Smashing the Iron Curtain: a legacy Bay Area Jews can be proud of

Thursday, November 29, 2012 | by

Most Jews, let alone most Americans, probably are not aware of a special anniversary that takes place next week. Yet it’s a date of historical significance.

Thursday, Dec. 6 will mark 25 years since Freedom Sunday, the largest protest ever in support of Soviet Jewry. On that date in 1987, with President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev due to meet the next day, a quarter-million people filled the streets of Washington, D.C., demanding that the USSR let our people go.

This week we feature a first-person account of the event by David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (page 16). He writes eloquently about that day of solidarity — headlined by a speech delivered by the recently freed Natan Sharansky — and its impact on spurring the Soviets to free what eventually would total more than a million Jews.

Locally, San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel will mark the anniversary with an evening of reminiscence, song and celebration (page 35).

It is fitting that San Francisco hosts an event commemorating the Soviet Jewry movement. In a very real sense, the movement was born in the Bay Area long before that historic march on Washington.

It was 45 years ago that a group of Jewish visionaries formed the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry. Their debut event, a September 1969 gathering in San Francisco’s Stern Grove, drew thousands and put the issue in the public eye.

For years thereafter, Bay Area Jewish community leaders organized trips to the USSR, met with refuseniks, lobbied elected officials and made sure the issue of Soviet Jewry never faded.

The Soviet Consulate in San Francisco was the site of a daily vigil on Green Street that went on for nearly two decades. Little by little, the movement made progress, with a trickle of escaping Soviet Jews turning into an open floodgate of freedom.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and two years later the Soviet Union crumbled. All the Jews who wanted to leave the tyranny of the USSR eventually got out. We all know the enormous contribution these freed people have made to life in Israel, the United States and everywhere they settled.

It could not have happened without the ceaseless pressure of activists like those on the streets of San Francisco.

We salute these visionaries, and just as we promised never to forget Soviet Jews while they languished, we will never forget the heroic perseverance of those who clamored for their freedom.