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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.

Allison Hoffman
December 06, 2012
(American Jewish Historical Society)
(American Jewish Historical Society)

Twenty-five years ago today, an estimated quarter of a million Americans, most of them Jews, flooded the Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand freedom for the refuseniks—Jews living inside the Soviet Union who were denied permission to leave the country. The Dec. 6, 1987, rally was planned for the day before a historic summit meeting at the White House between President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The demonstration was the brainchild of Natan Sharansky, the most famous of all the refuseniks, who spent nine years in a Moscow prison on charges of being an American spy until his release and emigration to Israel in February 1986. It capped more than 15 years of organized efforts to assist Jews living under Communist rule—and became the largest protest on behalf of a Jewish cause ever in the United States.

Perhaps most impressively, it mobilized the American Jewish community—young and old, secular and religious, liberal and conservative—behind a single cause to a degree that had never been seen before, and has not been seen since.

This is a history of the march as told by people who were there and who helped make it happen. They include Jack Lew, President Obama’s chief of staff; Fred Zeidman, one of Mitt Romney’s key Jewish advisers; and Sharansky, who went on to found the Israeli political party Yisrael B’Aliyah, which eventually merged with Likud. All agree the Dec. 6 rally was a landmark event in modern Jewish history.


Natan Sharansky (former refusenik, now Jewish Agency chairman): It was Elie Wiesel who at some meeting with students, maybe even before my release, said that it would be good to have a march on Washington. And we didn’t know yet when, but at some moment we knew Gorbachev had to come to Washington. So, when I came in May of 1986 for the first time to America, Ed Koch had a reception for Jewish leaders at Gracie Mansion, and I said, “When Gorbachev comes, let’s have 400,000 American Jews come to Washington, in order to remind him that there are 400,000 Soviet Jews.” Everybody smiled and was happy, but it wasn’t taken too seriously.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein (leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan and principal of the Ramaz School): Natan told me about his plan months and months in advance. I was initially skeptical he could pull it off—getting 250,000 people to come to Washington is really a huge, huge effort. But he was really determined to do it.

Sharansky: In the summer of 1987 it was already clear to me that in a few months, Gorbachev will come and nothing had happened. Morris Abram, who was the head of the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish Organizations], said to me, “Natan, we cannot guarantee hundreds of thousands of Jews, so let’s do what is possible. We will bring 100 senators to the steps of the Capitol and they will declare to Gorbachev, ‘Let our people go,’ and that will be very powerful.” I said, 100 senators is great, but Gorbachev knows very well that’s just politics. I wanted expression, mass expression. Then my friend Avi Weiss, who was the head of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, he says, “Natan, you cannot trust the establishment, so I tell you what we will do, we will bring 100 rabbis and we will chain ourselves to the gates and we will be arrested, and that will be something real.” So, it was between 100 senators and 100 rabbis.

Gordon Zacks (former adviser to George H.W. Bush): Natan and I were in constant contact. He came to me to get counsel on how to proceed. I finally told him it was never going to happen through the establishment organizations, and that it if was going to happen at the magnitude he wanted it to, he was going to have to be the guy who went around to college campuses to create the energy and excitement he needed. And that’s what he did.

Sharansky: People said, “You are sitting in Jerusalem, and you come here from time to time and say let’s have a march, but that’s not serious.” They said move for a few months to America. So, at the end of August 1987 I came with my wife and our 10-month-old daughter. Some friends gave us an apartment in New York. And then Jack Lew, who was not part of the movement but was a very close friend, helped in Washington. He was a lawyer then, and his office became the coordinating office.

Jack Lew (former policy adviser for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, now White House chief of staff): My wife and I had become part of the circle that helped Avital if she needed a place to stay, if she needed someone to drive her somewhere, if she needed help making a decision. She really became part of our community. The law firm where I was, Van Ness Feldman, was not a random place. A lot of people there had worked for Scoop Jackson, and had been involved in the history of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. So, they knew the issue and they really considered it an honor to work with Natan.

Sharansky: I was in 30 different communities, almost to the day of the demonstration. In every community there were people who knew me, or knew Avital, and there were activists everywhere. And in every community where I spoke, they were very enthusiastic about a demonstration. So, I couldn’t understand from where all these doubts came from in these meetings in New York and Washington. It was such a contrast between people who felt they could not take such responsibility and everyone who wanted it at the local level.

Lew: Natan did all the trips, and David Makovsky and I alternated traveling with him, whether it was Minneapolis, Chicago, or Kansas City. Wherever he went, he’d draw a huge audience. He asked people to charter buses and airplanes, and they started doing it. And it became clear that a lot of people were going to come.

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.

A Jewish organized rally in Washington up to that point had been no more than 12,000 or 13,000 people in Lafayette Park.

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!”

Lookstein: I went down on the buses with my people. Coming into RFK [Stadium, the staging area for bus parking] was tedious, but it was also very exciting. I remember standing in the middle of that throng of a quarter of a million people. It was thrilling! Everybody was excited and I would say happy. That was the mood. It was almost like a celebration.

Cohen: It was definitely celebratory. And I was very ambivalent about the fact that it was a celebration. I had a feeling we should be draping the podium in black, that it should be much more somber. I just felt the celebration was premature. But then I remember seeing the crowd and the placards and the faces of the people who were there. It looked like an endless sea of Jews. And it did what it was supposed to do. It put Reagan in the position of being able to say to Gorbachev, you think this is my issue, because Shultz has made it an issue. But this put it right in the Soviets’ face. The demonstration was an explosive event that was a culmination of all the hard slogging and inglorious work we’d been doing all those years.

Green: There was more at stake on an issue level because of Gorbachev. Because we really needed Reagan to be able to look out the window and say, “Look at those people.”

We met with Reagan just before the Jewish New Year. But I had a hidden agenda, and my hidden agenda was to get a blessing from him, for the demonstration.

Sharansky: There was an argument that we should not be spoiling the peace. I had come with Avital to America, and I decided to use it as a pretext to see Reagan, because he had met many times with my wife while I was in prison, and he met with me after my release, but we never met together. So, that was the pretext, that we wanted to thank him. We met with him just before the Jewish New Year. But I had a hidden agenda, and my hidden agenda was to get a blessing from him, for the demonstration. So, I said to President Reagan, “You know soon the general secretary of the Communist Party, Mr. Gorbachev, will come, and I want you to know that we, Jewish activists, are going to have a big demonstration, and I want you to understand that it’s not directed in any way against your policies. I was trying to be very careful because I didn’t want to ask him for permission but I want him to say something. And he stops me in the middle of it and says, “Somebody can think that I want friendship with him when he is keeping his people in prison? You do everything you have to do. And I’ll do everything. You don’t have to ask me. Do what you have to do!”

Norman Goldstein (organizer of daily vigils for Soviet Jews at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, 1970-1991): The day of the rally was a phenomenally beautiful day. They had a reception at the B’nai B’rith building, and then we walked to Farragut Square toward the march. And at the exit of the Metro all of a sudden you saw droves of people, and they were all carrying flags—American flags, Israeli flags, signs saying, “Let my People Go.” We had trouble getting a minyan for the vigil, so you can’t imagine the feeling of it, when we’d worked on this cause for so many years. Everyone showed up, young and old, religious and secular, left-wing and right-wing. You can’t imagine the feeling of it.

Lasensky: I remember the buzz of the rally. It was freezing. I was wearing my letterman jacket. We were California kids, so we didn’t have anything else! We staged at the White House; I remember seeing the anti-nuclear protesters. Washington was quite foreign to me, and we were told where to go. There was a banner, an Orange County banner, and the BBYO people gathered with the rest of the Orange County delegation, but we broke off pretty quickly, and my friend and I climbed up a light pole. I was a stunt-prone young person. But it was hard to see anything, and the light pole was a good way to get a perspective on it.

Harris: The Ellipse [in front of the White House] was the staging ground. We had state signs, and people were supposed to congregate that way. And then from the Ellipse we marched down to the Mall.

Goldstein: My son was 3 or 4 years old, and I marched with him on my shoulders, and a sign that said, “Goldstein.” And there was a guy I went to visit in Kiev, very shortly before the march, maybe in 1986, and I never imagined I’d see him again. But then there he was. We ran into him literally by chance.

Osadchey: I’d been a student at Berkeley, so I’d been involved in every imaginable demonstration, but when we got to the Mall, none of these kids knew what to do. We had this big banner, “Houston Stands Tall for Soviet Jewry,” so I got everyone behind the banner. I was wearing a brown coat with all my Soviet Jewry buttons on it, and we all had ten-gallon Stetsons. We were quite a sight to behold.

Sharansky: We walked in the parade, it was Elie Wiesel, Morris Abram, and myself, and we still didn’t know what would be there on the Mall. I was very nervous. Elie was very relaxed, very positive, but we both felt very responsible for this. And then we heard the report of the police, and they said 50,000. Then we heard the report that said 100,000. And I thought, all right, now there can be rain.

Harris: The world, the Kremlin, was watching, and we responded. The media was watching, and I realized that all they were going to report was the number of people who were there. So, when the police counted 250,000, I realized it didn’t matter whether people ran over their time to speak, or whether people had to wait in line for the Port-A-Sans, or for shuttles at RFK. We weren’t throwing a bar mitzvah. We were throwing a political moment.

Green: We wanted to let the Soviet government know that this was our issue, and we were fighting and we weren’t going to stop. We wanted to let the American government know that this was important not just to the Jewish community, but to the American community—that this was a human rights issue that we cared about. And the message was also to Soviet Jews themselves, who always heard about the rallies, always, either on Voice of America, or they saw pictures of it, and they could know that they weren’t alone and that people were working for them.

Sam Kliger (former refusenik): It was broadcast on Voice of America and Radio Liberty, but only a very few people could listen to it. I did not know it would be broadcast, because of course Gazeta Pravda didn’t report that this march was happening, and there was no Internet at that time, no cell phones, in many cases even no regular telephones. But one person told another that there was this huge march in Washington, and it was a big, big boost.

Cohen: In the end it was definitely celebratory. Peter, Paul and Mary were there, Pearl Bailey was there. For me, I was swept up by the fact that Natan was there, and Vladimir Slepak was there. We’d never met, until that day.

Zacks: I was on the dais, and I introduced the vice president. He came to this rally, and he knew the political tension that would exist between his role as vice president and his role as a citizen. The following day he was going to be part of the group meeting with Gorbachev and President Reagan, but the vice president elected to come because he wanted to be there.

Goldstein: The only thing that’s not memorable was the speeches. It was all the usual stuff, except when Sharansky spoke. I was on the dais for some of it, but then I got down and stood with my family. There was no place for the wealthy and the rest of it—that was one of the beauties of the thing.

Sharansky: When I was speaking, I was improvising, because I never wrote speeches. That day was easy for me. I said, Look, how many times did we hear there will be rain, there will be no demonstration, and now there is sun, and you are all here.

Saperstein: People would say, Who did the opening narration? I used Gunter Hirschberg, who had been cantor at Temple Rodeph Sholom. He had a magnificent voice, an extraordinary basso profundo voice, and having been born in Germany but raised in Britain, he spoke in a British accent. So, you had this guy who looked like Cesar Romero and to many people sounded like the voice of God.

From the podium, it looked like an endless sea of Jews. It was as if the horizon ended with the crowd.

Cohen: From the podium, it looked like an endless sea of Jews. It was as if the horizon ended with the crowd. There was nothing else. It was a huge, huge, huge crowd. And it was cold! It was a very cold day, and people were all bundled up and wearing earmuffs and jumping in place and huddled together, and you could see their breath. But there was this tremendous, tremendous electrical excitement that warmed everybody. And I don’t think anyone wanted to leave.

Leonard Fein (author and former editor of Moment): There was a certain point where I was up near the mike, and I announced this was a reunion for the Jewish people. “Let it begin here and now—there is a tent here by the stage for lost children, so please go reclaim them now.”

Zeidman: We were staying at a little place, a Holiday Inn or something on the other side of Independence, so we walked across the Mall to where the march was, and our 7-year-old kid wanted a popsicle, and then the New York Times got him. We made the whole march, and then we got on the buses with everyone else from Houston for the plane ride home.

Osadchey: We timed it so we got back in time for a community rally that evening in Houston. Pete Yarrow had been at the march, and they played his song “Light One Candle” as we all came into the sanctuary.

Sharansky: Afterward, there were some receptions, the American Jewish Committee gave some prizes, the UJA had some things for donors. I didn’t really understand these things yet. And then I went back home. I felt my mission—frankly, I thought, that’s it. Now it’s enough to be a Soviet Jew, and I can start a normal life.

Goldstein: Reagan said to Gorbachev, “Yesterday I had 250,000 people in my backyard saying, ‘Let my people go.’ Until you do what they want, nothing will happen.” And after that, things changed. So, to me it ensured Israel’s survival and it brought down the Soviet Union. It was the high point for my generation’s lives as Jews.

Davis: I didn’t think at the time that it was such a big deal. It seemed to me that the movement had won. History is such a funny thing—all you can say is that these things all happened at the same time, and the Jews got out of the Soviet Union. I do know that what it did for us was probably more than it did for them in terms of creating a sense of unity, of pride, and a feeling that Jews around the world were responsible for doing something and that they could do something for each other.

Sharansky: It was the final act in this long, long struggle of American Jewry. A whole generation of American Jews lived and fought this issue. It was their struggle.


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Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.

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