At the recent General Assembly of Jewish federations, Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky sat together to reminisce about what may have been the most successful revolution in the Jewish world in recent history — and the most forgotten one as well. It’s time for that to change.
The struggle to free Soviet Jewry not only succeeded in tearing down barriers to emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union, it was instrumental in bringing down the Iron Curtain itself. This essentially bloodless movement, led by “students and housewives,” as Sharansky likes to say, galvanized the American Jewish community as it had never been roused before and hasn’t been since, all without campus riots, burned draft cards and escapes to Canada. It enabled Jews to project pride and political clout in a manner that presaged AIPAC, despite being only tacitly endorsed by the Jewish Establishment.
Sharansky’s KGB captors mocked a movement led by everyday people. Yet somehow we changed the world, rallying on countless Solidarity Sundays and signing umpteen petitions, championing an agenda aimed at saving Jews while promoting human rights for everyone. The Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was officially rescinded just last month (it tied U.S. foreign policy to human rights), validated the struggle to free Soviet Jewry as a prime instrument of U.S. policy to pressure the Soviet Union on behalf of all suppressed minorities.
For the generation that came of age after the Six-Day War, Soviet Jewry was our rallying cry, an essential part of the fabric of our faith, imparting new meaning to virtually every communal ritual, from the Passover seder to the bar mitzvah. Hopes for a mass emigration often were raised only to be dashed. Our fates were intertwined with theirs and we often felt helpless, and with the Holocaust continually on our minds, hopeless.
When I describe this era to today’s teens, I really can’t compare it to anything they’ve experienced. Soviet Jews were dying a slow, spiritual death, different from the suffering experienced by victims of terrorism or war; plus, a centuries-old Jewish culture was dying with them. We carried their burden on our shoulders — quite literally. I would wear my heavy Vladimir Slepak “Prisoner of Conscience” medallion around my neck every day in school and looked for other ways to feel their pain, to imagine life in their shoes. My Hebrew teachers mesmerized us with tales of how, while on trips to Russia, they would sneak forbidden prayer books into the tiny Moscow apartments where clandestine meetings occurred. This cause defined us.
Then, 25 years ago, with a whiff of victory already in the air, on Dec. 6, 1987, 250,000 Jews marched on Washington to demand freedom for Soviet Jewry. The numbers far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and coming as it did on the eve of a Reagan-Gorbachev summit, historians now know that the march made a difference in accelerating the process of liberation. It was the most massive and best-coordinated voluntary movement of Jews since the crossing of the Red Sea.
For American Jews, this December Revolution was a cathartic do-over, a chance to redeem ourselves from the haunting perception that we — or more precisely, our parents — had not done enough to help our brethren during the Shoah. It was also a chance for diaspora Jews to jump from the margins to center stage. We had always supported Israel during her wars, but Israelis were the ones on the front lines. This time we were the ones fighting the good fight, taking on not just any enemy, but the Evil Empire itself. The hopes of Soviet Jews rested not in the hands of the IDF but on our own exilic shoulders. For those of us who were there on that December day, it was unforgettable.
My memories remain vivid a quarter of a century later. From my own community, 300 people piled onto buses well before dawn. Our caravan fell into a solemn procession heading south on I-95, joining hundreds of buses from all over New England, and then, when we crossed the Hudson, it seemed like the entire New Jersey Turnpike was one long motorcade of Jews, end to end.
When Martin Luther King marched on Washington in ’63, I was marching at Cub Scout pack meetings. When our nation’s campuses became crucibles of mass protest over the Vietnam War, I was engaged in anxious preparations for my bar mitzvah. But history did not pass me by this time — for my generation, this was it.
After our bus parked, it was impossible for our group to stay together, so I set out on my own, walking toward the Capitol, rubbing shoulders (literally) with Jews from Canada, San Diego, Cincinnati, Alaska, everywhere. I bumped into groups from my alma mater and my wife’s hometown. Total strangers hugged like lifelong friends.
It must have been like this during festivals back in ancient Jerusalem — Jews from everywhere, gathering to affirm their identity and propel history. Only this was a different capital, one where Jews had been far more reluctant to brandish political clout, still stung by Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, uneasy over the rise of the Moral Majority, ever squeamish about making waves.
We sang “Hatikva,” “If I Had a Hammer” and Safam’s anthem to the movement, “Leaving Mother Russia,” and for once, all those spurious “We are One” bumper stickers made sense. For a fleeting moment, we were One — all of us, hawks and doves, left wingers and Kahanists. For a historic microsecond, the goals of Jewish particularism and human universalism merged. For a flash in time, it was possible to simultaneously wear the cloak of victim while expressing tremendous political strength.
No prior event had brought together such a wide diversity of American Jewry; nothing has united us in this way since. If Gorbachev didn’t get the memo about our being One, a quarter of a million Jews did.
Everything changed on that ultimate Solidarity Sunday. It was our December Revolution: One day that shook the world.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.