Skip To Content
The Schmooze

Remembering a 20-Year Protest for Soviet Jewry

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

Long before Occupy Wall Street, protests were held from 12:30 to 12:45 p.m. every day from December 10, 1970, until January 27, 1991, in front of the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., in an effort to raise awareness about the mistreatment of Soviet Jews. Those demonstrations, held rain or shine — including through muggy District summers — are the subject of the exhibit “Voices of the Vigil: D.C.’s Soviet Jewry Movement,” which is on view at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., until October 19.

“Washington Jews organized rallies and marches, waged letter-writing campaigns to pressure politicians, sent packages and Rosh Hashanah greeting cards to refuseniks, and visited Jews in the Soviet Union,” according to the exhibit website.

Some gems from the exhibit include photographs of the actor Theodore Bikel speaking at the September 1965 Eternal Light Vigil on the National Mall (he shares the stage with a man holding a twisted shofar); of 3-year-old David Sislen burying his face in tears in his mom Bonnie’s coat after a police officer removed the placard from his sign, which violated a rule prohibiting any signs within 500 feet of an embassy; and a youthful Senator John Kerry marching, arms locked, with colleagues and with Avital Sharansky en route to the Soviet Embassy demanding Natan Sharansky’s release.

Also of interest is the way the local community rallied around the cause, including churches and labor unions. Local theater Arena Stage was a “steadfast supporter of Soviet Jewry,” according to the exhibit site. (In this photo, two Arena Stage actors are pictured at the vigil.)

A particularly poignant picture shows Rev. John Steinbruck, of Luther Place Memorial Church, standing in front of his church directly below an enormous sculpture of Martin Luther. A sign in front of the reverend stats in bolded font, “Freedom for Soviet Jewry.”

The demonstrations were very important for the American Jewish identity, but they were “basically irrelevant to the history of the Cold War or the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union,” said Maya Balakirsky Katz, a professor of art history and Jewish studies at Touro College who has written on New York’s Jewish Museum and the Soviet Jewry movement:

“For American Jews, the Soviet Jewry movement gave them an alternative route to backseat Zionism through political activism,” Katz said. “As far as Soviet Jews, the focus on refuseniks is hardly representative of the Soviet Jewish experience, as these few folks were total outliers in the Soviet Union. Jews for Jordache Jeans would be more representative.”

A section of the exhibit website titled “Persecution Behind the Iron Curtain” notes that many Soviet Jews sought to emigrate and move to Israel following the 1967 war. “In response,” the website notes, “Soviet Jews found their exit visas were repeatedly denied, and applicants frequently lost their jobs or were imprisoned.” Katz agrees that there were many ways that Jews were marginalized, but she says in this regard, they were actually privileged.

“Jews were the only ones who could even dream of emigration under the premise of reunification of families,” she said. “No other Soviet citizens would have been able to enjoy that loophole.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.