Exit Ramp: Remembering the fight to free Soviet Jewry

Exit Ramp: Remembering the fight to free Soviet Jewry

I have just begun to write in my 2018 appointment book. The remaining pages are blank spaces waiting to be filled in. May this new book look far different at the end of 2018 from the one that’s now in the bottom drawer of my desk, which began with the recording of names of doctors. Unfortunately, I was forced to visit many of them when I was laid up with a broken foot last winter. 

“Don’t do anything,” my first doctor warned. “Stay at home with your left foot elevated.” I read every book I could get my hands on, watched too much daytime TV, and prayed for quick healing. In time, I was ready to leave the house and cautiously moved on to more interesting activities, like a bus tour of the District of Columbia, with some 50 of my friends and neighbors. As I relaxed on a bench on the National Mall on a warm, sunny afternoon, I recalled that I had visited the city many times over the years. Was the last time 30 years ago?

It was a mild December morning in 1987 when my husband Ray and I and our good friends Sally and Lee Kreida left our Livingston homes for Newark’s Penn Station. Our goal was to reach the nation’s capital to join other American Jews in demonstrating our support for the Jews who had long been languishing in the Soviet Union, forbidden to practice their religion freely.

It promised to be a long, exhausting day — and an exciting one. Ray and Lee carried the banner of B’nai B’rith’s Livingston lodge as we gathered with our fellow demonstrators on the National Mall. By the time they all arrived, according to press coverage, an estimated 250,000 American Jews had assembled from all over the country.

The very location of the rally to free Soviet Jewry reinforced its theme. In sight of the inspiring memorials and monuments dedicated to founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, it was easy to be reminded of the freedom and independence to which those American icons had dedicated their lives and works at great sacrifice.

Atop the Capitol building’s dome is the bronze Statue of Freedom, perhaps unfamiliar to most Americans. It honors the slave laborers who worked at the construction of Emancipation Hall on the lower level of the building, a strong reference to American history — and past injustices — in the capital city.

Vice President George H.W. Bush and a number of senators and congressmen were speakers at the demonstration that day. Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, spoke movingly of his harrowing nine years as a refusenik prisoner in the Soviet gulag before he was exchanged for two Soviet spies in 1986. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel addressed the crowd, as did a number of other Jewish leaders.

Though the Iron Curtain was already being gradually chipped away, I prayed the efforts of our demonstration would speed the process to convince Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to allow the departure of the three million desperate Soviet Jews hoping to emigrate.

At the end of the long demonstration, I and probably many others were footsore from standing so long. I was also hoarse after so many hours of cheering during all the exciting and hopeful events of the day.

Thirty years have passed since that historic occasion. Much has changed. In early May of 1988 Ray suddenly passed away. Other deaths, graduations, and weddings took place; grandchildren arrived; the Kreidas moved to Arizona. I sold my home in Livingston and relocated to a 55 years-plus community in Rockaway. 

Over the years more and more Russians gradually appeared at local synagogues, including my own, Temple Beth Shalom of Livingston, where a festive wedding was held for couples standing under a chuppah. Occasionally, a youngster from a Russian family has celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah on our bimah, and Russian-Jewish musicians perform wonderful concerts locally. 

I heard Russian on the streets of Israel and at some synagogue services when I lived there for almost four years. Russian-style food became available in restaurants and markets in Jerusalem and Netanya. I often heard lively Russian music in those places, too. I have conversed socially with a number of former Russian Jews over these 30 years. Each time I feel a strong, personal connection. 

I am only one out of 250,000, but if I do nothing more in my life, I feel secure that my efforts on behalf of my struggling brothers and sisters helped free many souls. Together, we are all free.

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