How We Freed Soviet Jewry
Twenty-five years ago today, a rally of 250,000 people changed the fate of Jews worldwide. An oral history.
Pamela Cohen (former president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews): We started pulling up troops. We had 35 councils in our grassroots movement. We’d made it a policy that since we could not do advocacy every day from the central office, we would split things up into caseloads. We’d give our activists a family and say you have to get your congressman and your synagogue to adopt them. So, all these people, as soon as they heard about the march, of course they had to go to represent their person.
David Harris (former head of the Washington office of the American Jewish Committee, now executive director): The question was, would enough people come to warrant a public rally or demonstration. That was the real question. The reason it was asked was because, first, it was pointing toward winter. Second, we knew we wouldn’t have lots and lots of lead time. And third, the record for a Jewish organized rally in Washington up to that point had been no more than 12,000 or 13,000 people in Lafayette Park. We were supposed to put on this rally that’s meant to impress Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership. Why would 12,000 people in the vast Mall impress anyone?
Susan Green (former executive director at Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry): We had been doing rallies in New York, so it was kind of a no-brainer that if the head of the Soviet Union was going to be in the United States, then we’d do something. The idea was to organize the country, to get the funding in place, try and set as much of the groundwork as you could before you had any of the details so that once you did have the details, you weren’t starting from scratch. People had to be prepared, and we didn’t know if we’d have a week’s notice or a month’s notice. So, there was this task force for Freedom Sunday. And not from day one, but somewhere down the line, David Harris ended up heading up this task force.
Harris: It was planning for a rally without the ability to pinpoint a date, which is not a small detail. The reference point for everyone is the date. Give us the date! And we couldn’t, because everything was contingent on the Reagan-Gorbachev schedules. When we did finally learn the date, which was from the White House, as I recall we had 36 or 37 days, so just over five weeks.
Green: Once we got the date, everyone dropped everything, and this is what people worked on. There was the building owned by the Religious Action Center, and all these Jewish organizations were renting office space there. And because the New York Conference was the organization that had the experience with organizing the big rallies and the events, we ended up getting plugged in a lot more than other New York organizations. We had it down to a science.
Rabbi David Saperstein (executive director of the Religious Action Center): We turned the conference room over to this and brought in early computers and phone banks. The logistics were just huge. You had people coming in from all over the country, and of course it was before email, but we had to use computers to give an accurate run on buses coming in and the rest of it.
Harris: That was my first real experience being a coordinator of something which just kept growing and growing.
Green: I had started going down to Washington a month or so before, a couple of days a week. Then the last two weeks I just moved into the Omni Hotel on Dupont Circle, and everyone in New York was working on this as well. There were 900 or 1,000 buses that came down just from the New York area. One of the big things was, “Are there even enough buses on the East Coast to rent?” So we just started calling all the bus companies and putting a light reserve on them, so they didn’t get rented out by, you know, Canadian tourists going to Woodbury Common. There were trains that were chartered, picking up people in Manhattan, in Philadelphia, along the way. And there were people flying, people driving, every way you could imagine.
Rabbi Shaul Osadchey (former rabbi of Houston Congregation Brith Shalom and former director of Houston B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation): We chartered a plane. It came out to $200 a seat, and there were 119 seats on the plane, so I said, I can guarantee two-thirds of the seats, so if the rest of the Jewish community can guarantee one-third, we can do it. Of course everyone said yes! So, I invited every high-school kid in my congregation to join me, and I offered to pay their ticket if they couldn’t afford it.
Scott Lasensky (former regional president, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Orange County, Calif.): Soviet Jewry was just the biggest issue, probably bigger than Israel. People were wearing the bracelets, people were dedicating their bar and bat mitzvahs to the issue. Someone in the community gave money to fly teenagers from Orange County. I was 16. It was all quite last minute—I don’t remember where we stayed, so it might have been just overnight, out on a red-eye and back that night.
Lookstein: We’d organized a lot of couples to go to the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s to help refuseniks, starting with ourselves. My wife and I went in September of 1972 and in 1975, which is when we met Natan. So, it was not such a big deal to organize people to go from New York to Washington. We had 20 busloads of students from Ramaz and members of the KJ community, 50 people each, so that was 1,000 people.
Margy-Ruth Davis (former executive director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry): We’d been doing these demonstrations in New York for years. We had 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden in 1971 for Freedom Lights, which showed that it could be done, and that led to the Solidarity Sunday marches, which started in 1972. So, we had kids who had grown up going to Solidarity Sunday marches, and this was nothing different to them. No one ahead of time felt it was going to be something fundamentally different. I just felt, well, this year we’re going to Washington.
Fred Zeidman (Republican Jewish activist from Houston): I had a good friend in New York and we’d been talking about it, and finally we just said, “We gotta go.” I thought it was something we needed to do. And the kids had never been to Washington, so we took them two days early and traipsed them through the museums and things.
Osadchey: We left at 6 in the morning the day of the march. We flew into National because we needed to get to the Mall as quickly as we could. I remember we were on this plane, and all the flight attendants were serving alcohol. Halfway down the aisle they ran out of Diet Coke, and someone said, “This is a Jewish group!”
If the past few weeks are any guide, it looks like the open feud between Jerusalem and Washington is over