Freedom Sunday: Jewish march on Washington 1987 helped change history

Twenty-five years ago this month Jewish Americans for the first time held a national rally in the nation's capital and in so doing helped influence the lives of fellow Jews a half a world away.

In the fall of 1987 came news that on Dec. 6 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was making a historic trip to Washington to meet with President Reagan. The Jews of America, who had gathered in venues like Madison Square Garden, or other arenas around America, for important causes had never converged on Washington. The movement to free Soviet Jewry, based in New York City, with daily demonstrations at the Soviet Union Mission to the United Nations and at the USSR Embassy in Washington, had been somewhat successful, securing the release of many "Prisoners of Zion," Jews who sought to leave the Soviet Union and move to Israel. However, a fundamental change in Soviet policy had not been achieved.

Congress had passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, designed to put pressure on the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate, and President Ford signed it into law on Jan. 3, 1975, denying Most Favored Nation trading status to non-market economies that restricted emigration. It caused the USSR economic pain, and helped to press the cause of free emigration.

Now an opportunity loomed large. Could we mobilize a March on Washington akin to the civil rights and Vietnam War marches? Would it make a difference if Gorbachev saw a sea of people on the Washington Mall?

Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky were the sparks that lit the blaze. And students on campuses across America carried the flame that led us all to Washington. Some of those students later became national leaders: Gordon Zacks, who became an advisor to President George H.W. Bush; Jack Lew, who was on Speaker Tip O'Neill's staff and is now President Obama's chief of staff; and David Makovsky, who is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process and a frequent contributor to national newspapers and news programs.

From our small community, Rabbis Astor and Rosenberg joined me in organizing a bus to travel to Washington for the march. Rabbi Astor had been to the Soviet Union as a young activist and had kept in touch with some of his contacts. Rabbi Rosenberg and I had been to Washington for civil rights and Vietnam War marches. Now we were taking an overnight bus filled with Jews from eastern Connecticut to march for Soviet Jewry. We arrived early in the morning and Congressman Sam Gejdenson served us all breakfast in one of the House office buildings. We toured a bit before joining the throngs of people converging on the mall.

The results were remarkable. Nearly 250,000 people rallied on the Mall. Sharansky and Wiesel walked arm in arm, together with many other leaders from established Jewish organizations and upstart student organizations. This massive show of support emboldened President Reagan to pressure Gorbachev on this issue. This "Freedom Sunday" thus marked a turning point in the struggle. Soon, Soviet Jews were free to leave, or to stay, as they wished. Over a million Jews reached Israel in the ensuing years, and hundreds of thousands came to America. Israel was transformed, and to this day the influence of Jews from the former Soviet Union has a powerful impact on the politics of the country.

And right here in eastern Connecticut the Jewish Federation resettled more than 350 refugees from the former USSR. Our resettlement expertise was later called upon to help with Kosovar refugees, and, finally, refugees from hurricane Katrina.

The Jews from the former Soviet Union enrolled in New London's Adult Education, quickly passed their citizenship tests and went on to lead successful lives in their new country. Their relatives and friends who went to Israel have helped to draw our community closer to Israel, and some of their children and grandchildren have remained in the New London community. Others have moved throughout the country, pursuing dreams and building lives in America, the land of immigrants.

All of us who went on the march feel that we did play a role in securing freedom, not just for the Jews of the Soviet Union, but for all people in that country who looked to America as a source of strength in their struggle against a totalitarian Soviet regime. The struggle for freedom, however, is endless. There are always tyrants who seek to deny freedom to their people. But the struggle for Soviet Jewry taught one lesson - the struggle can be won!

Jerome "Jerry" Fischer is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.

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