Reminiscences on the Soviet Jewry Movement in Washington DC

by Norman Goldstein

Do you remember getting up on a bright, crisp Sunday morning December 6, 1987, and wondering if there would be a respectable crowd on the National Mall for the Soviet Jewry Rally? Do you remember calling friends from your synagogue, from your youth group, or from your neighborhood urging them to attend, always wondering if they would actually join you at the Rally?

Do you remember piling your friends and kids in a car and going to your synagogue, Metro stop or other gathering place to get your banners, flags, T-shirts with the names of Sharansky, Nudel, Begun all saying in some way “Let My People Go” or “Free Soviet Jewry”? Can you recall your entire group boarding the Metro or forming a convoy of cars or boarding a chartered bus with rally signs and the excitement about being part of a community that wanted to demonstrate its solidarity with our fellow Jews from the Soviet Union?

Can you still see the thousands of our fellow Washingtonians exiting the Metro stops near the Mall, or arriving in hundreds of buses and car pools wearing their pins, signs, carrying their banners and singing “Am Yisrael Chai” or shouting “Let our People Go”? Do you remember the excitement as we heard that I-95 was backed up for miles with thousands of busloads of fellow Jews and other supporters from Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and countless other communities from across the East Coast who were coming to participate in the Rally?

Can you still see people from around the country pouring in from the airports, from the train station, on foot, by bike – old and young, male and female, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular, Christian, African American, Hispanic all in support of the sacred cause of getting freedom for our people in the Soviet Union?

Do you remember arriving at the Mall and staring in disbelief at the incredible mass of people like you who were there for the same reason?

Can you recall the warmth of being one of more than 250,000 people of conscience including tens of thousands from the Washington area? Do you recall the exhilaration when we saw the broad range of national leaders and Jewish leaders on the dais and were addressed by our hero Natan Sharansky?

And, a few days after the Rally, do you remember learning that when President Reagan met with Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, he told him that there would be no expansion of trade, and no arms reduction, until the Soviet Union allowed Jews and others to emigrate and provided other freedoms including freedom of religion to its citizens. The President told Gorbachev that he had seen the hundreds of thousands of Americans in his backyard protesting policies of the Soviet Union and he was not going to cooperate with Gorbachev until he “Let our People Go.” I am sure you remember that shortly thereafter Gorbachev capitulated and the gates of freedom were opened and the mass exodus of more than one million of our fellow Jews to Israel and the US and other free countries began…

The Soviet Jewry movement was not an overnight success. It reflected many years of advocacy on the part of millions of people around the world and especially Jews in America. Our Washington Jewish community was the centerpiece.

Remember the chair on the bimah in your synagogue dedicated to a Prisoner of Conscience? Do you remember the bracelets inscribed with the names of Slepak, Lerner, etc. which were worn proudly by all of us. Remember the signs in front of all of our synagogues urging “Freedom for Soviet Jewry”? Do you recall the twinnings as our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants linked up with their teen-age counterparts in the Soviet Union as they pledged their support of Soviet Jews until everyone who sought freedom of choice was granted the right to live as a Jew. How can we ever forget the countless letters and petitions we prepared, circulated, signed and delivered on behalf of our fellow Jews?

Most of all I remember our Soviet Jewry Vigil from 12:30 – 12-45, seven days a week, 365 days a year, rain or shine, work day, holiday or weekend, opposite the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street. The Vigil was a unique project of our community and was one in which all persons of good will joined so that even on Shabbat and Jewish holidays the Vigil was attended. Friends from all faiths and of many colors, creeds, and backgrounds shared in our efforts and ensured that the Vigil was maintained every day for more than twenty years.

The Vigil was a place of great joy as Prisoners of Conscience and Refuseniks who were given freedom to emigrate came to the Vigil to protest with us on behalf of those where were still in the Soviet Union. It was also a place of distress as we learned of further harassment of those who remained behind. But it always was a place of solidarity, where visitors to the DC area from all over the world came to demonstrate their support. Every synagogue, youth group, Jewish organization and countless other individuals and families who came to the DC area made certain that participation in the Vigil was a part of their schedule.

When we think of the Soviet Jewry movement many of us recall our clandestine trips to our fellow Jews and other persecuted people in the Soviet Union. We recall our briefings on how to get around in Moscow, Kiev, Odessa or wherever there were Refuseniks to support and how to set up meetings with them while appearing to be tourists during the day… We remember bringing tallitot, siddurim, baby foods, medicines, other Jewish artifacts, and copies of Leon Uris “Exodus” in our suitcases. We recall the anxiety when our suitcases were opened at the airports upon arrival and we were asked to explain why we were bringing the various objects, some of which were confiscated. I remember arriving in Moscow and having the authorities take my copy of Exodus and then 10 days later when I was leaving from Leningrad having them return the book to me. We recall being given copies of the samizdat or underground newspaper prepared by different groups in the Soviet Union and circulating them among the Refuseniks.

Who can forget the excitement of actually being in the homes of the heroes of the movement and assuring them that we in Washington will not be silent until they were freed? And indeed, at the rally on the Mall, there were many reunions of travelers to the Soviet Union with their Prisoners of Conscience or Refuseniks who had been released. There were similar reunions in Israel.

We can think back also with pride about how our community welcomed our former Soviet brethren who chose to live among us. We provided housing, furniture, scholarships, food and, most important, friendship to our fellow Jews who had been denied the right to live as Jews, and brought them into our homes, hearts and institutions. Volunteers mentored, provided transportation and collected, stored and delivered everything that was necessary for the families from the former Soviet Union who joined our community. Our synagogues and communal institutions willingly accepted incredible additional responsibility to make certain that our new residents were fully integrated.

In the days of the Soviet Jewry Movement, we were one community, united in our purpose, with a defined mission. We were One People working together with people of other faiths for a common goal. The Soviet Jewry movement brought generations within families together. Through it we taught our children the importance of Klal Yisrael and kehillah.

Our Washington community was truly a light unto the world in the Soviet Jewry Movement. Reminiscing about those years and thinking of the people met, the projects undertaken, the goals achieved, provides great inspiration for what we in Washington can achieve and continue to do on behalf our community and our people the world over.

Norman Goldstein was Chairman of the Soviet Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and local Chairman of the Rally on the Mall. Currently, he is Chairman of a committee of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington which is overseeing preparation of an exhibit highlighting the Washington Jewish Community’s unique role in the Soviet Jewry Movement.