Russian Refusenik, Jewish National Fund Executive Shares Her Story

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Russian refusenik Marina Furman holding her Tree of Life award
Marina Furman (third from right) holding her Tree of Life award, while her two daughters stand to her right. (Photo by Master Studio Photography)

The Jewish National Fund honored former Russian refusenik and current JNF executive Marina Furman with the Tree of Life Award at a dinner held at the City Avenue Hilton last week. The award coincided with a promotion for the longtime JNF executive, who will become JNF’s executive director of national major donor advancement. Furman had been JNF’s executive director for eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey for the last 17 years.

The evening’s program highlighted JNF’s involvement in rejuvenating the Negev city of Be’er Sheva and expanding the curriculum and programming for Jewish high schoolers studying abroad at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Also touted was JNF’s partnership with Philadelphia-based chef Michael Solomonov to create the Galilee Culinary Institute at Kibbutz Gonen near Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel.

The lion’s share of the evening’s program, however, was dedicated to feting Furman, who for 10 years, beginning in 1977, fought and protested the Soviet government for the right to emigrate with her husband, and later small child, to Israel.

Under the era’s Soviet policies, it was virtually impossible for Jews, or anyone else, to leave the Soviet Union. Dissident Jews and refuseniks were commonly fired from their jobs and denied employment in their fields.

JNF-USA President Sol Lizerbram with Lauren Lizerbram and Marina Furman
From left: Sol Lizerbram, JNF-USA president, his wife and co-chair of the evening’s event, Lauren Lizerbram and Marina Furman, the Tree of Life honoree. (Photo by Matt Silver)

“In a nutshell, it was a dictatorship. [The Soviets] didn’t want any exchange of information; they didn’t want people leaving because ‘Why would you leave the best, most just country in the world?’” recalled Furman “They were oppressive to refuseniks because we challenged them, when no one before did. We said ‘We want to live in Israel, and we’re going to fight for our rights.’ And, to them, that was a threat.”

In December 1987, tensions surrounding Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union had reached a boiling point globally. On Dec. 6, 1987, American Jews held a rally in Washington, D.C., demanding that then- Premier Mikhail Gorbachev allow Jews to emigrate.

On the same date, many thousands of miles away, Furman, her husband and her newborn daughter — appropriately named Aliyah — took to the streets of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg) to protest, specifically to the grounds of the Palace Square.

“Palace Square is where the Soviets’ revolution took place, where they overthrew the Tsar’s regime and overtook the (royal) residence, so it was one of the holiest sites for Soviets.”

Protesting on ground the Soviet regime considered sacred came with real dangers, and Furman’s family was reasonably concerned, especially for the safety of their newborn.

Her father-in-law, who’d lost 11 family members in the Holocaust, told her not to.

“He had only one grandchild, and he didn’t want us to take Aliyah to the demonstration — because we were putting her at tremendous risk,” said Furman.

She, her husband Lev and her daughter were all arrested. Furman was held for several days — it wasn’t the worst interrogation she’d ever received; she’d endured beatings and face-to-face confrontations with the KGB — but her husband and infant daughter were released after five hours.

“It was a desperate decision (to bring Aliyah),” recalled Furman. “And in hindsight, that nothing worse happened was very lucky. It could’ve ended in tragedy because we were challenging (the Soviets) in a major way, and they were relentless.”

In 1988, Furman, Lev and Aliyah were finally allowed to leave Russia and make aliyah.

Furman credits her own mettle and that of her fellow refuseniks. “We knew nothing about Judaism or Israel but were willing to risk it all to find out. That’s what separated refuseniks from everyone else: Imagination.”

But she also credits the American Jews who strongly advocated for the Russian Jewry of that period, not just in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia, too.

“The Philadelphia Soviet Jewry movement really fought for years and years for my husband and I,” Furman said. “There were many, many events here during that time.”

Among the most prominent of those protests took place during a sporting event that looms large in Philadelphia history. It was during the hockey game between the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Flyers and the Soviet Union’s Red Army team.

“They organized a protest, and there were posters that could be seen on Russian TV,” Furman recalled. “Ed Snider (the late Flyers owner) was involved in it, and it became one of the most amazing stories of grassroots support for Soviet Jews.”

After working for the mayor of Ra’anana as that Israeli city’s director of resettlement for nearly a decade, Furman and her family moved to the United States in 1998. Initially, Furman worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, as the community shlicha (a sociocultural Israeli ambassador), a post she held for four years.

Ultimately, Furman and her family decided to stay in the area and she began her career with JNF, which, said Furman, has been a perfect place for her to work.

“There’s a tie-in to this story with the JNF-USA,” said JNF-USA President Sol Lizerbram, who along with his wife Lauren, co-chaired the event. “Because during the 1990s, the JNF took a leading role to resettle over one million Russian and Ethiopian Jews in Israel through Operation Promised Land. So there’s a close tie between what Marina and her refuseniks did and also what JNF did.”

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