Freedom Sunday: The Power of Protest


On Sunday, December 6, 1987, an estimated crowd of 250,000 Jews and their supporters gathered at a rally on the Mall in Washington, DC to demonstrate their solidarity with Soviet Jewry. The impetus for the event, known as "Freedom Sunday," was the Washington Summit scheduled for later that week, a meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8–10. Shortly after the historic gathering on the Mall, Soviet Jews received the right to leave.

The PAS Gallery exhibition Freedom Sunday: The Power of Protest commemorates the enormous contributions of members of our own community to bring about the success of Freedom Sunday. The following recordings from the Shapiro Audio Archive supplement the texts in the exhibition. 

The day before Freedom Sunday, December 5, 1987, during the Shabbat morning service, Rabbi Harlan Wechsler addressed the congregation with these words:

The concerns for the personal welfare and freedom of Soviet Jews had been a recurrent topic for PAS clergy and guest speakers. In 1963, Rabbi Judah Nadich delivered a sermon, “Anti-Semitism – How True Is It?” which challenged Nikita Khrushchev’s remarks that anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union was “prohibited and punishable by law.”

In 1966, on the 25th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre and the 18th anniversary of Human Rights Day, Rabbi Nadich spoke of the importance of protest and the need to respond to the “vile and anti-Semitic” treatment of Jews in Russia. He encouraged Americans “to lift our voices and to protest because it is a moral imperative to do so.”

The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, signed in early 1975, was intended to influence US trade relations with countries that restricted freedom of emigration and other human rights. Rabbi Nadich describes the “chess game” that ensued between the United States and the Soviet Union after it went into effect.

At various times during the 1960s and '70s the Soviet authorities banned the import of flour and matzah, which prevented Jews from having matzah during Passover. The problem was especially acute in 1977 with the rise in anti-Semitism in Russia.

During the summer of 1984, a group of twenty PAS high school students led by Peter Geffen traveled to the Soviet Union. A few months later, on the first night of Hanukkah, December 18, they presented their observations on Judaism, politics, and connections to their Soviet peers to the congregation. Interspersed with their reflections is music by Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Paul Simon, and other artists whose lyrics reflect the longing to connect with others through common bonds. 

We hope you enjoy this extraordinary piece of PAS history. Links to the full sermons and presentations are available using the web-app on the Shapiro Audio Archives page of this website. Please let us know your thoughts: