of 15 or 16, children ask themselves questions like, how would I behave in that situation?” When you learn about it at that age, she said, it creates an impact.

Which is how the Refuseniks Project was born. The project is a collection of 30 lesson plans designed to help Jewish educators teach a variety of age groups. The lessons include video and music links, photographs, slide shows, and ideas for interactive learning. “With every lesson, I asked myself: How can I make it more engaging for the kids?” said Zalmanson-Kuznetsov.

The lessons, which are in English and available for free, in partnership with Bar Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, are built around contemporary universal themes that students can relate to, such as social justice, political protest, women’s rights, or popular culture, as well as specifically Jewish and Israel-related topics that guide students to reflect on their own stories and Jewish identities. For example, the lesson “Present, Protest and Inspire” includes biographies of 16 Prisoners of Zion—prisoners of conscience who were punished with jail terms for Jewish activism—including a 9-month-old baby and a teenage girl whom the KGB kidnapped to prevent her from emigrating to Israel with her father. Students are asked to work in small groups to plan a protest on behalf of one of the refuseniks, then present a protest—which may be in the form of dance, a collage, or a song—to the rest of the class.

The lesson “Brainwashing and Fake News” includes a brief video of a 2004 interview with a former KGB official. In the interview, the official insists that the Soviet Union did not have a Jewish emigration problem and estimates the total number of people refused permission to emigrate at around 20. (The actual number is estimated at 30,000–40,000.) The lesson plan prompts students to consider how to “tell the difference between truth and a lie,” setting up a conversation about the very contemporary issue of fake news.

A number of educators have already given Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s curriculum a try. Nick Greene, who splits his time between acting and teaching at Valley Beth Shalom Conservative synagogue in Encino, California, picked two lessons to teach his eighth-grade students. They began with “Women of the Refuseniks.” The group watched a video about well-known female refuseniks such as Avital Sharansky, Ida Nudel, and Raiza Palatnik, and Western women’s campaign for Soviet Jewry including film stars such as Jane Fonda and Liv Ullman. “I thought it was a wonderful, modern sort of look at this,” said Greene. The lesson kicked off a discussion about what it would have meant to be not just a Jew but also a woman at that time in the Soviet Union.For the second lesson, Greene chose “Sing in Hebrew: Songs sung by captive Soviet Jews and by free Jews in Israel.” Students learned a well-known Israeli song, ”Kachol V’Lavan” (“Blue and White”), which was written in the 1960s by a 21-year-old refusenik, Israel Rashal. The song, whose lyrics express (in a simple and easily graspable Hebrew) a longing for Israel, became the refuseniks’ anthem. “The song is wonderful, and their being eighth-graders right now in this world, pop culture is so influential, and music is a big part of that,” said Greene. The lesson evolved into a discussion of the role of artists in today’s American society and the power of music as a means for personal and political expression. At the end of the lesson, the students performed the song together.

The universal themes of the lessons, such as political protest and artistic freedom, can be explored in other contexts, but exploring them in the Jewish context made it more personal for his students, Greene explained. “A number of our congregants’ ancestors were the Soviet Jews. A lot of them participated in the Soviet Jewry movement, so they have a personal experience with that.” But the material created points of reference for students of other cultural traditions as well. Students from the synagogue’s Persian families, who had their own family history of social upheaval, displacement and emigration, also could relate to it, Greene told me. Echoing his observation, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov recalled an Israeli teenager of Ethiopian descent who approached her after a lecture to tell her how much the story touched her and inspired her to work to bring her Ethiopian family to Israel.To stimulate further interest, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov has established a giveaway for educators who teach one or more lessons on the Soviet Jewry movement: prizes of $300, $700, and $1,000, to be awarded in an online raffle on June 7. (Jewish LearningWorks, a San Francisco Bay Area Jewish learning organization, is acting as a fiscal sponsor for the award.) Applications are due June 4, so teachers have several weeks to teach a lesson and enter the competition. Teaching this material while we all find ourselves in forced confinement may bring it even closer to home.


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