In 1987, a quarter of a million people gathered at the March on Washington to call for freedom for Soviet Jews, and only a few years later, in 1990, Operation Exodus finished raising the funds that would help nearly 1 million Soviet Jews resettle in America and Israel. Last night, some key figures in that struggle gathered at UJA-Federation of New York’s “A Modern Exodus: Celebrating 25 Years” to mark the anniversary of that historic moment.

Operation Exodus Natan Sharansky
From left to right: Eric Goldstein moderating a conversation with Natan Sharansky and Peter May.

“How many of you in this room were at that march?” asked UJA-Federation’s president, Alisa R. Doctoroff, as dozens of hands shot into the air. We’re here to “mark a momentous chapter in our people’s history,” she told the crowd. The evening was also “a chance to reflect on the many ways Russian-speaking Jews have enriched our community since then.”

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the most widely known refusenik, and Peter W. May, chairman of UJA-Federation of New York’s Operation Exodus, sat down with Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation, to offer their insights into both the history and future of the Jewish community in context of those events.

Attendees of the event also got to see a photo exhibit documenting the struggle to free Soviet Jews, curated by The Jerusalem Post and Limmud FSU. Sandy Cahn and Chaim Chesler, two founders of Limmud FSU, spoke about the potential of Jews working together in the past and in the future. “That march was the seminal instant that the American Jewish community came together and changed history,” Cahn said. “Think of the power we had then and the power we can have now.”

‘I Didn’t Sleep That Night, And Many Nights After’

Sharansky’s first days after his release were colored with a mixture of humor and disbelief. He talked of how the clothes he’d been given when he got out of prison were too big and he had to struggle to keep them from falling off in front of a sea of journalists. He spoke of his words to his wife when they were reunited more than 13 years after he was imprisoned — “I’m sorry that I’m late.” And he recalled how the day of his release “started in prison and finished near the Kotel. It was very moving, but I have to tell you, I didn’t sleep that night, and didn’t sleep many nights after. I thought if I fall asleep I’d wake up in the punishing cell.”

Operation Exodus Peter May Eric Goldstein
From left to right: Eric Goldstein, Chaim Chesler, Sandy Cahn, Natan Sharansky, and Peter May.

The injustice of Sharansky’s situation and the hostile climate faced by Jews across the Soviet Union powerfully galvanized Americans. “The reaction of donors was so strong,” May recalled. “You said, ‘We need money get people out of the FSU to Israel,’ they said, ‘How much?’” The New York federation’s campaign raised more than $177.5 million and the national efforts raised nearly $1 billion collectively.

May talked about meeting the flights of Russian-speaking Jews on the tarmac in Israel. As they got off the plane, he joked that, “if they weren’t carrying a violin, then they were pianists.” But Sharansky placed the creative and intellectual prowess of this new group of Israelis in a different light. In the Soviet Union, their parents had told them, “Because you are Jews, you must be the best in your profession … because otherwise you can’t survive.”

On a recent trip to Israel with his family, May “was totally blown away by what Israel is today,” he said. “And so much of that is the result of the million people who came with skills and a sense of wanting a new home.”

During the question-and-answer session, members of the audience asked the speakers about aliyah in light of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the movement to boycott Israel on college campuses was also addressed.

Gene Rachmansky, a prominent lay leader at UJA-Federation, saw both these current problems facing the Jewish community as issues about which Russian-speaking Jews have uniquely relevant experiences. Russian-speaking Jews experienced virulent anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, “and if there’s anybody who understands the power of propaganda and how to fight propaganda and doublespeak, it’s the Russian-speaking community,” Rachmansky said. “So what I’d like to argue is that we have a responsibility to follow in Natan’s footsteps and take a leadership role,” in addressing these challenges.