It was still dark outside when I woke my three sons (not the old TV show, but my actual kids) for what would be a very long day. We were taking a bus to Washington DC, America’s capital, for a rally. At ages seven, four and two, they’d already been to Sunday rallies for Jewish causes, but this one was going to be big. We had no idea how big. And we had no idea that we’d be making history as part of FREEDOM SUNDAY’s March on Washington on December 6, 1987.
Ultimately FREEDOM SUNDAY, exactly 34 years ago, was the largest rally for a Jewish issue ever held in the United States, and one of the largest marches in American history. About 250,000 people from all over North America converged on Washington by car, bus, train and plane.
I had already explained to the boys that there were Jews in the Soviet Union who were treated badly, were hated and sometimes thrown into jail for doing Jewish things. And, while Russian Jews couldn’t live as Jews, they weren’t allowed to leave either. It was a lot for little kids to absorb, but I hoped that they felt proud, knowing they could help others in need. That didn’t make getting up at 6 AM any easier.
Since Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, many Jews had applied for exit visas from the USSR. When they were denied – refused – those visas, they were called “refuseniks”.
I wasn’t a refusenik by any means. I came from the Five Towns on Long Island. I lived in a suburban split level home that could fit several refusenik apartments inside. There were no bugs and no “bugs”.
Our life was good, and just about opposite of everything our Soviet cousins were experiencing. I could walk worry-free through the streets with a Magen David on my neck and my kippa-clad kids at my side. The boys learned in Jewish Day schools, sang Jewish songs, studied Hebrew and identified as Jews and Zionists.
No one ever turned my house upside down and rifled through my things, except while preparing the kitchen for Passover. And I never felt threatened by police, unless you count the time that I got a $150 speeding ticket.
Kosher food was everywhere, and we could attend synagogue without fear. Plus, we could get on a plane anytime and visit or move to Israel or anywhere else. So, it was difficult to understand that if a Soviet Jew wanted to emigrate to Israel, he’d probably lose his job and be blackballed in his profession. If he stayed unemployed, he might be put on trial and imprisoned for being a “parasite”.
I felt bad for the Jews in the USSR, but feeling bad didn’t compel me to scream in the streets. My mother did.
MILK AND COOKIES
I remember coming home from junior high school one day and finding a note from my mother (may she live and be well until 120), “Children, I put milk and cookies for you in the fridge. I had to go to a demonstration, because the President of France won’t sell Israel planes.” Lesson learned: if Jews are in trouble, you have to help them.
The message was reinforced by my Hebrew High School teacher, a Holocaust survivor, who took our class to our first Soviet Jewry march. Sundays with the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry became a pretty regular event, even if we spent a lot of the time eating candy bars and drinking Coke.
ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM SUNDAY
Our synagogue’s bus was only one of a dozen from the neighborhood. We started strong – singing and chatting with other families. The kids squealed with excitement every time they saw another bus on the highway. Soon the I-95 was backed up for miles with countless buses from Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and communities across the East Coast.
By the time we arrived in Washington five hours later, one of my kids had thrown up over three changes of clothes. Another had finished his entire day’s supply of snacks. And the little one spent the trip searching between everyone’s feet for his run-away pacifier.
As we marched to Washington’s National Mall, I thought I had never seen so many people in my life, and my husband and I held tight to our sons. We settled into the crowd, so far from the stage that the speakers seemed like ants, and I unbundling the boys, who were dressed against freezing weather, instead of the 50-degree temperature of the day.
A giant backdrop draped across the stage with the words, “Let our People Go.” Posters of every type poked out around us, “Free Soviet Jewry,” “Am Yisrael Chai”. No matter their signs, a quarter of a million people wanted to tell Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who was on his way to a summit with US President Ronald Reagan, that the USSR had to open its iron gates and set the Jewish people free.
Far away on the podium, the speakers called out for freedom, especially Natan Sharansky, who had traveled all over America persuading groups everywhere to join him in Washington. Heads of every Jewish organization, as well as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, had their moment behind the mic; Peter, Paul and Mary (minus Paul) sang out for justice; Pearl Bailey belted out, “Let My People Go”; the vice-president of the United States George Bush and NYC Mayor Ed Koch addressed Gorbachev with fiery words. Speakers called out, no trade unless Soviet Jews are free to live as Jews and leave as Jews.
But the stars of the day were the heroic refuseniks who had been freed from Soviet prison – Sharansky, Vladimir Slepak, Ida Nudel and others.
We sang Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Soviet Jewry anthem, “Am Yisrael Chai,” and the earth shook. We really felt that together we could change the world.
My feet were killing me, but my kids didn’t complain for a moment, that is, until we had to re-board the buses to go home. We had run out of nosh, but we slept almost the entire trip back to New York.
Meanwhile the unity of those protesters on the National Mall had made their impression, and President Reagan told the Soviet Premier, “Yesterday, I had 250,000 people in my backyard saying, ‘Let my people go.’ Until you do what they want, nothing between us will happen.”
It took another two years, but 1.5 million Soviet Jews were finally allowed to leave, with more than a million going to Israel. Am Yisrael Chai!
The spotlight is once again on the Soviet Jewry Struggle this year as The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem and OU Israel present the upcoming historical musical, “WHISPER FREEDOM”. The third musical written and composed by Sharon Katz and Avital Macales, “WHISPER FREEDOM” tells the story of courageous Soviet Jews who were ready to risk everything to gain freedom from Soviet tyranny. The women’s musical takes the stage at the end of February and the beginning of March 2022. For more information, https://bit.ly/wpcjerusalem, www.facebook.com/wpcjerusalem.
(All photos courtesy oof the author; B/W photo courtesy of Enid Wurtman)