Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987 (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987 (Photo/Tom Wachs)

Remembering days of protest at soon-to-close S.F. Russian consulate

When I read about our government’s decision this week to order the closure of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, I immediately flashed back to the scene outside that same building during the height of the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement.

I joined the movement in 1968, when I became an activist with the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews, traveling to the Soviet Union in 1971 to meet refuseniks when I was a student at UC Berkeley. I returned to the Bay Area in 1982 after rabbinical school and started working for the Jewish Community Relations Council, taking on its Soviet Jewry portfolio.

From 1973, when what was then the Soviet Consulate first opened in one of San Francisco’s most exclusive neighborhoods, to 1989 when the movement realized its ambitious goal to pry open the doors to freedom, the building at 2790 Green Street was the central focus of our public campaign to free Soviet Jews.

Cities across the country had mobilized for Soviet Jewry under the banner “Let my people go.” We had a decided advantage here in San Francisco — the presence of an official Soviet government building. The consulate became ground zero for most of our protests and an energizing symbol for rallying the community. Hundreds of demonstrations, daily vigils and signature events were organized in front of the building, ensuring that Soviet officials knew there would be no rest until Soviet Jews were free. Perhaps most remarkable of all, these protests helped sustain the media’s interest and attention for years, ensuring that our community’s advocacy efforts would garner the attention of public officials from here to Moscow.

Suddenly today, with the news of the closure, I am nostalgic for those early Sunday mornings in the fall with the fog rolling in as we set up for the annual Simchat Torah Rally and Street Fair on Green Street, filling the street with thousands of protesters led by Bay Area rabbis marching down the hill carrying Torah scrolls and our passionate MC John Rothmann.

I am nostalgic for the Interfaith Freedom Seders organized by Rabbi Sheldon Lewis and Reverend Doug Huneke, where sitting at tables in front of the consulate and reading a contemporary Haggadah about the struggle from oppression to freedom had a sense of profound urgency and poignancy.

There was the extraordinary moment in 1987 when Natan Sharansky, the most recognizable name among the Prisoners of Zion, soon after his release from Soviet prison spoke on a stage directly next to the consulate as thousands packed the street, beginning just after the crowd loudly sang one of the anthems of the movement, “We are Leaving Mother Russia.”

Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews' daily vigil in front of the Soviet Consulate, Nov. 24, 1986 (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews’ daily vigil in front of the Soviet Consulate, Nov. 24, 1986 (Photo/Tom Wachs)

There was the daily vigil, six days a week every week, organized by Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews’ volunteer extraordinaire Rose Tamler, actively supported by her husband Ed.   And there were countless protests focused on individual Soviet Jews whose compelling stories and remarkable courage in the face of brutal treatment by the Soviet regime helped sustain the movement and draw attention to their plight. There were also demonstrations that included being chained to the gate of the consulate, a visual representation of Soviet oppression, including 22 rabbis who were arrested in a 1985 protest.

National Jewish organizations meeting in San Francisco were sure to make a pilgrimage to the consulate where we would organize a rally for their busloads of national leaders —from the United Synagogue Youth to Hadassah to the Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (now JCPA).

Most of the protests were organized by the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews, very frequently with the JCRC. (The Board of Rabbis and Jewish Community Federation also played important roles in mobilizing rabbis and resources respectively). As JCRC assistant and then associate director, I had the privilege of working closely with David Waksberg, then executive director of the Bay Area Council, who followed Hal Light and Gina Waldman. Their dedication and passionate and clever leadership turned the Bay Area into one of the most active centers of the Soviet Jewry movement, with so many people stepping up to raise their voices and help organize our protests.

One of JCRC’s additional roles was behind-the-scenes negotiations. We reached out to all the consulate’s neighbors within earshot, explaining that it wasn’t our decision to place the consulate in their beautiful neighborhood but that we had a responsibility to peacefully and lawfully raise our voice. As a courtesy, we wanted to give them a heads up in advance of larger demonstrations.

There were also negotiations with local and national law enforcement agencies, who had pressure put on them by the Soviet government to enforce the “500-foot rule.” We would patiently and politely explain that the rule only applied to attempts to harass foreign government officials and that we were not there to harass but rather express a positive message for freedom. We prevailed every time.

There were so many memorable moments. There was Sharansky in San Francisco recreating his famous 1986 zig-zag walk to freedom across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge. There was the annual ringing of the consulate doorbell to deliver petitions signed by thousands at the end of the Simchat Torah rally; we rang every year with absolute certainty that there would be no answer, until the day in 1987 they surprised us and answered the door.

Ultimately, the change in tone enabled the Bay Area Council to hold an event inside the consulate (an almost unimaginable thought) where they honored two of their leaders: Sheldon Wolfe and Greg Smith. That was not my first time inside the building. Several years earlier I walked in with a group of 9th-grade campers from URJ Camp Swig who were working on the issue of Soviet Jewry that summer. We posed as staff members — I remember being nervous when they offered us sweets.

I don’t know how long the Russian consulate will remain closed. But the announcement of that move brought back a flood of memories for all of us who spent many years on Green Street hoping that our actions would make a difference, and then seeing firsthand that they did.

Doug Kahn
Rabbi Doug Kahn

Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The views expressed are his own.