Ner Tamid event honors 1969 Soviet Jewry protests

In the fall of 1969, thousands of Jews flocked to Stern Grove Park in San Francisco to protest for religious rights and freedom for their Russian brethren.

The monumental protest took place on Simchat Torah, with Jews of all denominations dancing in the park, holding up Torah scrolls and chanting prayers of dissent.

Rabbi Moshe Levin

On the other side of the world, in the communist Soviet Union, Russian Jews were protesting in their own way, by congregating on the steps of Moscow’s major synagogue in observance of the holiday.

Congregation Ner Tamid will honor the anniversary of these protests Oct. 11 with a Soviet Freedom Day celebration.

The Simchat Torah event will include lectures, Russian food and live music in Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, with a performance by the synagogue’s program director, Achi Ben Shalom.

The event will begin with a rally in the streets in front of the synagogue, followed by dancing and speeches. Speakers will include KGO radio talk show host John Rothmann, author Phil Spiegel and Rabbi Moshe Levin.

“This will give the Russian community a chance to get together and celebrate a date that is important to their history — a moment when they defied the KGB by gathering in front of synagogues in Moscow and celebrating being Jewish,” Ben Shalom said.

“Additionally, American Jewry came through in their own way by supporting them in their struggle — the entire Jewish community came together for a moment of unity.”

Levin said historians often credit the Soviet Jewry movement with being the first breach in the Iron Curtain.

“When the Jews started a movement to get out of the Soviet Union, it became an international issue,” he explained. “It ignited a fire of self-identification for many other ethnic minorities in the country.”

In anticipation of the freedom day celebration at Congregation Ner Tamid, Shalom has been passing out fliers to people in synagogues, Jewish delis and Russian restaurants throughout San Francisco.

“Every Russian Jew who sees the flier smiles and says, ‘Thank you for doing this,’ ” Shalom said. “It will be a festive, celebratory and emotional day.”

The Soviet Jewry Freedom Day celebration will take place noon to 3 p.m. Oct. 11 at Congregation Ner Tamid, 1250 Quintara St., S.F. Admission is free and open to the public. For details, visit www.nertamidsf.org.

Staff writer Amanda Pazornik contributed to this report.