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Obviously, Joel Schindler is a very bright man, earning a PhD in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. So, what was it that made him think he could take on the former Soviet Union, thousands of miles from home?

Mission Impossible


Alan Natali


Joel Schindler

As the Soviet guards rifled through his luggage in the customs room at Sheremetyevo Airport, Joel Schindler began to fear that his mission to Moscow was over before it had even started. Grunting and muttering, the guards unzipped bags and dug through them. Occasionally, they paused, eyeing Schindler. Thousands of miles from his home in Cincinnati, at the start of a clandestine and potentially risky undertaking, Schindler could do nothing but watch and hope that all of his planning hadn’t been for nothing and that he wasn’t about to become an international cause célèbre.

Months earlier, Schindler—a biomedical researcher and professor of histology and cell biology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine—had received an invitation to deliver a scientific paper in Norway. He accepted, in part, because he saw the conference as a way to accomplish a bigger goal. After speaking on cancer cell development, he would slip into the Soviet Union as a tourist and, once there, enter the shadowy world of the so-called refuseniks.

Refusenik is a term coined in the early 1970s to describe Soviet Jews who were prohibited from leaving the country for political reasons. Refuseniks were fired from their jobs, jailed on trumped-up charges of "malicious hooliganism" or "slander of the Soviet state," exiled to Siberia, or tortured. Through most of the 1980s, no Jew could attend synagogue, learn Hebrew, or study Jewish culture or history.

It was 1986; the Cold War was still very real. Schindler, aware of the dangers of entering a communist country under false pretenses to engage in what authorities would certainly view as "anti-Soviet activities," prepared carefully. He took what amounted to a crash course in basic intelligence training from others who had gone on similar missions. He learned the Cyrillic alphabet. He studied street and subway maps. He created cover stories to explain the large amounts of clothing, food, and medicine he would carry. He coded into his address book the names and locations of the "nonpersons" he would seek out in Moscow and, later, Leningrad. Only those closest to him knew his true plans. "There was evidence that if the Soviets knew you were coming for a particular reason, even if they gave you a visa, they would stop you at the airport," he says. If that happened, Cincinnati would seem like more than an ocean away.

When Schindler moved to Cincinnati in 1981, after three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, he became involved with the Soviet Jewry movement, a large group of volunteers who tried to pressure the Soviet government to allow Jewish emigration. The group monitored imprisoned refuseniks through family members and through letters and rare, surreptitious telephone calls. A few volunteers were able to sneak into the Soviet Union to dispense contraband to destitute people who were often denied basic medical treatment or the right to even buy a few potatoes.

At the time, Schindler was 34 years old. He was a divorced father of a young daughter, had a secure teaching position, and a new romance. Yet, he decided to risk it all for people he didn’t know. He didn’t view it as such a sacrifice. "My whole Jewish persona was based on nationhood and Jewish peoplehood, and the whole point of the state of Israel is that it had to exist to be a refuge, where you could rescue Jews in need," he says.

After the conference, Schindler met a "fellow traveler," Pesach Sobel, a rabbi from Cincinnati. Their plane landed in Helsinki, Finland, to refuel for the final leg of the flight, and a team of American athletes bound for Moscow for the Goodwill Games boarded. When the plane landed in Moscow, Russian hosts for the Goodwill Games greeted passengers. In broken English, one asked Schindler if he were on the American team. He jokingly told her that he was a shot putter. The host directed him through customs without anyone glancing at his luggage; he waited for Sobel in the terminal, relieved at his good fortune.

Half an hour later, the Soviet guards approached him. "Excuse me," one said, his English heavily accented. He pointed at Sobel and asked curtly, "You with this guy?"

"Yes," Schindler said. "He’s my traveling companion."

"Come with us," the guard said.

"Oh, shit!" Schindler thought.

He followed the guards into the customs hall. The rabbi’s bags had already been searched. Hebrew texts were piled on a table. Their expressions quizzical, the guards pulled packages from Schindler’s bags and examined them. Schindler had been coached to expect the soldiers to separate him from Sobel and aggressively interrogate each alone. He silently rehearsed his cover stories:

I know it’s summer, but those children’s winter coats are gifts for relatives in Israel, where I’m going after touring Russia; I’m not well. I’m on a long trip. I need all of that medicine.

He feared he would be expelled from the country, his luggage confiscated. However, the guards seemed reluctant to create an incident during the Goodwill Games, which the Soviets were using as a public relations campaign to counter Ronald Reagan’s assertion that they were the "evil empire." The guards kept the religious texts and some kosher salamis. Schindler and Sobel were allowed to go.

Inside the Soviet Union, Schindler found "a living testament to the human spirit" in one stark apartment—a group of refusenik doctors and biomedical researchers whose political views or attempts to leave the country had cost them their careers. Fired from their government positions, some refuseniks were imprisoned for "parasitism"—not working. Others cleaned offices, swept streets, earned a few rubles as translators. The handful of men in the apartment had no access to libraries or laboratories, but they held informal seminars every week to stay as current as they could in their fields.

Among the goods Schindler left with the scientists that evening were recent copies of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forbidden material in the former Soviet Union. He distributed all his supplies and after photographing emigration documents that almost invariably became lost in the Soviet bureaucracy, he even gave away his expensive Nikon camera, so that it could be sold.

Once back in America, Schindler joined the Union of Concerned Scientists, a human rights organization that enabled him to keep in touch with the refuseniks he met in the Soviet Union. He believes all of them eventually got out of the country.

The exodus happened in large part because of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), on whose board of governors Schindler has served since 1993. In 1987, the organization cosponsored a massive rally in Washington, D.C., two days before a meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan. On a cold December afternoon, more than 200,000 people gathered on the mall and streamed down Constitution Avenue to Capitol Hill, protesting Soviet immigration policies and human rights abuses. Schindler donned a red vest and served as a marshal.

In a speech that afternoon, Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, said, "Too many of us were silent then. We are not silent today." Wiesel’s words help to explain Schindler’s motivations. He calls his parents "survivors but not victims" of the Holocaust. Herbert Schindler and Margot Rosenberg left Europe "one step ahead of the Nazis," but didn’t escape unscathed. Herbert Schindler was expelled from Poland, and wound up selling coffee on the streets in South America until he could finally immigrate to the United States. The Nazis stripped the Rosenbergs, owners of the largest department store in Cologne, Germany, of their fortune. Margot Rosenberg’s mother, Alice, died in Auschwitz.

One of the few Jews at his high school in Elmira, N.Y., Schindler became involved with Young Judaica, a Jewish youth group movement. After high school, he spent a year in Israel before attending college in the United States for two years. He transferred to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he earned a degree in biology.

Schindler won a fellowship to work in a biochemistry lab during his senior year, just as Maurice Sussman became a visiting professor at the university. Sussman recalls, "This skinny American kid showed up in my lab and said he wanted to work with me. He was a bright, fast talker. He talked in the presence of a cynical crew—two American graduate students I brought with me, several postdoctoral fellows, and an Israeli technician who could spot a phony at a hundred yards. They said, ‘Grab him.’"

Schindler says that his work with Sussman "really turned me on to research." He reconsidered his goal of becoming a physician and decided to earn a PhD in developmental and molecular biology. When Sussman became chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Pitt, Schindler followed him, setting up a lab in Crawford Hall. In 1978, he received his doctorate. Today, he is chief operating officer at Biovid, a healthcare and pharmaceutical research firm in Princeton, N.J.

After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, freeing Jews to emigrate, neither Schindler nor the NCSJ relaxed. The organization simply changed its mission to advocate for Jews in the former Soviet Union. Schindler and other NCSJ leaders meet with government officials and visit Jewish communities from Russia to Kazakhstan.

The NCSJ’s clout comes from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, federal legislation attached to the Trade Act of 1974. It denies U.S. trade relations with a country that prevents free emigration. When the Soviet regime fell, American lawmakers broadened the legislation to include human rights records of former USSR states. The state department looks to NCSJ and Schindler, its president, for trade sanction advice. The former Soviet states are eager to improve U.S. trade relations, so they seek NCSJ’s endorsement.

"A decade ago, these countries barely existed, and the notion that there was a relationship between the Jewish community and the leaders of these different republics was inconceivable. Today, we can pick up the phone and call," says Schindler.

As he recounts his volunteerism while sitting on the deck behind his tree-lined suburban home, the words don’t always come easily. There are moments he slumps in a chair, tears moistening his eyes while Cornish hens and sliced vegetables simmer on a gas grill. "Excuse me," he says at one point. "I get emotional about this stuff." Gayle Schindler sets a box of tissue in front of her husband and says, "That’s why I married him. He cries."

Alan Natali is an author and an assistant professor in the writing program at California University of Pennsylvania.

Follow the leaders

A Tanzanian AIDS orphanage is an unlikely classroom. Yet, to Pitt students, such a real-world setting can provide a valuable learning experience. It can provide something else, too—the understanding of why community service is so important.

"In a way, it’s like the old-fashioned apprentice," says Jack L. Daniel, vice provost for undergraduate studies and dean of students. "Through service, one can learn to lead," adds the professor of communication.

The University offers community service opportunities in virtually every school and department. At last count, community service is part of more than 300 educational and research projects carried out by the University’s schools and centers. And through Pitt’s Student Volunteer Outreach, more than 3,000 students contribute more than 30,000 hours of voluntary community service each year.

Students can apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world, says Stephen B. Thomas, Philip Hallen Professor of Community Health and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) and School of Social Work. "It’s literally where the rubber hits the road," says Thomas, who is also director of GSPH’s Center for Minority Health, whose students have taken preventative healthcare programs to barbershops, churches, and grocery stores.

Through Pitt’s Amizade Global Service-Learning Center, students have helped communities worldwide, sometimes giving up spring and summer breaks to do things like prepare meals for people with AIDS in Atlanta and build homes for the needy in Florida.

For many students, such learning can lead to a lifelong commitment toward volunteerism, much like that of Joel Schindler, whose volunteerism helped Jews escape the anti-Semitic climate of the former Soviet Union. Senior communication major Danille Kobet is an example of that Schindler spirit. Although she completed a monthlong stay in Tanzania—where she helped lay the foundation for an AIDS orphanage—she didn’t pat herself on the back. Instead, with the creation of A World of Change Foundation, she is diligently raising money to help purchase HIV tests, medical supplies, and school books for the people of the village of Kayanga. She says her experience there has led to her ongoing motivation: "It absolutely touched my life."
Kris B. Mamula


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