Twenty-five years ago this week, some 250,000 Jews descended on Washington to demand freedom for their brothers and sisters trapped in the Soviet Union. It was an audacious, determined act, the culmination of a long period of activism that was not only instrumental in achieving its ultimate goal but also galvanized American Jewry in a way not seen before or since.
It seems fitting that we mark this pivotal movement in Jewish history with local events (see page 8) and an online educational component (freedom25.net) at the same time we are celebrating Chanukah, which begins Saturday night.
Chanukah marks the miracle of the oil found in the Temple in Jerusalem after it was sacked by forces trying to quash our ancestors’ religious freedom.
The Communist regime, too, squelched religious freedom, not just for Jews but for all the citizens of the Soviet lands.
Marking the 25th anniversary of “Freedom Sunday” is more than a nostalgic endeavor. Many of the activists who came of age during that time — with an outsized contribution from the Philadelphia Jewish community — now recognize the stunning gap in knowledge among our youth about this historic period. Ask most Jews under the age of 30 who Natan Sharansky is and you’ll likely get a blank stare rather than a recognition that he was among the most famous of Soviet refuseniks and is now a major public figure in Israel.
The story of the Soviet Jewry movement is a compelling one on many levels. It grew among a generation of Jews motivated by the civil rights era and burdened by an emerging sense of guilt over what wasn’t done to try to save the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust. The movement gave Jews of all ages and across the nation a sense of solidarity, power and purpose.
And when the Iron Curtain finally fell and the Soviet gates opened, more than 1 million Jews fled a land that had denied them the opportunity to practice their Judaism. The bulk of those Jews arrived in Israel but thousands more made their home in the United States, including in our area, and even in Germany.
Now the lessons of those days are being re-examined. What did it mean to act in solidarity for a single and dramatic cause? How did we learn to use our political voices to effect change? Some would say the movement did as much for American Jews as it did for Soviet Jewry.
Now, as we light the Chanukah candles, let us celebrate the freedom we all too often take for granted: the freedom to practice our religion, to live where we choose and to raise our voices when we know the cause is just. Let’s do it in honor of our past as well as the promise of our future. Happy Chanukah!