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State Historical Museum of Iowa Showcases Successful Human Rights Campaign in "Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews"

May 10, 2018

DES MOINES – The State Historical Museum of Iowa is proud to present "Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews," a traveling exhibition created by the National Museum of American Jewish History that explores one of the most successful human rights campaigns to date.

The panel exhibition showcases Americans’ efforts in the late 1960s through 1990 to free refuseniks—Jews who lived in the Soviet Union and were denied the rights to live freely, practice Judaism, or leave the country due to their religion. It will be on display at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, 600 E. Locust St., in Des Moines from May 18 through June 7. Admission is free and open to the public 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

"Iowa's rich history not only spans its 99 counties but intersects with national and international history as well," State Historical Society of Iowa Administrator Susan Kloewer said. "We are pleased to host this traveling exhibit and encourage Iowans to visit and learn about this important story."

"The Iowa Jewish Historical Society is pleased to co-sponsor this exhibit with the State Historical Society of Iowa," said Sandi Yoder, director of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society. "The movement to free Soviet Jews was an important issue in Iowa. Members of Iowa’s Jewish community participated in the protest march in Washington, D.C., and welcomed scores of Soviet Jews to new lives In Iowa."

Ivy Barsky, CEO and Gwen Goodman Director at the National Museum of American Jewish History, states, “The successful movement to free Soviet Jews has compelling connections to modern-day advocacy, highlighting how grassroots efforts can have an enormous impact. This exhibition serves as a reminder of how individuals can help preserve, protect, and expand America’s unique promise of religious freedom, even for individuals on the other side of the world.”

"Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews" walks visitors through the human rights campaign that took place on behalf of Soviet Jews, one that brought together organizations, student activists, community leaders, and thousands of individuals—and reached the highest echelons of the American government. Americans staged public demonstrations across the country, held massive rallies, and called for politicians to speak out.

The exhibition celebrates the struggles and successes of this movement, as well as the experiences of Jewish emigrants from the U.S.S.R. who came to the United States and have contributed in countless ways to American society and culture. Their stories of courage offer meaningful opportunities for conversations and activism surrounding immigration, the reception of refugees, and the continuing limits on political and religious freedom placed on minorities around the world.

"Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews" highlights stories of everyday Americans who performed extraordinary acts of bravery to help Soviet Jews, from Philadelphians Elaine and David Ravich who smuggled out tape recordings of conversations during their 1978 visit to the Soviet Union, to Leslie Schaffer of Reno, Nevada, who used gum wrappers to discreetly transport information about refuseniks in 1982, to Constance and Joseph Smukler of Philadelphia who helped several well-known Soviet Jews win their freedom. Visitors will learn about individual refuseniks, from human rights activist and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

The exhibition features a number of powerful graphics, rather than physical artifacts. A handbill advertising a performance by musician Mary Travers—of Peter, Paul, and Mary—at a 1984 rally for Soviet Jewry represents the singers, musicians, and artists who raised their voices in protest. A 1981 letter written by Sheryl Sandberg (now COO of Facebook) to her bat mitzvah “twin” exemplifies the thousands of American children who “twinned” their Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies with Soviet peers denied that experience. Inspired by protest buttons popular across movements around the world, visitors can take home a pin featuring the hashtag #PowerofProtest to celebrate the exhibition, commemorate the historic milestone, and highlight the contemporary significance of fighting for one’s beliefs.

"Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews" is a small-scale, free-standing exhibition consisting of 11 panels designed to travel—giving small galleries, libraries, synagogues, Jewish community centers, universities, and historic societies across the country the opportunity to revisit and raise awareness of this important movement. To inquire about bringing the panel exhibition to your community, contact

The National Museum of American Jewish History was awarded a generous $150,000 grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to support the exhibition’s development. The grant is part of IMLS’s Museums for America program, which backs projects that strengthen the ability of an individual museum to serve its public.

The exhibition is organized by the National Museum of American Jewish History’s Chief Curator, Director of Exhibitions and Interpretation Josh Perelman and content coordinator Yigal Kotler. The exhibition’s advisory committee includes:

  • Gal Beckerman (historian, journalist, and author)
  • Sandra Cahn (Co-Founder, Limmud FSU)
  • Margy-Ruth Davis (Founder and Chair, Perry Davis Associates; Former Executive Director, Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry)
  • Marina Furman (Regional Director, Jewish National Fund)
  • Zvi Gitelman (Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, University of Michigan)
  • Jerry Goodman (Founding Executive Director, National Conference on Soviet Jewry)
  • Malcolm Hoenlein (Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Founding Executive Director, Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry)
  • Pamela Nadell (Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women's and Gender History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program, American University)
  • Jonathan Sarna (NMAJH’s Chief Historian; University Professor and Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University)
  • Roman Shmulenson (Executive Director, Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations)
  • David Shneer (Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair in Jewish History, University of Colorado)
  • Lance Sussman (Rabbi at Congregation Keneseth Israel)
  • Beth Wenger (Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History and Chair of the History Department, University of Pennsylvania)

"Power of Protest" was created by the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The exhibition is supported, in part, through a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a government agency dedicated to advancing innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. Additional support provided by Alkemy X, the Charlestein Family in memory of Malvina and Morton Charlestein, and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

"Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jews" is sponsored in Iowa by the Iowa Jewish Historical Society and the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. 

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations. 

The National Museum of American Jewish History, located on historic Independence Mall in Philadelphia, brings to life the more than 360-year history of Jews in America. Tracing the stories of how Jewish immigrants became Jewish Americans, the Museum invites visitors of all backgrounds to share their own stories and reflect on how their histories and identities shape and are shaped by the American experience. An open door for all, NMAJH honors the past and contributes to a better future by sharing the power of imagination and ideas, culture and community, leadership and service, in ways that turn inspiration into action. For more information, visit