Five Jailed Rabbis Urge Media to Not Focus on Them Personally but on Plight of Soviet Jews
Menu JTA Search

Five Jailed Rabbis Urge Media to Not Focus on Them Personally but on Plight of Soviet Jews

Download PDF for this date

Five rabbis arrested at a Soviet Jewry demonstration last May began a 15-day prison sentence last Friday urging members of the media to focus not on them personally, but on the conditions of Jews in the Soviet Union which the planned arrest and imprisonment were meant to dramatize.

“This act will be worthwhile only if it will generate awareness and action on behalf of Prisoners of Conscience languishing in Soviet prisons,” the rabbis said in a statement read to reporters by Gary Fink, another rabbi arrested last May.

Like most of the 23 demonstrators convicted last Wednesday of violating a District of Columbia statute against demonstrating within 500 feet of an Embassy, Fink accepted the original suspended 15-day prison sentence, together with six months unsupervised probation and a $50 fine.

But the five rabbis who began their prison term last Friday rejected the offer of a suspended sentence and probation in order to dramatize the plight of Soviet Jewry.

“This dramatic act, we hope, will focus attention on the harassment and imprisonment of our Soviet brethren whose only crime was to study Bible and practice their religious heritage,” said Rabbi David Oler, chairman of the Washington Board of Rabbis’ Soviet Jewry Action Committee.

The five rabbis imprisoned were among 22 rabbis and a Lutheran minister–Rev. John Steinbruck–who were arrested outside the Soviet Embassy here in the first of a series of planned arrests sponsored by the Washington Board of Rabbis. Some 132 people in all, including rabbis, ministers, Hebrew teachers, cantors and college students have been arrested in seven such demonstrations here to date.


The first demonstrators to be tried, a group of 21 rabbis, were found guilty two weeks ago of violating the District law banning demonstrations within 500 feet of an Embassy and sentenced to a 15-day suspended jail term, six months probation and a $50 fine — the same penalty initially handed down to all but one of the 23 whose case was heard last Wednesday.

The exception was Michael Berenbaum, opinion page editor of The Washington Jewish Week, who received a reduced fine of $10 to cover court costs, after pleading guilty. The five rabbis who began their prison terms were Oler, Harold Bayer, Leonard Cahan, Mark Levine and Bruce Kahn. They reported to the Petersburg Prison in Virginia.

In handing down the sentence, Judge Colleen Kollar Kotelly told the group of five that her initial verdict was made as a way of keeping the rabbis in the community. But in view of their decision to reject the suspended sentence, she said, “You do not wish to remain in the community.”


The rabbis — like the first group of 21 rabbis — expressed distress over the harshness of the initial sentence, especially in light of the prosecution’s recommendation that there be no fine or jail sentence. Several protested that the Soviet Jewry demonstrators were being subjected to selective prosecution at the behest of the Soviet Embassy and observed that none of those arrested in similar demonstrations at the South African Embassy — in which some of the same rabbis have participated — have actually been tried.

But the judge appeared to go beyond what the group of five had effectively invited her to do by rejecting the initial sentence, when she dismissed out of hand a request to consider bail. Henry Asbill, attorney for 22 rabbis and one Lutheran minister, argued that the five should be permitted to postpone serving the sentence after posting bail because there was “a likelihood of reversal” of the verdict on appeal.


The issues were the “defense of necessity” by which Asbill said the rabbis had the religious and moral imperative to violate the District statute in order to prevent a greater harm from being done, and the constitutionality of the statute itself. In addition, Asbill indicated he would press the question of selective prosecution which, he said, characterized the charges against the Soviet Jewry activists.

Asbill, who has taken on the case without fee, had attempted to show that the rabbis were forced by moral and religious imperative to violate the statute in order to prevent further harm to six Soviet Hebrew teachers and Jewish activists who they said they had taken upon themselves to defend.

Their action, he maintained, was directly linked to the fate of those six — including Prisoner of Conscience Anatoly Shcharansky — and all legal alternatives had been exhausted. However, the judge maintained that there was insufficient basis to permit the case to be defended on the basis of “necessity.”


Another group of demonstrators will be tried on December 18. Two of those arrested last May failed to appear at the court hearing last Wednesday, and the judge issued a warrant for their arrest. The two, one of whom was said to be in Arkansas and the other in Israel, would probably appear in court when they return and will be handed the usual sentence, an attorney familiar with the case said.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund