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Rita Moreno and the American Soviet Jewry Movement

October 11, 2022
by Elizabeth Hyman

National Hispanic Heritage Month, 2022

This post was written in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, 2022.

At the American Jewish Historical Society, our unofficial motto is that American Jewish History is American History. And in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month 2022, we’re spotlighting the activism of Rita Moreno (b. 1931).

One of an elite group of performers who have won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar/Academy, and Tony Awards (known colloquially as an “EGOT”), and a veritable Hollywood legend, Rita Moreno is a Puerto Rican actress, dancer, and singer. She moved to New York City with her mother in 1936, and starred in both the 1961 and 2021 film adaptations of West Side Story. Her filmography also includes roles in Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, Jane the Virgin, Carnal Knowledge, The Muppet Show, The Four Seasons, and The Golden Girls.

A longtime activist on the behalf of Latinx and women’s rights, her first foray into the world of activism took place in 1963, when she marched beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington. In the 1970s, she became involved in the American Soviet Jewry Movement. This Movement, which lasted from approximately 1963 through 1990, was the US branch of a worldwide fight for the religious and personal freedom of Jews living in the Soviet Union. AJHS holds the largest collection of papers of organizations relating to this movement in the United States.

In this c. 1970s Public Service Announcement from the AJHS archives, Moreno spoke out on the behalf of Soviet Jews (transcription below):

“Hello, this is Rita Moreno. Over 30 young Soviet Jews have been arrested and are being held incommunicado. Their only crime is their wish to live as Jews in the Soviet Union, or to leave for Israel to be reunited with their families. These political prisoners are being held on trumped up charges. Some have already been tried and given severe sentences. Others are awaiting trial. While innocent victims are being convicted before the Soviet bar, it is really Soviet justice that now stands convicted before world opinion. It’s obvious that the Soviet government is waging a nation-wide campaign aimed at crushing Jewish consciousness and faith among Russian Jews. This has to be stopped. We as Americans must raise our voices on behalf of Soviet Jews for their freedom, and for their lives. So please, write to your Congressman. Wire President Nixon; wire Ambassador Dobrynin. And please, do it today.”

In recognition of her long career, and her activist work, Moreno was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. She has also received the National Medal of Arts in 2009, the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award in 2015, and the Peabody Career Achievement Award in 2019. In 2000, The Hispanic Organization of Latin Actresses (HOLA) renamed their Award for Excellence in her honor: the HOLA Rita Moreno Award for Excellence.