Home » Grassroots Movements History » Union of Councils

Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ)

Established in 1970, the Union of Council for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) was, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the largest Soviet Jewry NGO in the world. Known as the “voice of the Refuseniks in the West,'' its effectiveness was due to its large number of independent, locally-based councils in North America working in concert with the UCSJ headquarters. The first Soviet Jewry advocacy organization in North America, the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism (CCSA), founded in 1963, joined with five other independent Soviet Jewry groups to establish the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. The UCSJ’s convener and first president, Lou Rosenblum, established a national office in Cleveland, OH. By the mid 1980’s, the UCSJ’s network included 32 councils. A total of 54 individual councils in the United States and Canada affiliated at some point with the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews between 1970 and 1991.
The six councils that joined together in 1970 to establish the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews were:
    • Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry (Hal Light)
    • California Students for Soviet Jews (Zev Yaroslavsky)
    • Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism (Lou Rosenblum, Herb Caron)
    • South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry (Yosef Yanich, Bob Wolf)
    • Southern California Council for Soviet Jews (Si Frumkin)
    • Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry (Moshe Brodetzky)  

Between 1970 and 1981, the UCSJ national office was located in each UCSJ’s president’s home city. As the UCSJ’s political activities increased, a Washington, D.C. office was added in 1972, staffed by one salaried employee who acted as Congressional and media liaison. All national operations were consolidated in Washington, D.C. in 1981. 

    • Some of the hallmarks of the UCSJ’s work between 1970 and 1991: The creation of personal connections between individuals and groups in North America and individual Jewish refuseniks and prisoners in the Soviet Union. Many People-to-People programs and initiatives were developed by UCSJ councils and became mainstream advocacy techniques. Beginning in the mid-1960’s and accelerating in the 70’s and 80’s, focus increased to maintain contact with refuseniks via phone calls, letters and packages, and visits by Westerners who had received briefings to maximize their effectiveness. This work included maintaining extensive databases and telephone contacts to track the cases of thousands of refuseniks, Prisoners of Conscience, and their families. The resulting stream of information was vital to Western activists in maintaining accurate and up-to-date information and in keeping the issue in the public’s eye. Resources and support was provided to the burgeoning network of underground Jewish study groups in the Soviet Jewish as well as to scientific and other seminars started by Refuseniks who had lost their jobs. 
    • Public activism to create local and national awareness of the plight of the Soviet Jewish community including demonstrations, protest vigils, marches, public programs, media coverage in North America, and programming targeted for summer camps, schools, and synagogues.
    • Specialized work by affiliated groups, including Medical Mobilization for Soviet Jewry, International Physicians Committee, and Soviet Jewry Legal Advocacy Center, that involved North American experts in medical and legal issues to advise and advocate for the health and legal needs of Refuseniks and Prisoners of Conscience.
    • Political advocacy both locally and nationally.
      • The earliest such effort was made in 1963 to tie U.S. wheat sales to the U.S.S.R. with matzo for Soviet Jews, work done by Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism.
      • Lobbying to pass HR 14806, a 1972 Bill to amend the Export Administration Act of 1969 in order to promote freedom of emigration. Such work led to strong relations with members of Congress. 
      • The UCSJ coordinated a multi-year campaign towards passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 designed to link US trade credits to the USSR with freedom of emigration. This campaign included White House meetings, Congressional lobbying, meetings in the Soviet Union with refuseniks. It also included ongoing negotiations with Jewish establishment organizations not to abandon the Amendment. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment was signed into law in 1975. 

Notable were the UCSJ’s strong connections established between the UCSJ’s individual councils and their respective elected officials in each local community and in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa. These extensive, long term relations with members of the government by UCSJ and other activists were crucial to: the passage of legislation, advocacy on behalf of specific cases of Refuseniks and Prisoners of Conscience, and in recruitment of U.S. and Canadian government officials to raise the issue directly with Soviet officials.

The UCSJ’s international work included involvement in the Helsinki Human Rights Review Process, starting with the UCSJ’s Robert F. Drinan Human Rights Center in Madrid (1980) and subsequently at review conferences in Warsaw, Geneva, and Helsinki. In the late 1980’s when conditions in the USSR shifted, the UCSJ held its 1989 annual meeting in Moscow and Leningrad. The following year the UCSJ established a human rights bureau in Moscow, which was the first Western human rights joint venture registered in the history of the Soviet Union.

After 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved and the barrier to emigration for Soviet Jews was removed, most of the UCSJ member councils ceased their work. The councils that continued to operate, coupled with the UCSJ national office, turned their focus to assisting those Jews who remained in the former Soviet Union and to monitoring human rights in the region.

UCSJ Member Councils

Fifty-three Independent councils affiliated as members of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews at some period between UCSJ’s founding in 1970 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The six original councils are designated with an asterisk (*).

Alabama Council to Save Soviet Jews
Alamo Council for Soviet Jews
Arizona Council on Soviet Jews
Baltimore Council for Soviet Jewry
Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry *
Boston Action for Soviet Jewry
Burlington Action Committee for Soviet Jews
California Students for Soviet Jews *
Chicago Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry
Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry
Cincinnati Council for Soviet Jews
Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism *
Colorado Committee of Concern for Soviet Jews
Connecticut Committee for Soviet Jews
Des Moines Action Committee for Soviet Jewry
Detroit Committee for Soviet Jewry
Greensboro Action for Soviet Jewry
Greater Hartford Action for Soviet Jewry
Hawaii Group for Soviet Jews
Houston Action for Soviet Jewry
Jewish Federation of South Broward
Kansas City Council for Soviet Jewry
Knoxville-Oak Ridge Council for Soviet Jews
Greater Lansing Soviet Jewry Freedom Committee
Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry
Los Alamos Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism
Minnesota-Dakotas Action Committee for Soviet Jewry
Montreal Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry
Newport News Soviet Jewry Committee, United Jewish Community
Niagara Frontier Council for Soviet Jewry
Oakland Soviet Jewry Action Committee
Oceanfront Council for Soviet Jews (Brooklyn, NY)
Omaha Commission for Soviet Jewry
Orange County Commission on Soviet Jews
Greater Philadelphia Council for Soviet Jews
Soviet Jewry Council of the JCRC, Philadelphia
Pittsburgh Voice for Soviet Jewry
Pittsfield Council for Soviet Jewry
San Diego Council for Soviet Jewry
Sarasota Council on Soviet Jewry
Seattle Action for Soviet Jewry
South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry *
Southern California Council for Soviet Jews *
Soviet Jewry Action Council of Harrisburg (PA)
Soviet Jewry Committee, Jewish Federation of South Bend
Soviet Jewry Committee of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore (MA)
Student Council for Soviet Jews, Ontario
Toronto Council for Soviet Jews
Vancouver Soviet Jewry Action Council
Waco Council of Concern on Soviet Jewry
Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry *
West Palm Beach, Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County
Wilmington (DE)
Zachor-S.E. Virginia Council for Soviet Jews

UCSJ Presidents: 1970 - 1991

Chronological order

Lou Rosenblum
Hal Light
Si Frumkin
Inez Weissman
Stuart Wurtman
Irene Manekofsky
Robert Gordon
Lynn Singer
Morey Schapira
Pamela Braun Cohen

UCSJ Presidents: Post 1991

Yosef Abramowitz
Larry Lerner 

UCSJ Board Members: 1970 - 1991

(Note:  This is a partial list, additional research is being completed)

Carole Abramson
Rudy Appel
Cecelia Appelbaum
Donna E. Arzt
Judy Balint
Harvey Barnett
Bailey Barron
Herb Beller
Sheldon Benjamin
Sergei Broude
Hinda Cantor
Howard Cantor
Stephen M. Cohen
Jeff Colvin
June Daniels
Leonid Feldman
Betsy Gidwitz
Shirley Goldstein
Lillian Hoffman
Judy Patkin
Joel Sandberg
Henry Slone (founding Treasurer)
Sandra Spinner
Marilyn Tallman
David Waksberg
Babette Wampold
Bob Wolf
Yossi Yanich
Zev Yaroslavsky

UCSJ History: Post 1991

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ), sometimes referred to as Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, moved its focus to human rights and the fight against anti-Semitism in the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU).  

Before the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the UCSJ had been the first Western Jewish or human rights organization to establish and register an office on Soviet soil with the creation in Moscow of the Russian-American Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law.  Post 1991, the UCSJ operated, in addition to the Moscow office, monitoring bureaus in St. Petersburg, L'viv, Bishkek, Almaty, Tbilisi, Riga and Minsk. The eight Bureaus were centers for advice on emigration working collegially with other indigenous Jewish and human rights NGOs, and concentrated on the monitoring of antisemitism, anti-Jewish hate crimes and prosecutions, neo-fascism and other indices of nationalistic extremism. 

For some years beginning in 1999, the UCSJ partnered with over 55 other NGOs to report on and discuss incidents of human rights transgressions through the blog Coalition Against Hate, which united the NGOs in their struggle against xenophobia, neo-Nazism, and extremism in the FSU.

The UCSJ provided aid to Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union to support religious life and the preservation of Jewish heritage. Yad L’Yad (Hebrew for hand-to-hand) partnered North American synagogues and Jewish schools with Jewish communities throughout the former Soviet Union.

Over two years starting in 2010, the UCSJ led efforts to support passage of the Magnitsky Bill in the U.S. Congress, legislation that called for sanctions against individuals who participate in human rights abuses. The UCSJ lobbied over 150 members of Congress. Frustrated with disinterest from Jewish establishment organizations and Jewish NGOs in this campaign, the UCSJ ultimately found support from other religious NGOs. The Magnitsky Bill, named in recognition of Sergei Magnitsky who was executed in Russia in 2009, was approved by the U.S. Congress in November 2012. Subsequently, similar legislation was enacted in a number of countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

In 2012, the UCSJ became one of the founding members of the International Religious Freedom Round Table, an informal group based in Washington, DC which included over 100 NGOs interested in religious freedom around the world.

The UCSJ helped to create the Ukrainian Religious Freedom Round Table in 2019, working with the Center for Civil Liberties and the Institute of Religious Freedoms in Ukraine. Representatives from 50 religious NGOs participate.

In 2022 the UCSJ’s remaining post in the former Soviet Union was located in Lviv, Ukraine where space was maintained for an office, Jewish worship, and a kosher soup kitchen. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 this UCSJ-supported location pivoted to provide food, medical supplies, and psychological support to refugees from eastern Ukraine.

  • Glossary

  • Other Grassroots Organizations

  • Student Struggle

  • Union of Councils

  • Publications