Voices

Reminisce at ‘Voices of the Vigil’

January 22, 2014
By Norman Goldstein

I invite you to Washington Hebrew Congregation to visit Voices of the Vigil, an exhibit which tells the story of one of the most memorable periods in all of our lives, when we truly transformed the world:

Together, we brought down the Soviet Union and made it possible for more than 1 million of our fellow Jews to emigrate to Israel, and for countless others to live in countries of their choosing.

Free to make aliyah as a result of our protests, the great numbers of new and highly skilled olim (immigrants) changed the face of Israel and guaranteed its long-term survival as a sovereign state.

We supported and nurtured the rebirth of Jewish life and culture in the former
Soviet Union.

We did all this as a united Jewish people, supported by many other people of good will.
We had a common purpose — ensuring the dignity and human rights of our fellow Jews and other persecuted people, whose religious freedoms and other rights had been suppressed for so long.

Started by a group of college students, the Soviet Jewry Movement took hold across the country in the late 1960s. Thereafter, from 1970 to 1991, we, in the Washington community, protested, marched, wrote letters and petitioned. Led by our rabbis and Christian leaders like Pastor John Steinbruck of Luther Place Church, who rallied his congregants to attend the daily vigil on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, many were arrested, prosecuted and served time in jail to demonstrate their commitment to the cause of human rights.

How many still have bracelets proudly bearing the names of prisoners of conscience like Ida Nudel, Yosef Mendelevich, Yosef Begun, and the Slepaks?

How many of our children were twinned with, wrote to and celebrated becoming a bar or bat mitzvah with a Soviet Jewish child who was denied that right and privilege?

I am certain that all of us remember the empty tallit covered chair on the bima and the aliyah named in honor of a prisoner of conscience or refusenik and how our congregations prayed for the day he or she would join them in worship sometime in the future.

All of us can still see the “Free Soviet Jewry” signs that were at every synagogue and Jewish institution in the area.

We all remember the calls to help those who became members of our community. Whether it was to resettle, provide furniture, clothing, dishes, jobs, education, medical care or other assistance, our community responded generously. Our Federation, synagogues, schools and agencies were there to provide help of all kinds, and we were there to welcome them into our homes and hearts.

We still hear the plaintive voice of that delicate and fragile, yet incredibly powerful Avital Sharansky, standing with us, pleading to be reunited with her husband who was taken away from her without reason and without cause almost immediately after they were united in marriage.

Can any of us forget our surreptitious trips to visit our heroes and heroines in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, or Odessa, as we schlepped medicines, baby foods and religious articles to enable them to survive and to live as Jews? We all recall the important roles of the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry and the Jewish Community Council, especially briefing sessions by the council’s Buddy Sislen who taught us how to get around, how to explain to immigration officials why we needed to bring siddurim, diapers, chanukiyot and the invaluable Levis and electronics products that enabled our people to survive.

Just thinking of those walk-up apartments, where we brought comfort to our Soviet Jewish brethren, letting them know there were millions of people in solidarity with them, supporting them, protesting on their behalf around the world and shouting daily “LET OUR PEOPLE GO” on 16th Street, across from the Soviet Embassy, should bring a sense of pride to all of us.

And then there was the incredible 1987 Soviet Jewry rally on the National Mall.
On that famous day, which President Ronald Reagan cited to Premier Gorbachev, our community produced more than 60,000 protesters of the massive crowd of over 250,000. According to Ambassador Richard Schifter who negotiated the treaties with the Soviets, President Reagan said he would not engage in any serious discussions unless Gorbachev responded to the recent pleas in Reagan’s backyard to free Soviet Jewry. In a matter of weeks, Gorbachev capitulated and the exodus began.

What was it that symbolized all of these efforts, all of these passionate labors? It was our daily vigil, every day for 20 years, rain or shine, cold or hot, holiday or not. Originally conceived by the one and only Moshe Brodetzky, it was the international focal point of the effort on behalf of Soviet Jewry and to fight suppression of human rights for all behind the Iron Curtain. Every local synagogue, many churches and almost all Jewish organizations coming to D.C. took time out from their schedules to share in the cry “Let Our People Go.” It is that vigil, and its memories, that the Jewish Historical Society’s Voices of the Vigil exhibit brings to life for all to enjoy and reminisce.
The vigil was not only a place for protest. On special occasions, it became a place of communal joy as many of our heroes on whose behalf we had protested for years, came to celebrate their freedom. Who can forget their faces as they thanked all of us and then joined us in protesting on behalf of those who remained behind awaiting their freedom?
And the daily vigil was even more.

It was where Jews from all denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Secular, along with many other faith communities and people of goodwill were united in common purpose for a higher cause. Would that we could have that same spirit today!

It is in that spirit that we invite all of you to visit the Voices of the Vigil exhibit. Bring your friends, children and grandchildren to witness and to educate them as to what our community did and what we can do to change the world, when we work together for a common purpose. By carrying out the ideal of tikkun olam — fixing the world — we can improve our community, and preserve and insure the future of the Jewish people, our institutions and values. We encourage you to use the Historical Society’s website and educational materials about the vigil and Soviet Jewry Movement.

Norman Goldstein is chairman of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s Community Advisory Committee for the Voices of the Vigil exhibit.

 

Voices of the Vigil: A new exhibition created by the Jewish Historical Society

Visit the exhibition now through April 6, 2014
Washington Hebrew Congregation, 3935 Macomb Street, NW, Washington, DC

For group tours/school programs, call the Jewish Historical Society at 202-789-0900 or email info@jhsgw.org. You may also visit the exhibition during the synagogue’s business hours.

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