D.C. Jews commemorate 21-year Soviet Jewry vigil

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Washington-area Jews commemorated the launch 40 years ago of a vigil for Soviet Jewry.

Veterans of the 21-year vigil across from what was then the Soviet Embassy in downtown Washington joined last Friday to remember a small, silent vigil that attracted national and international attention because of the steadfastness of area Jews in its maintenance.

The daily vigil was launched Dec. 10, 1970 with 15 minutes of silence, protesting the show trial of 11 people, nine of them Jews, in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

"Let’s call it like it was: The vigil drove the Soviet Embassy staff and the Soviet leaders nuts," Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, recalled in a speech. "They urged the police to stop us; they urged the State Department to stop us; they urged the president to stop us. But we would not be denied, nor those for whom we stood. And by the late ’70s and ’80s, the vigil was well known in the USSR by the refuseniks themselves."

Others present at the commemoration included early protesters such as Danny Mann, Norman Goldstein, Marcia Weinberg, Rabbi David Shneyer and the Rev. John Steinbruck, a local Lutheran minister, as well as representatives of La Raza, the national Hispanic rights group that now owns the property where the protesters gathered. 

When the vigil was launched, the property was owned by the Electrical Workers Union, a signal of the union support that the Soviet Jewry movement had early on.

Eventually the vigil would attract local clergy and national entertainers and politicians. It laid the groundwork for the mass rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington in 1987. It ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The commemoration was organized by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington as part of a project chronicling the movement in Washington.

After the commemoration, Shneyer and several others delivered a petition to the Cuban interests section of the Swiss Embassy several blocks away calling for the release of Alan Gross, an American aid worker who has been held in Cuba for more than a year.

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