By Rudy Stoler
Shoshana Cardin, a Baltimorean and an international Jewish activist whose volunteer efforts made a difference in the freedom of Soviet Jews, recalled the general pessimism among national Jewish organizations. It was when Natan Sharansky, former Prisoner-of-Conscience and cause célèbre of the Soviet Jewry movement, proposed that 400,000 people—one for each Soviet Jew refused the right of emigration—rally in Washington, D.C. when Gorbachev came to visit Reagan for a summit in December 1987. Yet, “we optimists,” she said, “were certain we would find an untapped emotional reserve among American Jews in support of this cause.”
Even the recorded estimates of 200,000-300,000 people in attendance were unprecedented! As Rafael Chikvashvili of Baltimore remarked at the time, Gorbachev’s advisors “will tell him what it means to get 200,000 Americans away from the golf courses, football games and parties on a Sunday afternoon. He will have to pay attention.”
Plans were in the works over a year in advance, but the process was anything but smooth. The refuseniks and the grassroots activists temporarily set aside their disputes with the established organizations of American Jewry. Organizers needed wide communal solidarity, which they found in David Harris, a long-time activist from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who brought the feuding parties together. No harsh criticism of Reagan’s refusal to link arms deals with human rights was planned. Also, organizers were to walk a fine line between optimism about the sudden burst in Soviet Jewish emigration prior to Gorbachev’s visit, on the one hand, and continued Soviet oppression, on the other.
In the weeks and nights before the event, Chikvashvili (then chairman of the Baltimore Committee for Soviet Jewry and himself a former refusenik) arranged for 400 buses to carry 12,000 Baltimoreans to Washington, led by local activist Sol Goldstein. When Sharansky offered to visit Baltimore to drum up support, the community’s leaders “got excited,” raised the needed funds, and brought attendants out in droves.
But the biggest problem arose in the last days of preparation, when the planned performance of Mary Travers threatened to alienate Baltimore’s Orthodox community. In an eleventh-hour meeting with Chikvashvili, Rabbi Herman Neuberger of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation deemed that “if you will turn your back to a singer and take one step away, it’s sufficient because you’re also performing a mitzvah of saving someone’s life.” “It was wonderful,” says Chikvashvili, and the community supported the effort.
In the end, on a cold December day, buses poured into Washington, blaring Jewish music across the highway the whole way. For Chikvashvili, the festivity and unity was a sign of “how democracy works in America.”
Leading the march to the Capitol were Shoshana Cardin, two other representatives of national Jewry, Sharansky, the newly-free Vladimir Slepak, and Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate who introduced untold numbers of Jews to the vibrancy of Soviet Jewry in his 1965 book, The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry. Wiesel captured the spirit of the attendants when he remarked that no such gathering had occurred during the Holocaust: “Too many of us were silent then. We are not silent today.”
Celebrate the 25th anniversary of Operation Exodus and meet Natan Sharansky. View week-long event listing.