Jerusalem — They gathered daily in room 500, several dozen family members of Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union. They were looking for someone to whom to tell their stories among the more than 1,600 delegates from 31 countries at the Jerusalem World Conference on Soviet Jewry being held last week.
There was slender, balding Yitzhak Paritsky, whose brother Alexander is in his second year of a three-year sentence of hard labor at a prison camp in the far east of the Soviet Union. He was sentenced for slander of the Soviet system, meaning that the electronics engineer applied to emigrate to Israel and founded a Jewish ''university'' in Kharkov for other Jewish scientists who had been dismissed from their posts and for their children, who were prevented from attending a university.
Alexander's wife, Polina, has made the eight-day train trip from Kharkov to the prison camp twice. The first time she was granted 10 minutes with her husband; the second time she was forbidden to see him and was warned not to try again until further notice. Five months have passed without a letter or a visit.
''Three years in this terrible camp is like 10 years elsewhere,'' said Yitzhak worriedly.
Mrs. Faina Tsukerman, a young bank clerk from Kishenev, talked about her engineer husband. She and her eight-year-old son haven't seen him for five years. He has spent the last two years in a labor camp for Jewish group activities.
Yakov Katz of Tashkent, who lost both legs as a result of poor treatment in Soviet prisons, talked morosely of his sister Zhaneta Podolsky whom he raised as an orphan. Along with her husband and daughter, she has been refused permission to emigrate from Pyatigorsk in the Ukraine to Israel on the grounds that her brother is not adjudged sufficient kin.
These Soviet immigrants to Israel and thousands of other Soviet Jews who remained behind are casualties of the collapse of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union. With it has also collapsed the steady stream of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel and elsewhere over the past decade. In 1979, 51,320 Soviet Jews got permission to leave. Last year only 2,688 did.
In the first two months of 1983 only 204 Jews were permitted to leave, although 400,000 - of about 2.5 million Jews in the USSR - have requested and received invitations from relatives in Israel for family reunion. It is the required first step for emigration.
With the gates shut tight, discussion at the conference focused on finding new ways to apply pressure on the Soviets to open them.
Prof. Irwin Cotler of McGill University proposed internationalizing the plight of Soviet Jewry by linking it to human rights struggles all over the world. Mr. Cotler, the attorney for well-known imprisoned Soviet Jewish activist Anatoly Shcharansky, is about to form an international human rights advocacy center - called Inter Amicus - with a group of well-known US and Canadian human rights lawyers.
Planned as a sort of legal parallel to Amnesty International, it would link up with volunteer legal groups throughout the Western world who would fight human rights cases in their country of origin or via international organizations.
''The legal rights of Soviet Jews have to be seen as part of the larger human rights picture,'' said Cotler, who also wants to challenge the keenly legalistic Soviet bureaucracy with violations of its own laws. Cotler said such an approach would not rule out handling the cases of Palestinians who were deprived of legal assistance.
The broad human rights approach is opposed by some Soviet Jews who fear it will dilute the focus of their particular cause and further antagonize the Soviets by linking them with other non-Jewish activists inside the Soviet Union.
Other dissidents disagreed. ''We are in the same leaking boat as other minorities in the Soviet Union now,'' said one new Soviet immigrant to Israel who preferred not to be named. ''Besides, if we want the help of priests and nuns outside (a reference to the presence of many Christian clergymen supporters at the conference), how can we say we don't support [Andrei] Sakharov [a leading Soviet human rights activist] because he isn't Jewish?''