Reconnect With the People

September 25, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe
Some 25 years after Operation Exodus, we celebrate past miracles and contemplate a still-to-be-uncovered future for Soviet Jewish immigrants

But Jewish leaders were aware of this misstep and promised to be more prepared for the next wave of immigrants, should the gates reopen. With the help of Soviet Jews already in the United States, such as Chikvashvili, the organized community began to develop appropriate programs. Cardin herself visited the FSU, where she received a quick taste of the immediately apparent Soviet repression. She wrote that she returned from her trip more determined than ever to get as many Jews as possible out of the U.S.S.R.

In the early to mid-1980s, when Cardin served as president of the Council of Jewish Federations (now the Jewish Federations of North America), Soviet Jews were on the forefront of American Jews’ minds. Baltimore was no exception.

According to research culled by local lay scholar Rudy Stoler, in March 1981, 400 people piled into Langsdale Auditorium at the University of Baltimore School of Law to witness the mock trial of the U.S.S.R. versus Anatoly Shcharansky (today Natan Sharansky). At the time, Sharansky served as a figure-head for both Jewish activists and democratic dissidents in the Soviet Union. Western media had frequent audiences with him in the mid-1970s, which is likely what led to his conviction under false pretense of being a CIA agent. The mock trial marked the fourth anniversary of his arrest. Sharansky was played by Stanley Weinman, the Soviet judge by the late Judge Solomon Liss and the prosecutor by Sol Goldstein. The “trial” was broadcast by Channel 2 and covered by local papers.

At annual American Jewish Festivals, which in the 1980s drew hundreds — if not thousands — of people, the Baltimore Committee for Soviet Jewry would set up a table to broadcast their brothers and sisters’ plight. One year, Natan Sharansky attended.

A copy of an old Baltimore Jewish Council Hagaddah tells the story of the Soviet Jews’ fight. Its cover page states, “This year in Russia, it’s still not possible to say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’” Inside: “Tonight, when we drink the four cups, let us dedicate our thoughts to Soviet Jews.”

By 1987, the field was ripe for the Jewish world to take the step that became the straw to break the camel’s back and force then President Mikhail Gorbachev to lift the Iron Curtain, the curtain of control. That step became known as the March on Washington, a rally that was years in planning.

The Baltimore Jewish community was at the forefront.

“It is a demonstration that American Jewry is united and that if he [Gorbachev] wishes to have improved American-Soviet relations, he has to improve human rights and permit emigration,” said Robert O. Freedman, then dean of the graduate school at Baltimore Hebrew University, in an article published by the Baltimore Evening Sun ahead of the march.

Baltimore pulled together 12,000 people — Jews from all walks of religious life — in 400 buses to participate among the more than 200,000 people.

“I remember the energy and the sense of wanting to help the others and of making sure an injustice was undone,” recalled Terrill, who was 27 at the time.

Cardin, in her book, said it was “a bitterly cold day,” which “brought to mind the countless Soviet prisoners who had died in Siberia.”

Cardin was at the head of the procession, linking arms with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and Morris Abram, who was walking next to Natan Sharansky (recently released). The group walked from Constitution Avenue from the Ellipse, past the IRS building and the Dep-artment of Justice to Capitol Hill. People carried placards and chanted, “Let my people go!”

“It was unprecedented and thoroughly exhilarating, an experience accurately des-cribed in one newspaper report as ‘an emotional collage of religion and politics,’” said Cardin in her book.

“We [were] saying we will not be silent in the face of human-rights violations,” said Maggi Gaines, then executive director of the BJC in an article published by the Owings Mills Flier. “It was a crowd … that understood we have a chance to impact history.”

In 1988, the year following the demonstration, Jewish emigration reached 18,965. In 1989, 71,217 people left. Ultimately, 1.5 million Jews emigrated to Israel and the U.S. from the FSU. More than 15,000 came to Baltimore.

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