30 Years Later – Reflections on a Historic Night

Edwin Dickinson. “An Anniversary”. 1921

By Olga Abezgauz

Editor’s note: Thirty years ago, 250,000 American Jews gathered on the National Mall to call for USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “let our people go.” Once the gates opened, more than 1.5 million Soviet Jews were able to come to Israel and the United States between 1989 and 1992. U.S. Jewish Federations raised millions of dollars to support the resettlement effort. Last week, Chicago’s Jewish United Fund held its first Russian Jewish Division Gala to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Freedom Sunday. To honor the anniversary, Ironed Curtains is featuring excerpts from the speeches by the evening’s hosts. See more videos from the event

Tonight is a historic night, and a night full of stories.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Freedom Sunday, which took place on December 6, 1987. It was the day before an important summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

On that historic Sunday in December, in a tremendous display of support, more than 250,000 people stood on the National Mall in Washington – including many people here today—and demanded with one voice that Gorbachev let the Soviet Jews leave, “Let my people go!”

Freedom Sunday ultimately and miraculously helped end the Cold War, bring down the Soviet Union, and free millions of Jews.

At the time, I was 5 years old and living with my family in Chelyabinsk in the Urals. We had no idea that a quarter of a million Jews were fighting for our freedom half a world away.

It was not until much later that I learned the other half of the story of our exodus – how the American Jewish community mobilized to get us out of the Soviet Union and help us get back on our feet in this country.

How at great risk to themselves, Jews from America came to the Soviet Union and visited refuseniks. How they advocated for us before the whole world and made sure we were not forgotten.

I was 10 when we left in 1992. We were the last relatives from my dad’s family to leave. My parents barely had any information about what life would be like here.

They brought things we thought were valuable and would help us survive but were useless.

Growing up in Chelyabinsk, my family was very removed from Jewish religion or culture, and we had little Jewish involvement once we came here. I knew I was Jewish but it was all a little strange to me.

Then, when I was in college, somehow I heard about Birthright Israel. Honestly, I was a little skeptical at first. But I went and those 10 days were truly life-changing.

The experience of being surrounded by Jews was very new to me, but completely amazing. In Israel, I realized that this is part of who I am, that these are my people.

When I got back from Israel, my main thought was: How do I give back? How do I stay connected? So I began to spend my time at Hillel, meeting people and planning events. It became my primary interest. This amazing experience led me to have the life I have now.

I feel so lucky that today Russian Jews are able to marry under the chuppah and have Brises for our sons. We can send our kids to Jewish schools and youth groups and openly celebrate our Jewish culture and heritage.

My husband and I have two children – Ariel and Talia – and the fact that we are able to give our children Jewish names makes all the hardship and the struggle worth it.

My children are named after loved ones who have passed away and it’s an important acknowledgement of who we are.

Passing on our heritage is very meaningful for us. We enjoy introducing our Jewish traditions and teaching our kids about their roots.

Most of us came to this country with almost nothing. Fueled by hope, our parents took a risk, and today, our community is flourishing. Now it’s our generation’s role to give back.

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