Leonid Rigerman Comes ‘home’ to America
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Leonid Rigerman Comes ‘home’ to America

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“It’s not real. It’s probably a post card I’m looking at. I want to see everything here, everything here.” Leonid Rigerman had come “home” to America. The Soviet Jew, whose efforts to break the Kremlin’s emigration barriers had brought him widespread attention and encouragement in the West, spoke today to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent in the apartment of Rabbi Steven Riskin of Lincoln Square Synagogue. Jacob Birnbaum, head of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, noted afterward that the Center for Russian Jews, headed by Rabbi Riskin, and the SSSJ had been instrumental in effecting Rigerman’s emigration. The 30-year-old computer programer alighted with his mother, Mrs. Esther Rigerman, from a Pan American jet at John F. Kennedy International Airport at midnight Saturday. He had been expected to arrive at 10 p.m., but the flight was delayed because of what a Pan Am spokesman said had been “mechanical troubles in Moscow.” Rigerman–small, slightly built, quiet-spoken, almost frail-looking–attended today’s interview in a dark brown suit, a multi-colored yet sedate tie, frameless glasses and a black yarmulke. He smiled often and broadly. His pointed beard was neatly trimmed. He looked so biblical that one observer inadvertently addressed him as Rabbi.”

He had been born 30 years ago to a Brooklynite mother whose socialist husband had insisted before Leonid’s birth that his wife live with him in the “Soviet Paradise.” Leonid became a computer programmer. And then he became aware of his Jewish heritage–so aware that he began to agitate for his freedom from what he deemed official Soviet anti-Sometime. Several months age, he tried to enter the United States Embassy in Moscow to assert American citizenship on the grounds that his mother was American-born. The Soviet government, insisting he was a Russian subject and not eager to let the world see that not everyone considers the Soviet Fatherland a Paradise, had the authorities block him physically. He tried three more times, and three more times was blocked. But thanks to the efforts of the U.S. State Department–goaded by legislators, Jewish leaders, public opinion and Rigerman’s lawyer, New York City official Daniel Greer–the Soviet Jew was granted U.S. citizenship last Dec. 19.


“I want to rest a little and, well, to look around,” Rigerman told the JTA. He had not yet made arrangements for permanent living quarters or employment. He said he had already met his 52-year-old uncle, Louis Michael of the Bronx, but not his ill, 87-year-old grandfather, Jacob Michael, also of the Bronx. He had been greeted by numerous other relatives here, he said, and on the way to the interview had strolled along some of the city’s streets with the similarly yarmulke’d Greer. Rigerman offered thanks to the State Department for us and our secured of United Nations as a do-nothing organization that has been particularly ineffective in ameliorating the plight of Soviet Jews. He said that probably around 400,000 of the estimated 3.5 million Soviet Jews were anxious to leave their country immediately, but were being rebuffed by Red tape. Asked whether that meant that the great majority of Soviet Jews want to stay where they are. Rigerman demurred. They are, he said “just waiting for us to break the way out,” and will assert themselves “as soon as they know that nothing is going to happen to them.”

Rigerman discounted claims by the Jewish Defense League that all Soviet Jews endorse the tactics of that militant organization. Jewry, he noted, is not monolithic. Asked how Americans can help the cause of Soviet Jews, he urged them to “speak out” and create a wave of verbal and diplomatic pressure that the image-conscious Kremlin cannot ignore. Having achieved his goal of reaching his Promised Land, Rigerman’s thoughts were on the future. “I want to see it,” he said of this country. “I want to see as much as I can. I want to feel it, you see. I want to live through it.” He put out his hand and smiled as the JTA correspondent, elder son of a Russian immigrant, closed the interview with “spasibo,” the Russian word for “thank you.”

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