Former protesters celebrate inside Russian Consulate

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

San Francisco's Iron Curtain has fallen.

For more than 30 years, demonstrations outside of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco drew hundreds and even thousands of Jewish protesters.

Wednesday of last week, more than 100 of those leading activists, along with a handful of Russian emigres, were invited by Consul General Yury Popov into the mysterious fortress at the corner of Green and Baker streets.

For most of the people in attendance, it was their first trip inside the building they had stared at, shouted at and been denied entrance to countless times since the mid-1960s.

"I had an unbelievable surge of emotions as I walked in tonight," said Regina Waldman, 51, who served as executive director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews from 1970 to 1983. "Love, anger, the memories — I was feeling it all."

Other invitees to the "celebration of freedom" — an annual reception held by the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, but never before in this location — used words like "surreal" and "overwhelming" to describe the experience.

Another former BACSJ president, 66-year-old San Francisco lawyer Sheldon Wolfe, received one of two organizational awards but downplayed it, saying "I'm just happy to be in this room for any reason."

The room itself, which one might have expected to be ornate, wasn't special. A downstairs reception hall with low ceilings and a glaring lack of Russian art, it was small and plain.

A painting of a stone bridge over the Moscow River with the Kremlin in the background hung in the foyer, but the piece was a textbook example of drab Soviet realism and failed to give any life to the space.

Cheery young volunteers shuttled trays of hors d'oeuvres to the 140 or so guests, but, alas, no Russian caviar was served.

No caviar? And people still thought it was a special night?

You'd better believe it, said Waldman. "This is an amazing night."

Most people in attendance had spent countless hours outside the building's 6-foot high, spiked iron gate, protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews and demonstrating for emigration rights with "Let My People Go" signs and pictures of jailed refuseniks hoisted above their heads.

The demonstrations were covered by media all over the world. A TV reporter in the Soviet Union began one summary: "A noisy Zionist gathering was held outside the USSR's Consulate General here," and then criticized American officials for letting the protests occur.

But occur they did — in great abundance.

In 1986, approximately 450 people representing 13 synagogues and nine other organizations participated in daily vigils in front of the consulate. Hundreds of youngsters from a Jewish camp staged yearly rallies, a photograph of which landed on the cover of a recently published book, "A Second Exodus: The American Movement to Free Soviet Jews."

College students put themselves in a mock refusenik jail there. Reuben Haller staged much of a 20-day hunger strike there. One year, a "freedom seder" was held, with participants seated at tables on the street directly in front of the consulate.

One time in the late 1970s, several activists with a letter to then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev were mistakenly admitted to the consulate by a visa officer, and the FBI had to be called in to straighten things out.

The most ambitious demonstrations were the annual Simchat Torah rallies, which drew thousands of people and forced the closure of Green Street. But the image of rabbis marching the Torah down super-steep Baker Street was only one of the memories that came flooding back.

"When I drove up tonight, I thought I'd see all of my friends chained to the gate," one oldtimer joked.

Being invited inside by Popov was a concrete indication that times have changed, and that Bay Area advocates for Jews in Russia can now work with Russian officials who used to ignore them.

"We were out there protesting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times over the last 30 years," said 50-year-old Morey Schapira, who from 1980 to 1984 was president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews, the title of the BACJRR before the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Now that we're inside, it's a recognition of the organization and its mission," he added. "We used to ring the doorbell but get no answer. Some people in the mid-'80s chained themselves to the gate and got arrested. Those were the darkest of hours."

Back then, Schapira could have never imagined joining the consul general in a toast, which is exactly what happened last week — although both he and Popov steered clear of the Stolichnaya vodka that was being generously poured at the bar.

Light Awards for Outstanding Service, named in honor of late BACSJ founder Hal Light, were given Wolfe and Greg Smith, an Irish Catholic who served on the BACSJ board for more than a decade, starting in the early 1980s.

The idea to hold this year's "celebration of freedom" at the Russian Consulate was put into action five months ago by current BACJRR executive director Pnina Levermore.

People in her position 30, 20 or even 10 years ago could hardly just pick up the phone and call the Russian Consul General like Levermore did.

"Mah nishtanah haleilah hazeh mikol halaylot –Why is this night different from all other nights?" asked Rabbi Doug Kahn, a longtime activist and current executive director of the S.F. Jewish Community Relations Council, in a speech during the ceremony.

"Because tonight we are gathered inside the consulate," he said. "We've moved from an era in which we always thought about trying to pry open the door to where we now have an open door."

Those who proudly walked past that thick glass and metal door, entertained by a three-piece Russian band as they hung their coats, included many heavy hitters in San Francisco's Soviet Jewry movement.

Some had been inside before, but only two or three times and only "officially" in the past dozen or so years. Waldman once sneaked in during a gala in the early 1980s, stepping out of a taxi in a fancy gown and telling one of the guards, "Can't you get rid of these terrible people?" — meaning her protesting cohorts. Once inside, she went to the women's bathroom and wrote "Free Anatoly Sharansky" in red lipstick on the mirror.

Most attendees, however, had never set foot inside the building until last week's event, which Wolfe said symbolized a new era.

"When and if things don't go well" in Russia, he said, "we're going to have access to people [in the consulate] who can help fix it. That's the key."

Sure enough, BACJRR leaders have gotten help from Popov in establishing a program for Russian policemen that will teach them how to respond appropriately and sensitively to hate crimes. Called the Northwest Project, it is slated to be implemented next summer, Levermore said.

"We used to be faceless to you, and you faceless to us," Ron Naymark, current BACJRR president and longtime activist, said in a speech. "We used to see each other as objects. But tonight we recognize each other as partners in dialogue…We are now metaphorically inside the gates and we are shaking hands — not shaking fists."

Popov, however, drew some shakes of people's heads when he announced in a speech, "There is no Jewish problem anymore" between Russia and the United States. Aghast, many people raised their eyebrows and confronted Popov about it afterward.

"He was wrong, plain and simple, but it was not the venue to challenge that on the spot," Levermore said the next day. "He said it for effect, just to be on record…but he was prepared to confront disagreement."

Anyway, what Popov meant was that Russian Jews now have the freedom to emigrate, Levermore said, not that anti-Semitism and other problems for Jews in Russia have been eradicated.

Popov's statement raised the hackles of Michael and Irina Shapiro, who escaped the Soviet Union 12 years ago.

"I was scared to be here tonight," said Irina Shapiro. "To see their faces, they haven't changed a bit" — with "they" meaning the communists.

The BACJRR has six emigres on its 20-member board, and all were invited, but Michael Shapiro and Manny Kagan were the only two to attend.

The Shapiros said many of their fellow emigres didn't attend because they didn't want to have anything to do with officials from a country that made their lives miserable. Or they were scared.

"I asked Michael if they could do anything to us while we were here," Irina Shapiro said.

"I wouldn't say I was scared but it was a weird feeling to be inside," said Michael Shapiro.

"The mere fact that we are inside is evidence that times have changed, there's no doubt about that. But at the same time there is an outburst of anti-Semitism in Russia, and government officials are allowing this to happen. It's a mixed feeling."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.