Wrapped in long-fringed prayer shawls and carrying sacred Torahs, 25 Washington area rabbis were arrested yesterday at the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street in a protest of harassment of Jews in the Soviet Union.
"For God's sake, for the sake of our oppressed brethren, let us sound the call that will be heard from here to the Kremlin," intoned Rabbi Leonard S. Cahan, as members of the group blew a loud blast on shofars, the rams' horns traditionally sounded in synagogues on solemn high holidays.
The group was protesting the continued reluctance of the Soviet Union to permit Soviet Jews to emigrate, and the "harassment of many students and teachers of the Hebrew language."
Cahan, rabbi of Har Shalom Congregation in Potomac and president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, said the demonstration was necessary "to call attention of the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union."
World Jewish groups have been increasingly concerned in recent months about the status of Jews in the Soviet Union. Last year's total of 896 Jewish emigrants was the lowest in 14 years.
Earlier this year, 11 Soviet Jews were arrested and four sentenced to labor camps as part of a crackdown on Hebrew teachers and Jewish cultural activists. The State Department has termed the crackdown, which began last July, "a deliberate and ongoing compaign of arrests and intimidation."
Police waited yesterday for Cahan to finish his brief statement and for the rabbis, clustered in front of the embassy's locked iron gates, to chant Hebrew prayers. Then, as velvet-covered Torahs were handed to aides for safekeeping, the rabbis stepped forward to be searched, handcuffed and placed in waiting police vans. A policewoman was on hand to process the two female rabbis. They were charged with violating the prohibition of demonstrating within 500 feet of an embassy.
For a dozen years or more, the Washington Jewish community has conducted a daily noon-hour silent vigil on behalf of Soviet Jewry across 16th Street, in compliance with city ordinances.
But in yesterday's nonviolent protest, the rabbis said they set out to break the law and get arrested to call attention to the problems of Soviet Jews. Rabbis in New York and San Francisco also carried out similar protests at Soviet offices in those cities yesterday.
Those arrested were released on their own recognizance for a May 15 court appearance.