Twenty-five years ago today, on the cusp of a visit by Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, 200,000 Jews gathered on the National Mall to protest the oppression of Soviet Jewry and demand that they be allowed to emigrate from the USSR. Culminating over two decades of activism that transformed the American Jewish community even as it transformed the Jews of the Soviet Union – emboldened, sustained and inspired them – this event had personal resonance to me for five reasons.
- My parents Rabbi Harold and Marcia Saperstein were among the very first to speak out publicly for Soviet Jewry. They visited Soviet Jews in 1959, 1961 – long before the Reform Movement was publicly galvanized – and again in 1967, a year after Elie Wiesel’s Jews of Silence brought international attention to their plight. When they returned from those earlier visits, they spoke publicly, in speeches and on radio and television interviews, detailing the oppression and persecution of Soviet Jewry and calling for the Jewish community to speak out. As with a handful of other brave Jewish leaders, including prominent Conservative Rabbi Israel Moshowitz, who led a group to visit Soviet Jews in 1956, they were chastised for speaking publicly and attacked by some prominent leaders and Israeli officials who assured the community they were dealing with this situation “behind the scenes.” But as my father warned: We would soon be saying kaddish for 3 million more of our brother and sisters who would disappear as the result of a spiritual genocide if the world community did not act. (See his sermon “Jewish Life Behind the Iron Curtain,” Sept 11, 1959 in Witness from the Pulpit,Lexington Press, 2000). He had, as well, been president of the New York Board of Rabbis when the Leningrad Trial death sentence verdicts came down for a group that tried to flee the country and was a leading spokesperson during that period as world opinion was mobilized on behalf of the refusniks.
- In 1987, as well as the RAC, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry – the lead group on Soviet Jewry affairs and key player on the rally (headed by Mark Levin), the American Jewish Committee’s Washington Office (headed as we began the rally by David Harris, who continued to serve as the main coordinator of the rally even when he moved up to AJC headquarters in NY, an organization he heads so well today) and the American Jewish Congress – in Washington, D.C. were all located in the RAC building. And Charlie Fishman was in charge of production. (He was a concert producer who went on to be the head of the DC Jazz Festival, but then ran the Kinneret Foundation – also located in the RAC building – which promulgated cultural exchanges between Israel and the US). As a result, much of the entire rally was organized at the RAC. We removed the conference table from our historic conference room, filling it with desks and phone banks and computers to organize the 200,000 people coming to the protest. When we talk about the historic events that happen in that conference room (the drafting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Dalai Lama Seder, seders with black and Jewish members of Congress and their families), always high on that list was the work of organizing this rally.
- I was honored to coordinate the program part of the rally on the day of the event and to have been the primary author of the event script. I had the thrill and challenge of balancing the scheduling needs of all the prominent speakers on that cold day and making sure everyone was in the right place at the right time. One personally memorable decision I made was to ask my distinguished colleague Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in NY. A refugee from Germany who learned English with a British/Australian accent, he had been a successful cantor and opera singer. I had him read as the opening, those verses in Exodus describing Moses confronting Pharoah with the challenge: “Let my people go.” Without an introduction, in his basso-profondo voice and British accent, his reading evoked more questions about “Who was that?” than any other moment in the query. The most memorable speech, of course, was offered by the legendary Natan Sharansky, Soviet Jewry’s most famous refusnik.
- A sizable percentage of the attendees were from our Reform Jewish congregations throughout North America. The Soviet Jewry campaign had long been embraced passionately by our synagogues, rabbis, and lay leaders. I especially want to acknowledge Al Vorspan, our legendary head of the Movement’s social justice arm, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, one of our Movement’s premier social justice rabbis, public relations mavens Dick Cohen and Gunther Lawrence, and Betty Golomb and Connie Kreshtool, who led a team of dedicated national lay leaders on this issue. So many of our rabbis and lay activists had made this a priority social justice concern for years. “Free Soviet Jewry” signs were posted in front of every synagogue across the nation. Tens of thousands of b’nai mitzvah were part of the twinning programs, thousands more visited the Soviet Union smuggling in prayer books and study books for Soviet Jews, and scores of thousands of our congregants came to the rally.
- It is fitting that today, on the 25th anniversary of this rally that symbolized the successes of this Movement, the Senate of the United States lifted the Jackson-Vanick restrictions from Russia, as the Jewish community had been asking for, and advocating for more than a decade – bringing a close to this memorable chapter.
Our Movement can take a great deal of pride in its contributions to rescue Soviet Jewry – one of the extraordinary achievements in Jewish history.
Image courtesy of AJC.