Rae Sharfman has been working on behalf of
Soviet Jews for more than 20 years.
Ask her to do anything for the refuseniks; she never says no.
ven the trees there are dying.
Kiev is a city of rustic and
moral decay — a city where liv-
ing things waste away in the poisoned
air of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a
city where human beings wither away
because they have no freedom.
Kiev is where Mark Kotlyar, his
wife, Oxana, and son, Yuri, live.
They are Jewish, and they have been
waiting to emigrate since December
1977 — repeatedly refused because of
Mark's alleged access to "state
secrets." He reportedly had such
access while working 17 years ago as
an apprentice at the Scientific Resear-
ch Institute in Moscow.
The Soviets keep ignoring the
Kotlyars' appeals and their pleas for
freedom. The Soviets seem convinced
that if they wait long enough the
refusenik family will be forgotten.
Rae Sharfman will not forget. She
will never forget the Soviet Jews.
The Mark Kotlyar family is one of
the many Soviet Jewish refuseniks for
whom Sharfman has worked tireless-
ly. She took up the cause in 1969 when
she realized that, but for the lucky
ticket that brought her relatives to the
United States, she, too, would have
been languishing somewhere in East-
Sharfman attended a lecture by
former refusenik Rifka Alexan-
drovich, whose daughter was interred
in a Soviet prison.
"I looked at her standing up there on
the stage and I thought, 'It's just a
matter of fate that I'm sitting here and
you're up there pleading for your
daughter's life. My grandparents
happened to leave; yours didn't."'
So she went into action. Working
with the New York-based Union of
Councils for Soviet Jews, Sharfman
collected the names and biographies of
refuseniks throughout the Soviet
Union. She began writing them and
sending packages. She wrote to sena-
tors, congressmen, the President and
Sharfman also was placing calls two-
three times a week to Jews in the
Soviet Union, then talking with a
FRIDAY, MARCH 23, 1990
friend in London who did the same.
They exchanged information and, if
they met with a crisis, put out the
"If we came across an emergency, we
were on the telephone to every Soviet
"But I'm not important," Sharfman
insists. "I'm just a messenger."
To Judy Granader, and others who
know Sharfman well, she is much
more than a messenger.
"Rae is constantly giving of herself
to help others," says Granader, who
has been working with Sharfman on
behalf of Soviet Jews for more than 20
"I can call her up at 12:30 ai night
and say I have a question, or I need to
know something about a Soviet Jew-
ish family, and she's always there for
me; it's never a bother.
"She has so much information"
about the refuseniks. "Everyone
knows to call Rae."
Sharfman is not the kind of person
who craves awards or public recogni-
"All her work is truly from the
heart," Granader says.
"Rae Ann is unique," agrees Rabbi
David Nelson of Congregation Beth
Shalom, where Sharfman is a mem-
"She is more than dedicated; she br-
ings an important zeal to these very
human concerns. She has a network of
friends around the world because she
reaches out to people and remembers
their birthdays and anniversaries and
on the holidays."
Sharfman is not one to take "I'll try
to get around to it" for an answer
when seeking support for the cause,
Rabbi Nelson says. "She knows
human lives are at stake. She is part
of the conscience of the community."
Sharfman made her first visit to the
Soviet Union in October 1988.
She went to Riga, Vilnius and Len-
ingrad, meeting with "Hebrew
teachers, activists, Zionists — all very
One year later, she returned for a
Soviet Jewry conference. She met with
Jews from around the world and from
cities throughout the Soviet Union.
That one year, which saw the
implementation of Soviet Premier
Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy,
produced tremendous change, Sharf-
man says. She saw new freedom —
Jews studying Hebrew and Jewish
culture; she also saw a terrifying
dread that seemed to smother the Jew-
ish population everywhere.
"I remember standing outside the
synagogue in Moscow on Simchat
Torah," she says. "I could almost feel
It's a panic grounded in reports that
pogroms are just around the corner,
pogroms as bold and as powerful as the
heavy stone statues of Lenin that
grace almost every Soviet street.
A lack of food permeates the Soviet
Union, she says. "And the worse the
food situation gets, the more Jews get
The group Pamyat is collecting the
names and addresses of Jews, Sharf-
man says. Group members stand on
streets in Leningrad and hand out
pamphlets discussing "action to be
taken against the Jews."
"People are being threatened,
beaten and stabbed simply because
they are Jews," Sharfman says.
Sharfman compares the situation of
Soviet Jews today to that of Eastern
European Jews as Hitler came to
And that's what keeps Sharfman go-
ing, long before and long after the
Soviet Jewry cause was in vogue.
"I really feel that I've gotten much
more than I've given," she says.
"Some of the relationships I've made
will last forever."
One of those relationships is with
the Valery Zelichenok family.
Leaflets, biographies and photos of the
refusenik families fill her table and
kitchen counters. Begin a conversa-
tion with Sharfman about anything —
the weather, politics, your children —
and invariably she will find a way to
bring it back to Soviet Jews.
Sharfman, who is active at Beth
Shalom and with Mogen David Adorn,
is deeply concerned about Zelichenok
who, with his wife Ludmilla and son
Vladimir, live in Krasnoyarsk in
A swimming coach and former naval
officer, Valery was arrested and im-
prisoned for one year after his brother,
Alec, became an outspoken prisoner of
conscience. He was beaten and starved
Alec has since immigrated to Israel,
but Valery, who despite his isolation is
studying Hebrew, is still being refused
because of his access to "state
secrets." He was told his visa applica-
tion will not be reconsidered until
Sharfman also speaks often of the
Kotlyars, whom she met during her
visit last year to the Soviet Union.
Together they went to a large field of
thin trees with pale leaves. Nearby, a
group of teenagers played soccer.
With glowing candles in their hands,
Sharfman and Kotlyar said Kaddish,
then looked out at the vast land before
them. The calm belied the horror
trembling just underneath the fallen
leaves, a quiet horror that seemed
ready to scream out from the earth at
This was Babi Yar, where the Nazis
murdered thousands of Jewish men,
women and children. Bits of bone and
teeth can still be found there.
Today, at home in West Bloomfield,
Sharfman shakes her head. She
doesn't have to say a word. It's obvious
what she's thinking: Will that also be
the fate of Jews still trapped in the
This is why she cannot bear those
who say they are tired of hearing
about Soviet Jews, who complain
about funds used to bring them out of
the Soviet Union. This is why Sharf-
man herself never tires of speaking
about the Kotlyars and the
Zelichenoks, and why she calls, writes,
sends them gifts and goes to meet with
Sharfman encourages those wanting
to help to start with one refusenik
family. Write letters to them, and
write U.S. and Soviet leaders about
These letters "absolutely do make a
"You have to start some place," she
says. "Start with one." ❑