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That glorious day 25 years ago

“We do it for the kids” is a frequent rationale for standing up and doing the right thing. The thing is, ironically, by the time the kids get old enough to understand what we’ve done, they probably don’t get it — if they’re even interested. People went to jail rather than fight in Vietnam so as not to fall into the category of the “good German” who never stood up to Hitler. But to which of those grown up kids is the Vietnam conflict even important today, if known at all?

And so it is that one generation must remind the next of the important historical-moral issues of yesteryear. Surely, no one who lived through and participated in the “Soviet Jewry movement” ever dreamed that its importance would not be self-evident to the next generation. Not only is it not self-evidence, it is hardly known.

That which consumed American Jews, which absorbed American politicians, which spawned creative struggles by state attorneys general, congresspeople, school principals, synagagogue sisterhoods, Jewish federations, diplomats and everyone else from train conductors to welcoming parties at Ben Gurion Airport — poof. Gone. Like smoke in wind. This, as far as the “kids” are concerned.

How fitting, then, to recall that 25 years ago, on Dec. 6, 1987, in Washington, DC, 250,000 Jews gathered in what was probably the largest Jewish march of all time. They gathered on the eve of a summit between President Ronald Reagan and the president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. Would Gorbachev let Soviet Jews emigrate?

Would Reagan press the point?

Wouldn’t it be just the right time for American Jewry to stand up to do the right thing?

Believe it or not, this massive rally was planned in just five weeks. A few activists had the idea that maybe a few more people would come than had previously come for the largest Jewish rally in DC up to then: 12,000 or 13,000 people.

Anatoly Sharansky, released just a year earlier after 10 years in a Soviet prison — Anatoly, one of those symbols and cynosures of the all consuming American Jewish activism back then — said: 12,000? Forget it! We’re going for 250,000!

No one believed him. But no one could deny him — this man who faced down the USSR would surely not give in to some weak-kneed Jews living in the lap of luxury. And so it was, a few weeks of madhouse, 24/7, frantic and frenetic yet focused organizing yielded 250,000 American Jews on the Washington mall standing up for freedom. Among the leaders of the rally was our own Bob Loup.

Sure enough, the next day, Reagan and Gorbachev met, and the doors of the Soviet Union began to open wide.

Then there’s the next irony in the sequence: The fulfillment of the dream is never quite so glorious as the dream itself. To be sure, freedom is intrinsically a triumph and one million Soviet Jews have helped build, defend and strengthen Israel. They have also exacerbated crime in Israel and deepened the religious-secular divide, through no fault of their own, given the fanatical communist war against Jewish identity. Still. Even so. The overall picture, if not uniformly positive, more than justifies remembering that glorious day 25 years ago.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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