A march for Jews, now and long ago

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Photos by Daniel Kinel

By 3:45 a.m., over 200 souls had lined up near the rear parking lot of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Brighton. Many of the sleepy travelers were managing to spot familiar faces in the crowd and were greeting each other in the subdued tones appropriate for the hour, and the occasion. Each participant was then offered a “ROC for Israel” shirt before being checked in to our assigned buses.

It was nearly 36 years ago—as a junior at Brighton High School—when I last did something comparable. On Dec. 6, 1987, my father and I boarded a similar bus headed from Rochester to Washington, D.C. When we arrived, our large Rochester-area contingent joined 250,000 others to take part in Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews.

It was the largest ever Jewish rally held in Washington and was taking place on the eve of a summit between President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. The goal was to exert pressure on Gorbachev to respect the human rights of Soviet Jews, and to allow trapped Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

This was a personal fight for us. We had left the Soviet Union eight years earlier and were admitted to the U.S. as political refugees. But my Uncle Sasha and his family weren’t as fortunate. He had worked as an engineer in a radio factory that supplied the military, and that was enough reason for the Soviet government to deny his petition to leave. His family was now in their eighth year of life as refuseniks, a perilous existence blending the statuses of pariah and traitor. 

His situation felt overwhelming to us. Ultimately, his fate rested at the mercy of a callous, punitive superpower. My father did all he could to lobby American politicians to push for his case, but my grandparents went to bed most nights fearing that they wouldn’t survive to see his release, if it happened at all.

Despite that daunting sense of helplessness, there was at least one comforting certainty. In fighting for Soviet Jews, we not only knew that morality was on our side, but that America and all free nations were as well.   

The Freedom Sunday rally was another reassuring reminder. It featured heroic luminaries like the famed refusenik, Natan Sharansky, and Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor. Also, both political parties vehemently championed our cause. Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, made a memorable speech to attendees, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat, marched right next to me for part of the day. There were no counter-protesters or critics of our calls to let more Jews settle in Israel or America. Nor any security concerns about the safety of the rally attendees.

Thirty-six years later, some things felt familiar. Once again, Natan Sharansky was among the featured speakers. There was also the presence of another Democratic senator from New York—Chuck Schumer—who expressed his full-throated support for Jews, which was echoed by Republican Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the recently elected Speaker of the House, and other officials from both parties. 

Photo by Daniel Kane

But unlike in 1987, this massive gathering and its palpable sense of unity were now needed for an even more challenging mission. In addition to marching for Israel and its right to defend itself, we were there to demand the release of the hostages and to decry the rising scourge of antisemitism, including in America. 

It is that last one that many American Jews find most bewildering. Terrorists brutally massacred civilians in Israel, and a disconcerting number in America quickly cheered or equivocated.  And in the weeks since, the anti-Israel protests have grown louder and bolder, with countless Jews—especially at some college campuses—feeling more vulnerable than they ever have in their lives. And for the many Jews that predominantly vote with Democrats and have spent years championing progressive causes, there is also the personal sense of betrayal from the words of their former allies on the left. 

No one march can fix all these wounds and challenges, yet today’s march was a promising start. There were words of strength, and those of compassion. Many cried (including me) when hearing from the families of hostages. And just like in 1987, there was something healing from the very act of being together and supported.

My uncle and his family were eventually freed, as were many other refuseniks. Soon after, the Soviet Union itself imploded. My grandparents got to die knowing that all their children and grandchildren were now safe and free. It was a satisfying ending but hardly an inevitable one. 

Today, we will need even more resolve and patience to beat back the existential threat to Jews and our ancestral homeland. We will need the steadfast allies we heard at Tuesday’s rally. And most importantly, we will need to find strength in numbers and each other.

As we left Washington, we heard that the crowd was estimated at about 290,000 people. That would overtake Freedom Sunday to become the largest Jewish rally of all time.  A good start indeed.

Alex Zapesochny is Rochester Beacon publisher. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

6 thoughts on “A march for Jews, now and long ago

  1. Wonderful article. So sad that we have to do this again – raise our voices to denounce antisemitism and safeguard our Jewish family throughout the world. On the plus side, how beautiful it is that Jews realize we are all part of the same “organism” and what hurts one hurts the whole. We’re here for each other.

  2. Indeed, a very well written piece, thank you Alex!

    While I was unable to attend the ’87 March for Soviet Jewry, I was on Bus #4 from Rochester to DC earlier this week. Having committed the vast majority of my professional life to helping others support the Jewish community, I was overwhelmed at the 290,000 people gathered in DC. Fellow Jews, from all religious backgrounds; orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, secular . . . standing united in our effort to support Israel, and to free the hostages.

    My life forever changed on October 7th. The pure evil that took place that day is incomprehensible. May my children, more so my grandchildren, live in world which understands the meaning of never again.

    Eric Brandt

  3. Thank you, Ales, for an inspiring article! My oldest daughter and I might have been on the same bus with you and your father on the 1987 march for Soviet Jews. This time, it was my youngest daughter and her husband who attended the rally.

    A difficult time for American Jews on many levels, not the least of which is trying to figure out whether to partner with organizations that are strong supporters of Israel, but do not hold liberal/progressive values – or the more traditional progressive organizations that now seem to be aligned against both Jews and Israel. My vote goes to the former.

  4. Thanks for this personal and articulate perspective. Not being Jewish, I am shocked and deeply saddened by the depth and breadth of raw antisemitism that has been revealed by Hamas’ horrific attack on Israel. None of the powers involved in the Middle East have clean hands–not the U.S., nor the EU, the UN, the Arab states, Iran, Russia, the Palestinians, etc. Or Israel. Yet the barbarism of the Hamas attack and Hamas’ victimization of the people of Gaza cannot be excused or explained away. Nor can we ignore the fact that the world’s most persistent form of racism is still alive and well.

  5. Yesterday was one of the best days of my life. Another best day was the 1987 gathering in Washington DC to “Let My People Go.” On both those days I was proud to be Jewish and American. On both those days I was comfortable wearing my Jewishness openly, unafraid of my Jewish star and my Jewish name.

    On both those days I was part of something huge and powerful — one of many thousands in DC joining hands and joining voices to help this world, our world, become better — more fair, more kind, more just, less dangerous, less oppressive, less hateful.

    Both those days were about good versus evil. And hopefully both will someday prove to have had the same positive impact. We already know that Gorbachev did indeed start to open the locked gates of the USSR after our 1987 gathering, and many of the former refusenik families were finally able to leave oppression behind them and live in freedom, here and in Israel.

    Now let’s hope that yesterday’s gathering will prove to have helped heal our world just as profoundly: Bringing the hostages home safely, combatting antisemitism, and ridding the world of terrorism, hatred, and fear.

    The other part of what made these two extraordinary days my very best days was that our country, torn apart by far too much political strife, was somehow united behind our mission and our message. Both those days it didn’t matter whether you were Republican or Democrat. No one cared. All that mattered was our shared values, and the hope that good might triumph over evil. And so on both those days, I was proud to be Jewish and proud to be American. And both felt incredibly good.

  6. Wonderful resonating piece, Alex! I was one of the 200 comprising the Rochester “family” of the oh so many families that graced the mall with warm solidarity to support Israel and the families of so many victims, and to counter ugly antisemitic vitriol reminiscent of the 1930s with unity, grace and dignity. My husband was also a refusenik for 8 years who was eventually able to lead a path out of the former USSR. I missed the March for Soviet Jewry back in the day, but was determined not to miss this one. Am Israel Chai!

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