Collection Spotlight: Archive of the American Soviet Jewry Movement (AASJM)

January 13, 2023
by Melanie Meyers

Decades ago, AJHS embarked on an extensive collecting initiative to acquire and steward the voluminous archives documenting the American Soviet Jewry movement, one of the most effective grassroots activist campaigns of the 20th century. American Jews from diverse locales, backgrounds, and socioeconomic status, joined together to advocate on behalf of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union, a highly oppressed religious minority.

Throughout the early to mid-2000’s, AJHS acquired, processed, and selectively digitized the records of both national and regional organizations who were instrumental in this movement, as well as the individual papers of the leaders and participants of these larger organizations. As a result of this focused initiative, AJHS now stewards most of the significant regional and national collections documenting this activism in our Archive of the American Soviet Jewry Movement (AASJM), with one exception: the records of the Greater New York Conference for Soviet Jewry (GNYCSJ).

Bumper sticker for support of Jewish immigration to the US from the Soviet Union
Bumper sticker from the Papers of Morey Schapira, “Another American for Soviet Jews” (P-906)

The absence of the GNYCSJ’s records was a significant lacuna in the documentary record of this national—and global—activist effort, as the GNYCSJ served as the coordinating body of Soviet Jewry activities for more than 85 constituent Jewish organizations and community groups throughout the New York metropolitan area, with affiliates across Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish denominations. Among its vast scope of activities, the GNYCSJ conducted vigils, demonstrations, meetings, lectures, concerts, press conferences, and memorial services and worked closely with federal, state, and local government officials to galvanize and maintain visibility of this human rights issue. It coordinated the Congressional Adopt-A-Prisoner program in which each metropolitan area member of Congress had undertaken a wide variety of activities on behalf of a specific Jewish prisoner in Soviet labor camps.

Poster reflecting on the Solidarity Sunday march in 1982
Flyer created by Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry Records (I-181A)

“Solidarity Sundays” for Soviet Jewry, the GNYCSJ’s impactful series of annual mass demonstrations in New York City, attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees and served as a model for similar demonstrations nationwide, culminating in the milestone “Freedom Sunday” national march in Washington, D.C. on December 6, 1987. “Freedom Sunday” was attended by 250,000 people and deemed the largest Jewish rally ever held in the United States.

We are so pleased to announce now that AJHS is the new home for the GNYCSJ records. The inclusion of these significant materials exemplifies the striking diversity of philosophy and experience which were hallmarks of the Soviet Jewry movement and its galvanizing impact on hundreds of thousands of individuals united in support of a profound humanitarian common cause.

Moreover, we are thrilled and grateful to announce that AJHS has been awarded a significant grant from the NHPRC (National Historical Publications and Records Commission) to process these materials over a two-year period, ensuring that these records will be properly preserved and available for future generations of scholars and researchers. This award will enable the vital voices of activists and community members featured in GNYCSJ’s significant archives to be “in conversation” with the other extraordinary collections in the AASJM.

Please follow along on this exciting journey over the next two years, as we surface captivating finds and share behind-the-scenes encounters with these fascinating records while processing the GNYCSJ records. Stay tuned!