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Temple That Championed Refuseniks Exalts at Granting of Visas

December 10, 1987|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

To most observers, the Soviet Union's announcement last week that 26 Jewish families would be permitted to leave the country was seen as a diplomatic gesture to help pave the way for a successful summit meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and President Reagan.

But to the congregation at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, the move was also viewed as a personal triumph.

Since 1981, members of the Pomona synagogue had championed the efforts of Leonid Bialy and his family to emigrate to Israel. Last Friday, after years of letter writing, they learned that the Bialys were to be granted exit visas.

"We were just shocked beyond belief and thrilled beyond words," said Rabbi Earl Kaplan.

A rally had already been scheduled at the synagogue Sunday, in conjunction with a gathering in Washington to protest the treatment of Soviet Jews. But in light of the Bialy family's impending emigration, Kaplan said an event intended to be a "generic solidarity rally" became as much a celebration as a protest.

"It's very exciting," said Jack Schuster, president of the synagogue's congregation. "It's terribly real and personal, because it's somebody we've identified with for the past half-dozen years."

Lainie Peckerar said she and her 10-year-old son, Michael, who have sent cards and letters to the Bialy family for the past six years, were overjoyed when they read in the newspaper that the family would be allowed to emigrate.

"The two of us started to cry, and chills ran up and down our arms," Peckerar said. "It was just the most exciting thing, to think that something we did helped free them."

Temple Beth Israel was one of many synagogues throughout the world that supported the Bialy family's efforts to emigrate, said Marina Ratner, sister of Bialy's wife, Judith Ratner.

"Many synagogues adopted them, not just in the U. S., but in England and throughout Western Europe," said Ratner, who left the Soviet Union in 1973 and now lives in Albany, Calif.

Temple Beth Israel's involvement with the Bialy family began in the spring of 1981, when Glenn Waldman was preparing for his bar mitzvah. Waldman's aunt told him of a program in which American youths go through a "proxy" bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah on behalf of young Jews in the Soviet Union, where such religious ceremonies are prohibited.

Waldman said he was interested in the program and was given the name of a 13-year-old Muscovite whose parents had been trying to leave the Soviet Union since 1977. On the day of his bar mitzvah, Waldman went through the rite of passage twice, once for himself and again for Alexander Bialy.

"It felt kind of good," said Waldman, now a 19-year-old student at the University of California, San Diego. "We had a symbolic chair with a picture of Alex on it. I went through the usual prayers and rituals, but I was doing it for him."

As a result of Waldman's proxy bar mitzvah, several other young people at Temple Beth Israel have opted for such dual ceremonies, Kaplan said. More important, Alexander Bialy's symbolic bar mitzvah inspired the synagogue's congregation to "adopt" the Bialy family.

The family, which includes two sons, a daughter-in-law and a grandson, first applied for exit visas in 1977, but Soviet officials refused to allow Leonid Bialy to emigrate because he had worked in a plant where he had access to state secrets, said Marina Ratner.

Bialy, 56, who worked as a television repair man, has been unable to work for most of the past decade because of a succession of heart attacks, said Marina Ratner. Both he and his wife, 52, who was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1981, have subsisted on disability pensions, Ratner said.

During the past 10 years, Judith Ratner has become a prominent member of the refusenik movement, organizing demonstrations and serving as a source of information for Western activists trying to help Soviet Jews emigrate, Marina Ratner said.

Marina Ratner credited Secretary of State George Schultz with exerting pressure on the Soviets to allow refuseniks to leave the country. Reps. Ronald V. Dellums (D--Oakland) and Barbara Boxer (D--San Rafael) also lobbied a high-ranking Soviet official on behalf of the Bialy family, she said.

"They made it clear to that official that continued refusal of my sister's family's application would be a stumbling block in U.S.-Soviet relations," Ratner said.

Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne), who became involved with the Bialy case at the request of members of the Temple Beth Israel, said grass-roots campaigns on behalf of refuseniks "can't hurt."

"It's very difficult to assess the effectiveness of these efforts, but I will say that it can only help," said Dreier, who has written several letters to Soviet authorities about the Bialy case during the past six months.

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