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Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Freedom March for Soviet Jewry

A Time to Reflect, Appreciate

This year, Hanukkah coincided with the 25th Anniversary of the 1987 Freedom March for Soviet Jewry, an event where a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington DC, demanding that Jews be released from the Soviet Union so they could freely and openly practice Judaism and live elsewhere, free from oppression. And so, this timing provided Jews in the Bay Area the opportunity to reflect once again of the importance of the religious freedoms we all enjoy here in the United States, and the places and times when such simple things were not taken for granted.

Many people in San Francisco had been holding vigils outside the Soviet Consulate for almost a decade, and hundreds boarded planes and joined the protesters in DC.  As a result of their efforts, hundreds of thousands of Jews were allowed to emigrate to the United States, many coming to the Bay Area.

Earlier this month, our Federation gathered leaders and members of the Jewish community to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the event, and to honor the thousands of San Francisco supporters who stood in solidarity with the DC demonstrators here in Union Square. After receiving proclamations from Supervisor Scott Wiener on behalf of the City of San Francisco and Mayor Lee’s office honoring the anniversary, Judge Abraham Sofaer, a senior attorney and adviser to then Secretary of State George Shultz, spoke on the historic significance of the Gorbachev-Reagan Summit that so many demonstrated at 25 years earlier.

Panelists included organizers, refuseniks, and the children of refuseniks.

Movie goers, eagerly rushing to the big screen to watch Ben Affleck sneaking into Iran to free US embassy hostages, should know San Francisco is filled with more of these true stories. Twenty-five years ago, much like in Argo, there were Bay Area residents – including non-Jews – sneaking into the Soviet Union, avoiding the KGB, and helping provide much needed resources and information for friends and relatives trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Many of those who risked everything to free Soviet refuseniks were on hand at the commemoration to reflect and remember the dangers and the exhilaration of fighting for religious freedom. Among them were Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry former Director David Waksberg, Rabbi Doug Kahn, Deborah Louria, Morey Schapira, Barry Cohn, and Danny Grossman.  And then there were the refuseniks who waited – and waited– for years to leave the Soviet Union, fighting for freedom while the KGB blocked their mail and monitored their telephones. Sonia Melnikova-Raich and Boris Kelman were two who are still celebrating their freedom today. We salute and honor their bravery.

Lighting our candles as we do, during Hanukkah and to observe the Sabbath, we strive to illuminate the dark spaces of the world. We commemorate this anniversary, knowing that there are still those who fight for the right to express themselves and gain religious freedom, and we acknowledge the importance of preserving that right for all of us.

The following thank you note from Alex Rayter, whose family came to the Bay Area as a result of this movement, beautifully captures the sentiment of the evening and reminds us of the amazing things we can achieve when we come together as a community.

A Personal Thank You

by Alex Rayter
I wanted to personally thank JCF and the people on the panel for the opportunity to be a small part of this event. This was hugely meaningful to me and even more so to my parents. Saying that my father is not a man who is easily moved to tears is an understatement, but he had tears in his eyes when he looked at the pictures of the Refuseniks on the poster boards in the hallway, as he knew of them and their stories. In many ways this event was a vindication of all of his and my families efforts for a better part of ten years trying to get permission for us to leave and all of the difficulties that came along with that (imprisonment of another grandfather, house searches etc.). Suffice it to say that what I am taking part in with Mishmash and this event are a testament to why my family wanted to come to America in the first place. They are extremely proud of what I am doing and I wanted to say thank you on their behalf and my own to everyone on the panel for your tireless work and everything you were involved in, in helping us get here.

Being able to chat with all of you during the planning and at the event has really helped me gain a better appreciation of the insurmountable task in all of its complexities that people like my family and our advocates on this side of the ocean were faced with. It has more fully brought this story to life for me and I believe will ultimately help bring me closer to my parents as we are better able to share this common experience now that I understand more fully through hearing your stories what our journey entailed.

My family and the Russian speaking Jewish community at large owe all of you a huge debt of gratitude and many, many thanks. It is a great pleasure to meet all of you and I hope our paths continue to cross.

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