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Lights on a Hill: How Everyday People Helped Deliver Jews from the USSR

“You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  (Matthew 4:14–15)

Until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, hundreds of Russian Jews, including Natan Sharansky (head of the Jewish Agency) and author and Rabbi Yosef Mendelovich, were imprisoned just for applying for an exit visa from the Soviet Union.

Although the Western world often turned a blind eye and ignored their predicament, some united for change.

On the Jewish calendar of Kislev 15, 5748 / December 6, 1987, a multitude gathered in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States, to demand the release of Soviet Jewry.

Reagan-Gorbachev-Reykjavik Summit

US President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

On the eve of the Washington, D.C. Summit between Mikhail Gorbachev (then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and US President Ronald Reagan, close to 250,000 people rallied at the National Mall, urging the Soviet Union to end the practice of the forced assimilation of Jews.

They demanded that the USSR permit emigration, as well as freedom of religion on Soviet soil, where even teaching Hebrew was forbidden.  (CSPAN)

“As if called by an ancient shofar, the huge crowds who traveled to the capital from almost every state in the union were there to demonstrate for the redemption of Soviet Jewry, but also to display the formidable power of organized American Jewry to make its voice heard,” said Henry J. Feingold, author of Silent No More.

Poster-logo -1987 Freedom Sunday Rally-Movement to Free Soviet Jewry

A poster featuring the logo of the 1987 Freedom Sunday Rally, the largest rally of the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry.

Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews firmly delivered a message that would move the Soviet Union to “let my people go,” although its organizers had only 32 days to mobilize the message.

“The head of the USSR would return to his country and in subsequent months, prepare for the opening of Soviet borders for immigration to Israel,” says the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ).

“Freedom Sunday thus marked a turning point in the struggle that led to the releasing of more than one million Jews over subsequent years.”

Soviet olim-Israeli soil-Ben-Gurion Airport-Aliyah

Soviet olim (immigrants) step onto Israeli soil for the first time at the Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv following a direct flight to Israel.

Prophecy Fulfilled

“I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’  Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth.”  (Isaiah 43:6)

God’s freeing of His people from the Soviet Union and the subsequent return of great numbers of them to Israel was in direct fulfillment of many Bible prophecies, such as Jeremiah 3:18, 16:14–15, 23:8; Isaiah 43:6; Isaiah 49:12; and Deuteronomy 30:4.

Although this beautiful miracle involved the efforts of many around the world, it was a true miracle nonetheless—one that seems to have often been underemphasized ever since.


New Soviet olim children at Bat Yam, a city near Tel Aviv. 1991

One key Bible prophecy about the end-time restoration of Israel, likens the release of Soviet Jewry to the Exodus from Egypt, which is celebrated daily in synagogues, and yearly at Passover, as the event that birthed Israel as a nation:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but it will be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’  For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.”  (Jeremiah 16:14–15)

The close to 1.5 million citizens of the former Soviet Union who migrated to Israel in the past 20 years have had a profound effect on Israel, influencing culture, hi-tech industry, education, and Israeli politics.

Shamir-Russian-olim-employment fair

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (center) visits an employment fair in 1990 for new soviet immigrants and demobilized soldiers in Tel Aviv.

The people who helped birth this miraculous exodus, however, were not brilliant statesmen or dazzling orators: they were regular folk.

It was a “movement led by everyday people.  Yet somehow we changed the world, rallying on countless Solidarity Sundays and signing umpteen petitions, championing an agenda aimed at saving Jews while promoting human rights for everyone,” writes Connecticut Rabbi Joshua Hammerman.  (The Jewish Week)

Soviet olim-Ben-Gurion Airport

Soviet olim disembark their plane at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Changing Lives for Eternity Requires Action

“Love one another deeply, from the heart.”  (1 Peter 1:22)

Sometimes, when we accept Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, we distort our salvation as a testimonial of spiritual superiority or view it as a get-out-of-jail-free card that permits a carefree, ineffective, and quite often, selfish life.

In this, people ignore the reality of what it means to be a follower of Yeshua who walks in His footsteps, living according to His teachings.

Following Yeshua requires action arising from commitment, obedience and a heart dedicated to service.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”  (Isaiah 58:6)

Homeless-Western (Wailing) Wall-Jerusalem.

A homeless man in Israel prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Throughout history, it has been all too common for people to ignore human suffering and oppression.  Sometimes, people express sympathy but, not long afterward, invest their God-given time in short-term pleasures that consume all their energy.

In the 21st century, few are innocent in this.

Yeshua, however, set a different example for us to follow:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:26–28)

“Leading in a way that transforms society is a goal to which few leaders even aspire.  Yet, Yeshua (Jesus) led in a way that produced profound systemic changes in His world, changes that still influence us today after many centuries,” states Regent University’s Jon Bylor.

“The leadership of Yeshua continues to impact the world.  Although He offered practical advice to soldiers and peasants, His strategy focused on long-term change that would ultimately, but not quickly, transform society,” Bylor said.  (Leading Like Jesus for a Change)


Reaching to Yeshua

In a society that resembles the time of Noah, the seemingly bleak future of our world can drive us to despair.

Woe to us if we watch the world crumble around us while we gratefully accept God’s saving hand for ourselves and our loved ones without advocating for the lost.

If we embraced a deeper level of commitment to the troubled world around us, we could develop the same righteousness and compassion of Abraham, who actually pleaded with God for Sodom and Gomorrah:

Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  …  Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from you!  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:23–25)


The growing influx of Soviet Jewish olim in the late 80s and early 90s meant that Israel had to embark on a crash effort to build housing.  In the above photo, olim and soldiers pass the time together at an army base in Israel where the immigrants were temporarily housed.

God is not calling us to be passive spiritual spectators.  Faith is active.  It involves running “with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Yeshua, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  (Hebrews 12:1)

God is calling us to make a difference in the lives of others.

Sometimes this involves standing up for someone much like Paul did when he wrote a letter to Philemon on behalf of the escaped slave Onesimus, who had become a Believer.

Although Onesimus could have been put to death for having escaped, Paul sends him back to his master, asking Philemon to welcome him back as a brother (Philemon 1).

French-Orthodox Jewish

A Jewish man in France takes a moment to offer help to someone in need.

Making a difference also means helping the poor and the oppressed.

“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”  (Psalm 82:3–4)

It includes joining hands and vocally standing against a tide of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israelism.

Those who have been set free from their sin are lights shining in the darkness of this world.

When we show the love of God and hold out the Word of life, we will actively make a difference in our families, communities, Israel, and the world and be that light on a hill as He has entrusted us to do.

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