Voices of the Vigil

Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW)
Washington, D.C.

The plight of Soviet Jews, persecuted and imprisoned for practicing Judaism or attempting to emigrate, drew national attention and became a U.S. foreign policy issue during the 1970s and 1980s. The Washington D.C. area’s Jewish community and its supporters engaged in civic activism on behalf of the Soviet Jewry by maintaining a daily protest vigil outside the Soviet Embassy for more than 20 years. Although the protest was nationally documented, the activities of the Washington community in supporting Soviet Jewry were largely undocumented and untold.

Voices of the Vigil preserves and explores the unique Jewish heritage of Washington as both a hometown and as the nation’s capital. This exhibit was the result of a five-year project to record the efforts of the local Soviet Jewry movement and their supporters. Voices of the Vigil is accessible at several venues, as well as through supplementary programs and media. The exhibition is comprised of panels featuring photographs, documents and quotes, artifacts, and QR codes to audio testimonials and videos.

A group of former activists, concerned that future generations might forget their story, sought the help of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) in preserving this history. JHSGW formed a Community Advisory Committee of former activists to collect materials related to the local Soviet Jewry movement. The resulting archive of over 100 photographs, 20 individual oral histories/memoirs, papers, and over 30 artifacts, documents over 60 community organizations. This collection’s potential for educational outreach inspired the creation of Voices of the Vigil and companion educational programs.

Through this exhibit, JHSGW has engaged new audiences through this history of a significant grassroots communal movement, particularly the area’s Russian-Jewish community and students. Voices of the Vigil provided an opportunity for JHSGW to collaborate with community members whom they had not worked with in the past. Together, they were able to build a collection of contemporary history rooted in oral histories and memoirs, and present this story in ways that resonate with a broad audience throughout the Washington area.