This week marks thirty years since nearly 250,000 American Jews and non-Jews gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The cause was Soviet Jewry, and the rally held that frigid Sunday in December 1987, called Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews, was the largest rally of American Jews to ever take place in the nation’s capital.  Coretta Scott King would liken it to the March on Washington in support of Civil Rights in 1963.  Encouraged by local Federations, community councils, schools and synagogues, people came from communities large and small throughout the country and beyond to take part in the event. A special flight brought a group from Anchorage’s tiny Jewish community.  Virtually all available buses from surrounding Jewish metropolitan areas, and over 1,000 from New York alone, were utilized to transport attendees. Establishment and activist segments of the American Soviet Jewry organizations, whose priorities and methods often diverged over the course of their several decades of engagement, recognized the momentousness of the occasion and the opportunity it offered, and all came together in support of the rally.

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That occasion was the first visit to the United States of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who had launched programs of Perestroika (political restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) since coming to power in 1985.  The rally was scheduled on the eve of a two-day summit in Washington between Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan. While the official focus of the summit was nuclear disarmament, American Jews had been assured that the issue of Human Rights was an agreed-upon topic on the agenda.  As a result, Jewish establishment leaders and conference organizers were emphasizing that vis-à-vis the U.S. administration, the rally was to support its position and help President Reagan drive his point home to Gorbachev about liberalizing policies of the Soviet Union.  Numerous members of both the administration and Congress were attendees and speakers at the rally.   President Reagan sent a written message of support to be read.

Not all Soviet Jewry activist groups were comfortable in only supporting the U.S administration’s stance.  The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), for example, was critical of granting low interest loans to the Soviet Union, and feared the Jackson-Vanik provision to the 1974 U.S. Soviet Trade Bill that linked trade with Human Rights would be undermined before the new policies of liberalization included Soviet Jewish emigration.  They encouraged participants to voice continued support for linking American aid and trade with human rights in banners they held at the rally. They adhered to the organizers’ overriding interest in solidarity, however, and refrained from expressions of criticism during the event itself.  Nevertheless, SSSJ had a busy schedule in the days before and after the rally.  They organized a Refusenik Sabbath Friday and Saturday, with prayer vigils at the Soviet Embassy and Aeroflot offices in downtown Washington.  On Tuesday, they held a protest at the Soviet Embassy, knowing there would be arrests made, since it was in violation of the local law stipulating protests had to be more than 500 feet away.  Attendees were invited to sign up in advance to be arrested.  16 men and women were arrested.

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The rally, whose size greatly exceeded all predictions, was mentioned by Reagan to Gorbachev during the summit.  Historian Henry Feingold noted its significance in demonstrating that “…public relations techniques to focus attention on the plight of Soviet Jewry had become a formidable skill developed by the American Soviet Jewry movement.”  Soviet Jewish immigration began to increase, aided by the fall of the Soviet Union a mere four years later.  Over time, more than one million Jews would leave, bringing to realization the goal of the Soviet Jewry Movement, of which the Freedom Sunday rally was the high-water mark.

View a description of Yeshiva University Archives’ large collection of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry Records here.  Digital versions of many posters in the collection are available through the Libraries’ portal of digitized rare and unique materials at this link.

Submitted by Deena Schwimmer, Archivist

 

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