The blogosphere, my Facebook page and my Twitter feed are abuzz with people’s memories and testimonies of the 25th anniversary of the National March on Washington for Soviet Jewry. Twenty-five years ago today, approximately one quarter of a million people descended on the National Mall in Washington to call for the freedoms of an open society in what was then the U.S.S.R.
I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and in 1987, I was a student at a small Orthodox Jewish high school. While I didn’t know of anyone then who marched in Washington, we participated in our own way to help free Soviet Jews from behind the Iron Curtain. Soviet Jewry was a recurring topic during countless classroom discussions. We heard from speakers on the topic and attended countless rallies – holding up signs we’d designed in school, each one calling for the freedom of our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Our grade (all 34 girls) “adopted” a Jewish Soviet family. We held several conference calls with the family’s legal counselor, Irwin Cotler, and later, once the family made aliya we scheduled a conference call with them where each one of us had a moment to express our congratulations and excitement, and to wish each family member luck in their new life with their newly found freedoms. But the crux of the campaign was spent during the school day and after hours crafting letters to then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as well as then President Ronald Reagan, asking them to pressure Prime Minister Gorbachev to allow more human rights and freedoms to his people and to interject, in particular, on this family’s behalf.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel famously described, “when I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” In comparison, by putting pen to paper, the letter-writing campaign to free this particular Soviet family (as well as similar campaigns we participated in to free Anatoly Sharansky) made us feel as though we were praying with our hands. It was without a doubt my first foray into the world of advocacy.
Fast forward to 1999. I interviewed for a position at the Religious Action Center. A graduate student of Jewish history and having grown up in Canada, I didn’t have a real nuanced understanding of either U.S. politics or the Jewish infrastructure in D.C. And then, as part of my tour of the RAC, I was shown the library on the main level, and among the many historic events that took place there, the following was described to me:
For the two months prior to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s first trip to Washington, the RAC, led by its tenant the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, became the operational headquarters for the national March on Washington for Soviet Jewry, which – with more than 200,000 supporters – became one of the largest demonstrations in American history. The RAC’s conference room was packed with desks, computers, phone lines, and scores of volunteers as the RAC’s staff helps mobilize congregations throughout the country and helps coordinate the efforts of other Jewish organizations to make the march a huge success.
I’ve been working at the RAC since 1999. What I know to be true is that you can never be too young to speak out on issues of justice. You can never speak out too often when you see an injustice. And, while prayer in our synagogues and our communities is crucial, we are obligated to pray with our feet and our hands if we’re to truly take steps to repair the world.
So mark this day. Tell your friends and your children what you remember about the day. Talk about the importance of Jewish solidarity. Talk about international human rights and freedoms. Learn about the human rights crises of today. And let us be thankful for the engagement of the hundreds of thousands of people who helped to free millions of Soviet Jews, and for the health and safety of those who we as a community helped to free.