A small but dedicated group of area Jews gathered in Lafayette Square across from the White House last Sunday afternoon, the eve of the eight-day Jewish festival of Sukkot, to express their support for Soviet Jews, in particular the 75 men and women sentenced to terms in prison, labor camps or compulsory labor factories in Siberia.
Organized by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, the rally included representatives from 65 synagogues and Jewish organizations in the area and members of the youth movement Habonim. The group stood quietly in Sunday's cold wind around a "sukkah booth" - a small wooden structure covered with greenery - and listened to a series of speakers describe the meaning of the festival and its relation to Jews in the Soviet Union.
"Tonight the Jewish community of Washington will observe Sukkot and will express thanksgiving at festive meals for our freedom and bounty," Phyllis Frank, president of the council told the crowd. "Tonight in the U.S.S.R., Prisoners of Conscience will be completing a hard day's labor on a daily food ration of perhaps as little as 900 calories.
"The Hebrew for 'Prisoners of Conscience' is 'Asirey Tzion.' The term translates more accurately as those imprisoned because of their Zionism.' Indeed that is the case, these brave men and women are in Soviet prisons and labor camps today only because of their outspoken dedication to the concept of a return to the Jewish national homeland - to Israel."
Young members of Habonim, as part of the observance, carried posters displaying pictures of 21 "Prisoners of Conscience" into the sukkah booth as each prisoner's name was called.
"Anatoly Altman," intoned Norman Goldstein, chairman of the council's Soviet Jewry Committee, "arrested in June 1970 and sentenced to 10 years in Perm 35 prison.
"Iosef Begun, arrested in June 1978 and sentenced to three years in an unknown prison.
"Hillel Butman, arrested in June 1970 and sentenced to 10 years in Vladimir prison . . ."
And the list continued.
Although the turnout for the demonstration was small, Samuel Sislen, director of programs for the council, said the observance was intended primarily to serve as a visible signal to Jews in the Soviet Union.
"We chose Sukkot," said Sislen, "because the last day of the holiday on the 24th, called Simchat Torah is the most observed holiday by Soviet Jews.
"The nub of that day," he continued, "is that it is a joyous celebration of Jewishness. Since the late 1960s, Jews in the Soviet Union, particularly young Jews, have gathered in the hundreds in front of the central synagogues in Moscow and Lenigrad mainly, to dance, sing and rejoice in their Jewishness. It is an act of considerable bravery."
Sukkot, which commemorates the wandering of the Jews in the desert, is one of the three major festivals of the year for Jews in this country and has become increasingly popular recently as many Jews have shown an increased commitment to their traditions. Som Jewish families erect a sukkah adjacent to their homes, decorate it with fruit and vegetables, and eat their meals in it.
"Sukkot is the quintessential symbol of the Jewish faith," said Rabbi Listfield of Adas Israel at Sunday's rally. "The sukkah booth is vulnerable and and fragile like us and reminds us of our need for God."