Colorful, Dedicated Thousands Travel for Soviet Jewry Rally
Menu JTA Search

Colorful, Dedicated Thousands Travel for Soviet Jewry Rally

Download PDF for this date

It looked like a cross between a football game and a political convention, what with thousands of enthusiastic souls dressed in bright winter clothing and crowded around banners announcing their home state.

But the massive national rally for Soviet Jews at the Ellipse here Sunday sounded more serious and dignified than other mass events.

Many of the more than 200,000 Jews and non-Jews attended because they thought the rally would help their common cause: to impress upon the superpowers the need to improve the conditions of Soviet Jews.

“This is a big deal,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was standing with the 75 Iowa ralliers, primarily from Des Moines. He asserted the rally would be noted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and would demonstrate to the Soviet people “about our American system.”

“We want to get Gorbachev to get the Soviet Jews free,” agreed Am Cohen, 10, of Annapolis, Md.

“Ralliers” came from as far as Hawaii and as near as the neighborhoods of the nation’s capital, which produced an estimated 50,000 people. The amplified sound of the rally didn’t travel even that far, as the rear half of the crowd heard only the most loudly emphatic of the speakers’ statements.

Four Jews flew from Winnipeg, Manitoba, each symbolizing 100,000 Soviet Jews unable to emigrate, according to Hillain Kroft.


Cleveland sent 1,500 people, most by bus. Three hundred flew from Los Angeles, 85 from Savannah, Ga., and 30 from Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla.

The Savannah delegation included two non-Jews, among them Marie Daniels, director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. She said her presence fit in well with her organization’s goals of support for distressed Jews. “They don’t have any other voice but our voice,” she said of the Soviet Jews.

Standing beside her in the dense but cheerful crowd was Steve Bierienger, who said he works for the AFL-CIO labor federation out of Colorado.

“The labor movement has a strong stake in the freedom of people around the world,” he explained. “That includes Soviet Jews.” He estimated that 500-600 union members were present.

He was holding a small union logo, but many other ralliers came with signs created especially for the day, most of them announcing support of a particular refusenik or of Soviet Jews in general.


Some of the signs were made by children. The four members of the Goldman family of Baltimore wore on their backs cardboard six-pointed stars that announced, “Free Soviet Jews.” The stars were designed by 11-year-old Rachel. She noted that she was “happy” to attend her first rally, because “we might get people out.”

Melissa Vigorito, 17, of Erie, Pa., wore on the back of her jeans jacket an elaborate magic marker sign declaring, “You have the key, you have the power.”

Chaim Gartman of Rockville, Md., held a green-lettered sign that announced in Spanish, “Let the Soviet Jews leave.” He didn’t speak Spanish, he admitted, receiving help for the sign from his son’s Spanish teacher.

His explanation? “So everyone could understand,” he said. “I want everyone to know.”

The white painter’s caps worn by the Detroit delegation of hundreds sported a similar sentiment. The 119 people from Texas marched under the Lone Star flag, and dozens of others carried Israeli or American flags.

The rally was the first public demonstration for most of the thousands of children present. Ralliers older than age 50 acknowledged that they, too, had never participated in a mass event.

However, a few people said they had attended the 1963 civil rights march at the same site, featuring the “I Have a Dream” speech by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And Lester Pines, one of about 80 people from Madison, Wis., said he had attended a mass protest against the Vietnam War in 1969, also at the Ellipse. He described the Sunday rally as less confrontational and more universally felt.

He also noted that “This demonstration shows there’s more to the Jewish community than New York City.”

Surveying the representatives of Syracuse, N.Y., Palm Springs, Calif.; and Fort Wayne, Ind.; he said, “There are all these very active Jewish communities in smaller cities.”

Sunday, at least, no one would disagree.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund