Jacob (Yaakov) Birnbaum (10 December 1926 – 9 April 2014) was the German-born founder of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) and other human rights organizations. Because the SSSJ, at the time of its founding, in 1964, was the first initiative to address the plight of Soviet Jewry, he is regarded as the father of the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry. His father was Solomon Birnbaum and grandfather Nathan Birnbaum.
Yaakov Birnbaum was born in Hamburg, Germany. His grandfather was Nathan Birnbaum, writer and Jewish nationalist who was the first person to coin the word "Zionism." His father was Solomon Birnbaum, a Yiddish scholar. Shortly after Nazis came to power in 1933 his father was attacked in the street. During the same period, six-year-old Yaakov was surrounded by neighboring German boys who swarmed into the garden and stuffed his mouth full of dirt. The family managed to reach England but Hitler's voice screaming "the accursed Jews" still dominated their lives. In 1938 and 1939 Yaakov went to school with refugee children who were brought out from Central Europe at the last moment in a Kindertransport organized by Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld. He later studied modern European history at the University of London.
After the war
As the war ended in 1945, Birnbaum moved to France where from 1946 to 1951 he helped survivors of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet labor camps - Jews from Poland, USSR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary. He later worked to help North African Jews fleeing the Algerian Civil War.
Fight for Soviet Jewry
With his experience of Nazism and Soviet communism, Birnbaum felt that an all-out effort should be made by American Jewry to combat the Kremlin's oppression of Soviet Jews. Inspired by the organization of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Birnbaum decided to create a national student movement to act as a spearhead to mobilize the grassroots to transform Washington into the protector and rescuer of Soviet Jewry. In 1964 he moved to New York City. On April 27, 1964 he convened a New York metropolitan student meeting at Columbia University with the aim of creating a protest on May 1, traditionally a holiday for the Soviet Union. About 200 students from Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary, Queens College and Columbia University attended. The meeting was an emotional one. The theme was that the Holocaust should be taken as a warning and the civil rights movement as a model for grassroots action. Within four days some 1,000 students rallied in front of the Soviet U.N. Mission. He called the new group Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) (a play on the Marxist term "class struggle") and his first office operated out of his bedroom. In its recent timeline of 350 years of American Jewish history, the Center for Jewish History marked 1 May 1964 as the beginning of the public movement for Soviet Jewry.
The 1960s saw the rise of student protest movements. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the inspiration for SSSJ, eventually shed its non-violent image, and other groups arose based on civil disobedience. Recognizing the potential hazard of courting donors who wanted to avoid student activism, Birnbaum together with Irving Greenberg and Mel Stein created the non-profit Center for Soviet Jewry in 1965 in the hope that it would have more appeal donors.
Birnbaum sacrificed much for SSSJ, leading an ascetic life, even going as far as washing his clothes in the bathtub to save money by avoiding the laundry.
Birnbaum's efforts to raise general awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry beyond the Jewish community lasted for years. A major goal was accomplished when on December 6, 1987--a day before a summit meeting before Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev--the National Coalition Supporting Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) held a gathering of 250,000 people, including statements from human rights leaders, American presidential candidates, Morris B. Abram (NCSJ president), and a message from President Ronald Reagan. Birnbaum was given negligible attention at the event, something that embittered him for the rest of his life.
Former Soviet refusenik and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky said "Jacob was the first to start the struggle. This brought hundreds of thousands of Jews out to join him in the great struggle for Soviet Jewry, which made modern Exodus real." The movement started by Birnbaum eventually led to liberalization of Soviet emigration policies, resulting in the eventual emigration of over 1.5 million Soviet Jews.
Yacov Birnbaum was married to the former Freda Beatrice Bluestone who survives him.
Birnbaum donated his papers representing the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry to Yeshiva University in 1993.
- "Soviet Jewry Activist Jacob Birnbaum Dies at 87" (April 10, 2014). JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) via The Forward.
- "Birnbaum, Solomon Asher" (2007). Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. p. 716.
- Douglas Martin, "Jacob Birnbaum, Civil Rights Champion of Soviet Jews, Dies at 88," New York Times (Apr. 19, 2014).
- Guide to the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry Records, 1956-2010, Library - Yeshiva University accessed Nov. 22, 2015.
- Adam S. Ferziger, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015), p. 249, note 16.
- Gal Beckerman, "The Death of a Soviet Jewry Prophet," The Forward (Apr. 10, 2014).
- "Guide to Major Soviet Jewry Collection Available Online," Library Blog - Library, Yeshiva University, Nov. 6, 2008.
- "Weekly Announcements," Washington Heights Congregation (accessed November 22, 2015).
- Jonathan Zalman, "New York City Street Dedicated to Soviet Jewish Activist Jacob Birnbaum," The Tablet (Oct. 23, 2015)..