Thirty-five years ago, Natan Sharansky was freshly released from Soviet gulags and traveling the United States trying to encourage the organized Jewish community to support a march on Washington, D.C., to support the plight of Soviet Jewry. He was hoping to mobilize 400,000 Jews to come during Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to meet with President Ronald Reagan – a symbolic number as that was the number of Soviet Jews trying to leave the Soviet Union.
The response was not what Sharansky hoped.
“The reaction of the establishment was more than cool – they said it’s very problematic,“ Sharansky said. “They said ‘you’re playing with big figures,’ and ‘there is no way that more than 18,000 U.S. Jews will come to Washington in the winter.’ And we also cannot be those who are destroying this great atmosphere of the detante.”
Sharansky decided to bypass the organized community and went for the grassroots, spending three months traveling around the U.S. to mobile more than a quarter-million Jews to go to Washington on Dec. 6, 1987.
On Dec. 6, 2022, the 35th anniversary of the rally, Sharansky and local immigration attorney Robert Aronson will be together on a Zoom event, “Quest For Freedom: The Story of the Soviet Jewry Liberation Movement.” The event, is sponsored by the Twin Cities Cardozo Society and is being moderated by Valeria Chazin. Registration is still available, and there are more than 180 registered to attend and it has gotten the attention of the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, which is also circulating it to its members.
“It was the first time that the American Jewish community, as a grassroots movement, flexed its muscles,” said Aronson, who was a participant in the rally and made many trips to the Soviet Union. “What that movement did was literally spectacular. And it was a bottom-up movement; it was it did not emanate from the business or money classes, the movers and shakers.”
Chazin, like Sharansky, was born in Ukraine. Her family emigrated to Israel before she moved to the United States.
“The Soviet Jewry movement influenced the Soviet policy a lot, whether people were leaving to go to the States or to Israel,” she said. ”It was all thanks to the effort of this huge movement that the people were able to leave the USSR.”
Chazin said that it has been in recent years that she’s been more interested to look into the backstory of her family and, generally, the Russian-speaking Jewish community.
“It was almost new to me to learn what was happening on the United States side, and how many efforts were put to help Soviet Jews to leave,” she said. “I know the stories of my grandparents that were telling me well, [about] how it was hard for them to celebrate holidays and how in their passport it said they were Jewish but then they couldn’t do anything Jewish.”
Sharansky said it was gratifying that, 35 years later, people still fondly remember the events surrounding the rally.
“I think people are missing the days where there was such a feeling of unity,” he said. “It seems that there was unique solidarity and unity of Jewish people and that it looks like the last big battle where we got together,” he said. “Everybody understood that they should have the same clear and simple aim: to open the gates of the Soviet Union. And that’s remained almost like a nostalgic reminder of the days when we were together.
“I believe that we continue this march together today, but today, it is much more difficult to see it like this because of this huge polarization inside the Jewish community and between Jews living in Israel and the diaspora.”