It’s been almost 23 years since Washington-area Jews held their final noontime vigil in front of the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street. The daily vigil was a decades-long form of protest that promoted public awareness of the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union and supported Soviet refuseniks, those who were denied emigration from the Soviet Union.
The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) has ensured that the D.C. and Greater Washington community won’t forget this effort, with the opening of Voices of the Vigil on Dec. 8 at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
The new exhibition presents an oral, visual and written story of D.C.’s Soviet Jewry movement, a constant community effort that lasted from 1970 to 1991, which involved the daily vigil and numerous rallies and marches (most notably, the 1987 rally on the National Mall).
Voices of the Vigil began as an archival collecting project. The JHSGW worked with activists involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, who helped the organization to document the efforts of the Washington Jewish community by providing recorded and written memoirs and around 100 photographs. The exhibition will also present memorabilia including T-shirts, buttons and Prisoner of Conscience bracelets.
“Their [the activists’] feeling was their story hadn’t been told,” said Wendy Turman, archivist for the JHSGW. “[The exhibition tells] a lot of stories of people working at a grassroots level who influenced diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. We hope people take this as an opportunity to learn more about the history of the community and reflect on the community’s unique position in Washington.”
One of the activists was Joan Dodek, who was the president of the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry at the time and who says she’s proud of what she and her fellow activists accomplished.
“It’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for the Washington community to see what was accomplished on behalf of Soviet Jews,” Dodek said. “I’m just so proud that we can share all our efforts in this great exhibit.”
Dodek was heavily involved with the movement, recalling both successful and unsuccessful efforts on her part that included rallies across from the Soviet Embassy and trips to the USSR.
A main reason for the launch of Voices of the Vigil is also to inform younger generations about the community’s efforts.
“I think it’s a story that young people need to hear and be more aware of,” Turman said.
Dodek added that the exhibit gives future generations the opportunity to be proud of the history she and her fellow activists were a part of.
The exhibit will be on display at Washington Hebrew Congregation until April 2014, before it moves to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Fall 2014. The JHSGW will provide tours and programs for students, as well as lectures and panel discussions that will feature activists and former refuseniks. The organization is also creating a website that will provide additional information about the Soviet Jewry movement, as well as an education curriculum for teachers to download.
The opening event will begin with an address by Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Natan Sharansky, an Israeli politician and human rights activist who was imprisoned in the Soviet Union for allegedly spying for the Defense Intelligence Agency. In addition, opening night will feature three Soviet emigre cantors, including Washington Hebrew’s Mikhail Manevich. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and former Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) will also be in attendance.
“The exhibit is proof of what we can do when we all work together,” Dodek said. “It’s going to be an unforgettable evening.”
Voices of the Vigil will be on display at Washington Hebrew Congregation from Dec. 8 to Apr. 6, 2014. For more information, go to jhsgw.org.