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Museum Musings

Freedom Sunday

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Would you stand for long hours in cold winter weather to be a voice for repressed people who live half a world away?  An estimated 250,000 people did just that on December 6, 1987.    


The day before Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic December 7, 1987 summit meeting with President Ronald Reagan, throngs of Americans from across the country gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to call for the Soviet leader to extend his Glasnost (or “openness”) policy to Soviet Jews and allow them freedom to worship and travel freely.   Over two decades of advocacy preceded this march, which is believed to have been the largest-ever gathering of American Jews on the Mall.  The event was organized by the National Council for Soviet Jewry, the Council of Jewish Federations, and the United Jewish Appeal, with the assistance of many local and national organizations.  


American Jews had worked very closely with the United States government in building support for Soviet Jews and the rally provided President Reagan with a timely talking point for his meeting with Gorbachev the next day.  Although their talks were focused on disarmament, it is likely that the rally and the United States leader’s references to it and to human rights issues like the plight of Soviet Jews during the summit were effective.  The remaining years of Gorbachev’s regime would usher in dramatically increased freedom to emigrate and hundreds of thousands of Jews would leave the Soviet Union for Israel and the United States.   


In honor of the 25th anniversary of this momentous rally, the Museum has installed a selection of Soviet Jewry advocacy posters from its artifact collection in its first floor space.  The posters were donated to the Museum by the Soviet Jewry Council of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, the New York Coalition for Soviet Jewry, and the family of human rights activist Abraham J. Bayer (1932-1994), who led the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council's international concerns department in advocating for repressed minorities throughout the world for many years.   


This year, the National Museum of American Jewish History is honored to be a partner in Freedom 25, a “virtual march” commemorating the 25th anniversary of Freedom Sunday.  Freedom 25 aims to empower more people to advocate for human rights throughout the world today.


The Soviet Jewry poster installation is free and open to the public through December. 


-Contributed by, Claire Pingel

Chief Registrar and Associate Curator

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