Jailed on the festival of lights for backing liberation

Recalling a memorable holiday 25 years ago, which five rabbis working for Soviet Jewry spent in a Virginia prison.

5 Rabbis (photo credit: Morey Schapira)
5 Rabbis
(photo credit: Morey Schapira)
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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I 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 America...
The past 18 months have witnessed a significant deterioration in the conditions facing Soviet Jews...It was not business as usual.”
In 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 needed.
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.
Prof. Alan 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 trial.”
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.
UCSJ 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 lives.”
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.
In 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 prosecuted.
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 Gorabachev’s visit.
Meanwhile, Asbill pursued justice on behalf of our rabbis. Their case was appealed, and they were vindicated. The 500-foot law was declared unconstitutional.
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.