Refuseniks, activists mark 1987 march for Soviet Jewry

Morey Schapira remembers that brisk day in Washington, D.C., looking out on a sea of humanity. His thought at the time:  “This must be the largest gathering of Jews since the Exodus from Egypt.”

Exodus was the right term. Schapira was attending the Freedom March for Soviet Jewry, held Dec. 6, 1987 in the nation’s capital. The day before President Ronald Reagan was set to meet with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, more than 250,000 Jews gathered on the National Mall raising the cry, “Let my people go.”

Twenty-five years later, veterans of the Soviet Jewry movement, including activists and refuseniks, held a reunion to mark the anniversary. The event took place Dec. 6 at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

Irina Klay (right) speaks at the reunion next to Deborah Louria, associate director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews from 1988 to 1993. photo/leonid igolnik

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and a host of other local Jewish institutions sponsored the event.

After an hour of eating, hugging and shmoozing, the formal event began, with dignitaries addressing the crowd of about 100, followed by a panel discussion.

Though the anniversary was celebrated across the country, the San Francisco event held special meaning. Bay Area activists launched the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1960s.

Several of those activists, including JCRC executive director Doug Kahn, Jewish LearningWorks executive director David Waksberg, Deborah Louria and Schapira spoke, while former leaders, such as John Rothmann and Edward and Rose Tamler, looked on with pride.

Also in attendance were former refuseniks Boris Kelman and Sonia Melnikova-Raich, who were denied permission by the Soviet authorities to emigrate abroad, and young adults from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to the United States as children.

Federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz introduced a short film depicting the march and the Bay Area contribution (130 local activists attended). She called the march “a pivotal moment in what turned out to be 20 years of sustained activism.”

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener presented a plaque from the city marking the date as Soviet Jewry Remembrance Day.

The theme of the night was storytelling. Panel moderator Danny Grossman, a former officer at the U.S. consulate in Leningrad at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement, prompted panelists to share their stories.

Kelman was a refusenik from 1979 to 1990. He remembered the many nights in Leningrad when he was awaiting a surreptitious call from Waksberg, then the executive director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews. “You make a gesture to go, you are a refusenik,” Kelman explained. “Simple story. Some people hid. Some fought.”

“Boris was my beshert,” Waksberg added. “He was leading a renewal of Jewish culture at a difficult time, under fear of arrest. This was my civil rights movement.”

Irina Klay today serves as the federation’s community engagement impact program coordinator, working with the Russian-speaking community. She left her native Ukraine as a child, lived in Israel for a time, then moved to the Bay Area.

Looking back on her childhood she said, “We didn’t know there was this amazing movement here to help us. I’m extremely grateful.”

Schapira, who served as president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews from 1979 to 1984, said the outside pressure brought to bear on the Soviets by groups such as his helped as much as the diplomacy led by successive U.S. administrations.

He said the march 25 years ago was especially fulfilling — then as well as now — because “the message we tried so hard to convey was all of a sudden delivered. Here was the American Jewish community showing up and making its voices heard in a peaceful manner. It was truly an act of pidyon shvuyim [redemption of the captive].”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.