Why was our 1985 Hanukka celebration different from all other Hanukka
celebrations? Because five rabbis were serving a 15-day sentence at the Federal
Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia.
They were among a group
of 22 rabbis and one Christian clergyman from the Washington area who were tried
and convicted on December 11, 1985, for participating in a demonstration on
behalf of Soviet Jews at the Soviet embassy. The five rabbis were Harold Bayar,
Leonard Cahan, Bruce Kahn, Mark Levin and David Oler. They broke a law banning
demonstrators from approaching within 500 feet of the Soviet embassy.
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was national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) at the
time. In a message to our 65,000 members in January 1986, I noted that “the
recent imprisonment of the five rabbis for protesting on behalf of Soviet Jews
marked a turning pointing in the history of the Soviet Jewry movement in
The past 18 months have witnessed a significant deterioration
in the conditions facing Soviet Jews...It was not business as usual.”
early 1985 I met with Oler, head of the UCSJ rabbinical committee, and Mark
Epstein, our executive director. We agreed that a new strategy was
Oler returned to the Washington Board of Rabbis, where he chaired
its Soviet Jewry committee. The board decided to proceed with a program of
peaceful civil disobedience on behalf of Soviet Jews.
Protests were being
held daily at the South African embassy. Prominent African Americans and their
supporters would gather in front of the embassy, be placed in police vans, taken
to the local police station, released and not prosecuted.
On May 1, 1985,
Oler and 22 rabbis assembled at the Soviet embassy carrying six Torah scrolls,
from which they read. They were joined by a righteous gentile, Rev. John
Steinbruck, a local Lutheran minister.
But unlike 2,000 anti-apartheid
protesters, our rabbis and Steinbruck were arrested.
Dershowitz, of the UCSJ advisory board, wrote in a Washington Times column,
“Something is rotten in the city of Washington... Two groups of demonstrators
were arrested for violating the exact same law. But the cases against one group
have been dismissed, while the cases against the other have been brought to
The irony of this story was the history of the 500- foot law in
Washington, D.C. It became law in 1938 after the German embassy complained about
Jewish protesters who picketed against Nazi persecution of Jews.
gathered a legal team that included Stuart Eizenstat, its legal counsel, Seth
Waxman and Ernie Shalowitz. They selected Henry Asbill, a renowned trial lawyer,
to represent the rabbis.
Five of the arrested rabbis chose to serve a
prison sentence in lieu of the suspended sentence. The Maccabee Five, as they
had come to be known, accepted the sentences as an “act of solidarity with
Soviet Jews.” Oler, speaking for the group, declared: “Today on Hanukka, this
festival of dedication to religious freedom, we call on the Soviet Union to let
our people go.” He urged “that attention not be focused on us... but rather on
our oppressed brethren in Soviet jails, their families and on the unbearable
conditions of Soviet Jews.”
As the rabbis were taken to prison, we sprang
into action on many different fronts.
In Congress, Rep. Michael Barnes
(D-Maryland) called the prison sentences “unusually harsh” and introduced a
resolution asking president Ronald Reagan to pardon them.
UCSJ urged its
membership to send telegrams to attorney general Edwin Meese. More than 3,000
people sent the message “Let Our Rabbis Go!” From their prison cells, the rabbis
wrote an open letter via The Washington Post. Oler quoted Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr., “Americans will eventually have to face themselves with the
question... how responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows? To ignore
evil is to be an accomplice to it.” Oler continued, “The people of our nation
must not remain silent while complacently pursuing their day-to-day
The arrested rabbis were released on good behavior after 11 days,
but their arrest and publicity had impacted the American Jewish community. The
number of protesters who were arrested for peaceful civil disobedience grew. At
the Soviet embassy, peaceful demonstrators continued to be arrested.
San Francisco, acts of peaceful civil disobedience led by the Bay Area Council
for Soviet Jews continued to grow at the Soviet consulate. In New York, similar
demonstrations took place at the Soviet Mission to the UN, organized by the
Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Demonstrators were peacefully removed but not
The Soviet Jewry movement became emboldened as the spirit of
the activists became the message of the American Jewish community, which
resonated with the American public and leadership. This ultimately culminated at
the massive demonstration in Washington of more than 200,000 people gathering on
behalf of Soviet Jews on December 6, 1987, before Soviet leader Mikhail
Meanwhile, Asbill pursued justice on behalf of our
rabbis. Their case was appealed, and they were vindicated. The 500-foot law was
Twenty-five years later, we’ve witnessed the
successful end of a miraculous campaign that liberated two million Soviet Jews,
most of whom made aliya.
This year, as we have for 2,000 years, we lit
candles to celebrate Hanukka. We recited blessings over the candles to thank the
Almighty for miracles performed for us, as well as remembered the bravery and
dedication of the Maccabees.
Let’s pause to thank those five brave rabbis
who didn’t celebrate Hanukka with their families 25 years ago because they
decided to sacrifice their personal celebrations for a greater cause – the
liberation of millions of their fellow Jews.
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