Gathering in the brand-new National Museum of American Jewish History just steps from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, guests from across the nation’s birthplace and its environs marked the upcoming 17th anniversary of the passing of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, by examining a never-before-told story of how intensive diplomacy at the highest-levels of government resulted in the release of a large group of Soviet Jewry.

Hosted by 30 Chabad-Lubavitch centers from the greater Philadelphia area, the annual “Evening of Inspiration in Tribute to the Rebbe” focused on the efforts of the Rebbe and President Ronald Reagan that resulted in the famous “Russian Exodus” towards the end of the Cold War.

With a crowd of more than 500 people, the symposium-style evening featured a video interview with Max Kampelman, the Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate who served as Reagan’s chief arms negotiator with the Soviet Union, and addresses from Reagan advisor Gary Bauer and Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch, and director of Philadelphia’s Lubavitcher Center. Noted author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin moderated the discussion.

“We always knew that the Rebbe was a light to the nations,” said Josh Levin, a chemistry student at Temple University who attended the event. “But now we can learn how he was a beacon of light not only for the Jewish people, but also for the world as a whole.”

Irini Zogu from the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Northeast Philadelphia felt personally touched by the program.

“It’s important for me to learn more about the Rebbe and to become more familiar with his work and the important role he played [on behalf of] Russian Jewry,” she said.

In his introduction, Lubavitch of Bucks County director Rabbi Yudy Shemtov emphasized that “as this year marks 100 years since Reagan’s birth, we are dedicating this commemoration to appreciate the teachings, energy and life the Rebbe led as the greatest spiritual leader of this generation, and to reflect on the interaction between these two great giants, a relationship which until tonight was not well known.”

Quiet Diplomacy

Throughout the program, Telushkin and others emphasized that the Rebbe’s approach to alleviate the suffering of the millions of Jews trapped inside the Soviet Union was to engage in “quiet diplomacy.” This meant private meetings and correspondences carried out at the highest levels of government in lieu of public confrontations that were likely to provoke cruel behavior towards the Jews still inside the country.

According to Abraham Shemtov, who as founder of American Friends of Lubavitch served as a liaison between the Rebbe and the White House, when the Rebbe spoke in public about the necessity of the Jewish exodus from Russia, he didn’t “overemphasize the negative. He just highlighted the positives in allowing the Jews to leave.”

It was this technique that gained success for both Kampelman and the late Sen. Jacob “Chic” Hecht of Nevada, who met with Reagan before the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 and urged the president to personally ask Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ease the restrictions on Jewish emigration.

Reagan aide Gary Bauer speaks at a Philadelphia event commemorating the 17th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing.
Reagan aide Gary Bauer speaks at a Philadelphia event commemorating the 17th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing.

The evening’s video presentation included explanations by Kampelman that the Rebbe advised how best to work with Reagan in order to secure the maximum benefit for Soviet Jewry.

Reagan was presented privately with lists of Jews who were ready to emigrate, and in turn, Reagan passed them along to the Soviets who then slowly released thousands of Jews. None of the emigrations, however, were publicly referenced; no more than five people in Washington likely knew of the behind-the-scenes dealings.

“The Rebbe never gives up and has an ongoing concern with Jews everywhere. He shows us that we must do whatever we can now to help [others],” said Telushkin. “This relationship with Reagan also shows us how much can be achieved if we don’t [take] credit for it. It takes enormous self-restraint to do this, but it reflects well on Reagan and shows us the motivation of the Rebbe.”

For Susan Pomerantz of Elkins Park, gaining insight into the Rebbe’s life was most meaningful.

“I get a lot of inspiration from these speakers,” she said. “I never had the opportunity to meet the Rebbe in person, but I’m so inspired by him now.”

According to Bauer, who gave the evening’s main address, the Rebbe and Reagan sustained an ongoing and personal correspondence for many years. Most unique about this relationship, however, was that the president personally wrote his letters to the Rebbe. Bauer considers this personal relationship to be the main factor that enabled the president to withstand the pressure to drop the issue Russian Jewry from the forefront, and to continue to privately pass along the lists of names.

“We must come away from this story with a lesson to affect our own lives, to inform and educate everyone as to who the Rebbe was and to show that his teachings are still with us,” said Abraham Shemtov. “The world is ready to be reached if we only pass along the message properly. We must take advantage of our freedom here in America, and put this into action to lift this world out of darkness.”