“We are not silent today.”
The day we were not silent was 25 years ago: Dec. 6, 1987. The person who told us not to be silent was Elie Wiesel, and the cause to which we gave voice was the cause of a generation: the Soviet Jewry Movement.
During the Washington summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan, 250,000 people came to protest on the Mall.
In showing up, the Jewish community and others for the cause showed what it means to take charge of the fate of people who lived across the globe. It was our way of telling our brothers and sisters, you are never alone.
When you are silenced, we will scream. When you are vulnerable, we will make you strong.
The march was a peak moment in a 40-year struggle to liberate 1.5 million Jews from the clutches of the former Soviet Union. It was a turning point in the movement, but it was much more than that.
Reminiscing about the march helps us reflect on the transformation that happened to us at that time. We tried to liberate Jews across the world and found ourselves in the process. Many young leaders of the movement were inspired to work for non-profits with a human rights orientation or work on behalf of the Jewish community as committed professionals or volunteers.
That was me. It changed my life. For the first time, I understood that my voice counted. It did not count alone, but it counted as part of a community and an extended family that were able to shake the world.
Alan Dershowitz once said that he identified strongly with the Soviet Jewry movement because he felt he could have been a Soviet Jew. Any one of us with Eastern European parents or grandparents knows exactly what Dershowitz meant. We fought to free Soviet Jews from behind the Iron Curtain because it was a humanitarian cause but also because we identified almost too closely with their plight. Their lack of their freedoms reminded us too much of the pain of the Holocaust only a generation earlier. If we were not loud enough then, we were going to overcompensate now.
Looking back a quarter of a century later, the lessons of the movement still stay with me. Every genuine struggle is hard and is only won incrementally. There was nothing inevitable about the success of the movement to free Soviet Jews. It was not a given that we would ever realize the goals of the movement. Washington Jews played a leading role in driving the movement and situating protestors at the seat of political power. We learned to leverage where we live and work to achieve higher ends. Sometimes the movement was waylaid by politics, splinter organizations that fought with each other and an intense battle of the egos but ultimately, we knew that we had to put all of that aside. We had one vision we all had to realize. And we did.
Soviet Jews left the former Soviet Union in droves and now live in Israel, Germany, the United States and everywhere else. They lived to see children and grandchildren born into freedoms they did not have. We succeeded. But we also lost some energy along the way. The movement and the march that were defining moments in the lives of many in the Jewish community life is largely the stuff of nostalgia today. There are still many human rights conflicts to fight, but many seem a little more tired, a little more jaded. The rally on the Mall protesting genocide in Darfur had a tenth of the participants protesting a crime of epic proportions.
During the heyday of the struggle, we co-opted a biblical verse from the Exodus story: “Let My People Go.” It was the banner headline of my generation. One of the leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement understood that to engage Soviet Jews in their own struggle, they had to feel an affiliation with Judaism that had been culturally and spiritually erased by communism. He changed the slogan to “Let My People Know,” which inspired the clandestine study of Hebrew and Jewish values across Russia.
Perhaps it is that slogan which must inform today’s generation. With the creation of a Jewish homeland and a strong network of Jewish organizational life in the Diaspora, we have ensured that Jews will always have a refuge and a place to go. What we have yet to do is fulfill the other slogan, “Let My People Know.”
We have more organizations than we did 25 years ago but perhaps less Jewish education. Jewish life must be more than organizations. It must be about knowledge and meaning and causes. A cause found me and helped make me who I am. And now I – and we - have to seek out new causes because the world is still broken, and because the voice of individuals still matters.
Stuart Kurlander is the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington