In a demonstration both dignified and determined, about 200,000 people, responding to a call from Jewish leaders from throughout the country, rallied on the Mall yesterday to demand that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev extend his policy of glasnost, or openness, to the Soviet Jews.
It was one of this country's biggest rallies on behalf of Soviet Jews and by far the largest such demonstration in Washington's history -- far surpassing the expectations even of its organizers and many of the participants who filled the Mall in the shadow of the Capitol. The National Park Service and other law enforcement agencies estimated the crowd at 200,000.
The demonstrators came from as far as Anchorage and as close as the Washington Hebrew Congregation on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Many had never taken part in a protest before but said they believed that this was a significant moment in American Jewish activism and perhaps a historic opportunity for the United States to bring about a change in Soviet treatment of Jews.
They came together on the Ellipse and marched to the Mall, throngs of people with but one thought, captured in hundreds of signs that carried the historic appeal of Moses to the Pharaoh: "Let my people go." The message may have been somber, but the tone was joyful on a blustery day filled with Hebrew songs, the warmth of a family celebration and, above all, hope.
"Many times I thought it was impossible to get hundreds of thousands of Jews to come to Washington" on a cold autumn day, said refusenik Natan Shcharansky, a hero of the movement, as he looked out over the crowd stretching far back toward the Washington Monument. "And here you are."
A far-less-known refusenik, Zhanna Volynskaya, released by the Soviets just three months ago after a six-year wait, was overcome with emotion as she surveyed the throngs of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish.
"I'm happy to be a part of my people," she said, her eyes brimming with tears. "It's the first time when I feel really free . . . . In Moscow, when we tried to demonstrate, we always were in fear that they would catch us and take us to prison."
Indeed, in Moscow yesterday young men assumed to be security agents disrupted a rally by about 70 "refuseniks" protesting Soviet emigration policy in front of the Soviet Foreign Ministry.
The men shoved and pushed the demonstrators and damaged Western news television cameras, making it difficult to record the event. The men then took part in a hastily arranged "peace" rally, in which the refuseniks were labeled "traitors" who were trying to "spoil the summit."
New York City Mayor Edward Koch, a speaker at the Washington rally, said of the disruption in Moscow, "That's not glasnost. That's Joe Stalin."
Koch and the other famous speakers were joined by the lesser known: some who had survived the Holocaust, and toddlers who were too young to understand what the Holocaust meant. Orthodox Jews in yarmulkes walked in step with Jews who said they seldom practiced their religion. There were teen-agers dressed in parkas, women swathed in full-length furs and babies bundled in strollers.
Blue-and-white Israeli flags, emblazoned with the Star of David, whipped in the winds, as did banners proclaiming that people had come from "Kansas, the Heartland of America," and Wyoming, Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana.
"This is my history," said Jan Kreuscher, 41, who had spent $185 to fly from Indianapolis because of her concern for cousins in the Soviet Union. "Glasnost is fine. Peace is fine. Treaties are fine. But it cannot be done at the expense of my family, burying the vast mass of Jews who are not the Shcharanskys or the Slepaks," she said, referring to two famous refuseniks, recently released.
The rally drew on themes of the past. "We have a dream," read one sign. "Human rights for all." And it created themes for the future. "One, two, three four. Open up the iron door," groups chanted as they marched down Constitution Avenue. "Five, six, seven, eight. Let our people emigrate."
Koch was joined at yesterday's rally by a number of politicians from the two parties and from groups that span the political spectrum. The rally speakers included two presidential candidates, Vice President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who were invited because of the jobs they hold and not as an endorsement of their candidacies. House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) also addressed the rally.
President Reagan, in a statement to the demonstrators two days before his first meeting of the summit with Gorbachev, said that he will press the Soviets to allow complete rights for emigration and religious freedom.
"We shall not be satisfied with less," Reagan said. "We . . . cannot relax our vigil."
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry also addressed the rally, and he expressed support for Soviet Jewish emigration.
While these politicians and many others came to support the Jewish cause, a statement of condemnation came from another quarter.
Clovis Maksoud, the Arab League's permanent observer to the United Nations, denounced the "disproportionate attention given to the issue of Jewish emigration during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit." He said that it is "mind-boggling" that U.S. officials "swallow the Israeli line" on the question while "ignoring completely the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes."
While the supporters of Jewish emigration used this day on the eve of the summit to press their cause, other voices with other causes could be heard throughout Washington.
In the Washington Cathedral, nearly 900 people joined with Soviet and American church leaders to pray for peace and begin a prayer vigil that is to last as long as the summit.
They watched the lighting of an enormous candle that will burn throughout the summit, and each worshiper left the cathedral carrying a long white taper, lit from the large candle.
In Lafayette Park, flames were burning too, but of a far different sort. About 300 demonstrators gathered to protest the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in a rally cosponsored by the Afghan Mujaheddin and the Committee for a Free Afghanistan. They hanged Gorbachev in effigy and burned a Soviet flag.
For nearly four hours, speakers led the crowd in chants of "Death to Gorbachev" and "Down with communism," and they warned the West not to be fooled by the Soviet talk of peace. The group plans a second rally in front of the White House today.
For the next three days, Lafayette Park, the Ellipse and other spots across the city will be rallying points for those who wish to celebrate peace, denounce the arms treaty or excoriate the policies of the Soviet Union. There will be prayer vigils across the street from the Soviet Embassy and protests by Ethiopians opposed to Soviet policy in East Africa. A Baltic group plans to bring a 13-foot-high Trojan horse to symbolize its view of Soviet intentions in world affairs.
Yesterday's rally represented an outpouring of effort by hundreds of Jewish communities throughout the country. Synagogues and Jewish organizations went all out in organizing caravans -- by plane, train and bus -- to bring people from the farthest reaches of the country.
New York Jews chartered 1,100 buses carrying about 40 people each, and tying up almost all of the available buses in the New York area. From Chicago came demonstrators who had filled three L1011 jumbo jets. From Boston came 39 chartered buses, two chartered jets and innumerable private automobiles, activists said.
They came, old and young. Ruth Sky, 62, flew in from Portland, Maine, for the rally and was being pushed in a wheelchair by her husband. Seven-year-old Jeremy Danneman, of Newark, Del., came by bus and watched the demonstration from a perch on his father's shoulders.
Fourteen-year-old Shifron Litowich of Hollywood, Fla., used money she earned baby-sitting and received as birthday gifts to buy a $200 plane ticket. She left Florida early yesterday, traveling alone, and planned to return last night.
"I said to my father that I want to do this by myself," Litowich said. "People say today's teen-agers are so materialistic. I like nice clothes and nice cars just as much as anyone else, but this is more important."
Adina Safran, 13, was one of 60 students from the Moriah Elementary School in Englewood, N.J., who came after a week of preparation at school. "We've learned that everyone is responsible in our nation for each other, and that it's part of our responsibility to help the people in the Soviet Union."
So many came that Metrorail was strained to its limits near RFK Stadium, where thousands of buses were parked. Rally organizers said the Stadium/Armory station was so crowded that 10,000 protesters trekked several miles to the Capitol rather than wait for the platform to clear. Large crowds were reported by Metro officials at the Pentagon station, as well as the Farragut North and Farragut West stations.
The rally went off with only one arrest, of a man identified by U.S. Park Police as Allan David Freeman of New York City, who was charged with disorderly conduct after a scuffle under the media platform. Freeman, who officials say identified himself as a journalist but did not list any affiliation, posted $50 a bond.
Some of those who streamed down Constitution Avenue had never marched for anything before.
Sharon Rubin, a dean at Salisbury State College in Maryland, said that members of her synagogue in Columbia were unaccustomed to such activism but that rabbis and Jewish groups whipped up their interest.
"This was a very unusual kind of effort," she said.
Some of those who shivered in the chill winds had never taken their religion very seriously. Anita Lorenz told of Jews wandering into her office at the Jewish Federation of South Broward, in Florida, saying that they "had never practiced Judaism before." But they wanted to fly to Washington for the rally.
"They had decided to fight," said Lorenz. "They said they could not sit quietly like during the Holocaust. They felt they had to be here."
Participants returned again and again to memory of the Holocaust.
Lowy Leo of Hackensack, N.J., a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, said that his experiences compelled him to demonstrate. "I feel if people had done this 45 years ago, my friends would have survived," Leo said, tears welling in his eyes. "I can't stress how important this is."
A group of 150 Holocaust survivors who now live in Philadelphia chartered a bus. "We are here for our brothers in the Soviet Union," said San Feig, a retired businessman who made the trip. "When we were in concentration camps, nobody did anything for us."
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, addressing the crowd, made the same point. "Too many of us were silent then," he said to a great muffled applause of gloved hands. "We are not silent today."
Wiesel spoke from the outdoor stage to the Soviet leader who will be flying into Washington today. "Stop talking about brain drain," he said to Gorbachev, in reference to the Soviet leader's recent remarks that emigration must be limited because his country could lose its greatest minds. "It is unworthy of you . . . . What do you intend to do, Mr. Gorbachev? Imprison Jewish brains?"
When Bush stepped to the microphone, he was warmly welcomed by the thousands of protesters, many of whom had expressed admiration for the stance he and Reagan have taken.
Bush said that it would be "easier and more diplomatic" to drop the human rights issue at the negotiating table, but it "would be untrue to ourselves and break our promise to the past."
Bush said Jewish emigration will be "high on the agenda of the summit. I'll personally raise it with Mr. Gorbachev . . . . Let's not see five, six, 10 released at one time but tens or hundreds of thousands, all those who want to go."
For all the global import of the Jewish emigration cause, many at the demonstration had personalized the issue. Tots carried hand-made signs bearing the name of refuseniks whom they or their families or their synagogues had somehow "adopted" to help.
Shlomit Adler, a rosy-cheeked 11th grader from Teaneck, N.J., wore a placard around her neck that bore the name Boris Poley. She knows little about him, mostly that he is a Soviet Jew. Yesterday, as she hurried toward the Capitol with the throng of marchers, she said, "He wants to leave Russia badly."
For Vladimir Bravve, appealing for Soviet Jewry is an even more personal issue. He and his wife, Soviet Jews, had asked the authorities for years to be released. It was crucial to his wife Rimma, who had cancer and wanted to be reunited with her mother, who had left the Soviet Union and was living in New York.
Finally, the Bravves were released last December. His wife died six months later at the age of 32. Now Bravve is pleading with reporters and politicians to help secure release for his two elderly and sick parents in Moscow.
"In their old age, they deserve to live," Bravve said. "This is continuous torture for our whole family."
Many well-known refuseniks released in the past year attended the rally, including Yuli Edelshtein, Ida Nudel and Vladimir Slepak.
Perhaps the best-known among them is Shcharansky. Last night, as he was given an award by the American Jewish Committee, he told a news conference that the rally's size will help pressure Gorbachev on the human rights question. "Now he will listen to the word of Reagan with much more attention," he said.
Asked about the future of Soviet Jews who are not allowed to leave, he said, "There is no real future life for Soviet Jews, those who want to be Jews. In another generation, they will disappear."