Remembering Freedom Sunday, celebrating Russian-speaking Jewish Chicago today

On a freezing Sunday 30 years ago, 250,000 Americans—Jewish and non-Jewish—gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was the eve of a summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and they stood together to free millions of Soviet Jews.

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Alex Treyger’s family in 1989 in Odessa, Ukraine.

On a freezing Sunday 30 years ago, 250,000 Americans-Jewish and non-Jewish-gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was the eve of a summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and they stood together to free millions of Soviet Jews.

Longtime JUF and Chicago Jewish leader Harvey Barnett was part of a large group from Chicago on the mall that day. A leader of the Free Soviet Jewry Movement, he was so moved, he said, that he wept.  "In my heart of hearts, I knew that it was a major turning point and the gates would open."

And open they did. Freedom Sunday, as the rally was called, helped end the Cold War, reunify the Jewish people, and change the world. 

On Nov. 30, JUF's' Russian Jewish Division (RJD) will hold its first Gala Fundraiser. The dinner will remember the historic march, celebrate the tremendous success of the Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant community in Chicago, and recognize outstanding leaders. The Gala will take place at The Standard Club at 6:00 p.m.

The keynote speaker will be Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Executive Board of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Prisoner of Zion, and human rights activist. A worldwide symbol of human rights, Sharansky addressed the crowd during Freedom Sunday. 

JUF's Russian Jewish Division is funded in part by Genesis Philanthropy Group, a private foundation focused on developing and enhancing a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. Today, RJD provides programs and events for young families and professionals from the former Soviet Union. The Gala's host committee is made up of 26 Russian-speaking leaders of Chicago's Jewish community.

"The American Jewish community said 'Let my people go,' and the Soviet government listened," said Alex Turik, the chairman of the RJD's Advisory Board and a member of JUF's Board of Directors. Turik himself immigrated from the former Soviet Union. 

In a historic rescue, Jewish Federations across the country raised nearly $1 billion through the Operation Exodus campaign to resettle the refugees, and then took out another $1 billion in loans, said Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, JUF President and a leader in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. 

Nasatir was also on the mall at Freedom Sunday. It was an incredibly important moment for the American Jewish community, as well. "The sense of Jewish peoplehood coming together is something I had never experienced before," he said.

Nearly 40,000 Soviet Jewish refugees came to Chicago alone. They left with little more than a suitcase and about $90 per person -- all that the Soviet Union permitted them to take with-to make better lives for their children.

Alex Treyger was just 12 in August 1989 when she and her family boarded the train that took them from everything they knew. It was a jump into the unknown, she said. Her parents and the younger children were able to leave, but the Soviet government barred her oldest brother from going, separating the family. Treyger remembers the terrible worry and stress and fear that they would never see him again. 

"We could tell no one we were leaving. I could not tell my friends or my school," said Treyger, now the director of Technology and Digital Learning and a science teacher at Chicago Jewish Day School. "No one at my parents' job could know, not even our neighbors." 

In the U.S., Treyger's parents both worked several jobs as they went to school to learn English, took care of their children, and adapted to a very different world. The children didn't know what Halloween was. Even medical care was a struggle because they didn't know what the doctors were saying, Treyger said.

"It takes a tremendous amount of courage to walk away from your life and go into the unknown," she said. "We jumped off a cliff and hoped for the best." 

The Chicago community was completely committed to the new arrivals, Nasatir said. Through JUF and partner agencies, they were provided with housing, food, job training, English lessons, medical care, and education for their children -- in short, everything necessary to make a new start.

"They opened their arms for us," said Treyger. "Yes, they brought us here, but they also made sure that children were in school. They offered people whatever was needed to feel at home. The JCC -- as small as this seems -- organized dance parties for the young people. I can't even tell you how many people met at them."

In Chicago, resettlement became a community effort. Chicagoans, like Nasatir's mother, Alyce, volunteered teaching English to the refugees. More than 1,000 families volunteered as host families through the JCC's Family to Family program. Many of the families built incredibly strong connections that have lasted decades, like the Hefters and the Millers.

After fighting for so many years for Jews to leave the Soviet Union, Steve and Janice Hefter felt they had to help those who came to Chicago. Through the Family to Family program, they were matched with the Miller family, who came in the late 1980s with three young children. Today, one of them -- Elina Marchenko -- is a television producer and a member of the RJD Gala Fundraiser host committee. 

Over the years, the two families have forged a deep friendship. "We have gotten as much out of this relationship as we gave," Janice Hefter said. "They are part of our family."

"We have come full circle from Freedom Sunday," said Nasatir.  "They're making good lives for themselves and their children. They have become part of Chicago's Jewish community and the greater American community."

"It makes my heart feel good." 

In addition to JUF and Genesis Philanthropy Group, the RJD Gala Fundraiser is partially underwritten by corporate sponsors. For more information and to register, please visit or email 

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