It’s not every day that you get to meet one of your heroes. As I stood in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and waited for him to arrive, I imagined how the conversation would go and rehearsed what I was going to say. A sense of nervousness overcame me as I counted down the moments until his train was scheduled to arrive.
After the passengers alighted the train and rode the escalator up to the main concourse, I scanned the crowd, searching for him. And then, I spotted him. He stepped off the escalator wearing his trademark green army cap, which was easily recognizable. Without any hesitation, I walked up to him and introduced myself.
Natan Sharansky’s story is well-known. A refusnik from the former Soviet Union, Sharansky was arrested by the KGB for his efforts to emigrate to Israel and imprisoned for nine years, during which time he endured harsh interrogations and horrendous conditions as his captors tried to break his spirit and destroy the refusniks’ efforts to secure exit visas to relocate to the Jewish homeland. Sharansky’s incredible resolve and unbreakable spirit enabled him to persevere, and he was ultimately reunited with his wife. Together, they built a life in Israel, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Rather than fade into obscurity, Sharansky became active in Israeli politics, rising to the level of Deputy Prime Minister, and eventually assuming the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, where he played a pivotal role in Jewish affairs worldwide.
As we walked to the car and I inquired about his trip, I couldn’t help but think about what we would talk about as we drove to our destination. I had so many questions to ask and so many sentiments to express, and I found myself hoping that I would have the time to get through it all.
Once we got settled in the car, before I could ask Sharansky a question, he posed one to me. What is your community’s reaction to Pittsburgh, he asked? As this was just two days after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, the horrific tragedy that occurred was foremost in everyone’s mind. We discussed what happened and Sharansky said he wasn’t surprised that we are seeing such blatant anti-Semitism. He reminded me that hate crimes targeting Jews are nothing new and told me about his trips to Brussels and Toulouse, France following anti-Semitic attacks there, where he witnessed the pain and suffering of those communities. Sharansky also decried the fact that politics entered the conversation almost immediately after the Pittsburgh shooting and talked about how that could shift the focus away from the core issue, which is anti-Semitism.
Before we moved to a new topic, I wanted to get Sharansky’s view on where we go from here. Since you experienced blatant anti-Semitism and suffered greatly because of your status as a Jew who yearned to emigrate to Israel, people look to you for guidance on how to handle the frightening increase in anti-Semitism that we’re seeing, I said. As someone who was persecuted because you were Jewish and managed to persevere, what’s your take on what we’re seeing in 2018, both in Europe, where anti-Semitism is rampant, and in the United States, where attacks on Jews have increased dramatically, I asked him. Sharansky was unequivocal in his response. As far as the United States, the American Jewish community needs to come together as a whole to combat anti-Semitism, he declared. The only way to defeat anti-Semitism is for American Jews to put aside their differences and unite to push back against bigotry. If that doesn’t happen, it will be extremely challenging for us to defeat anti-Semitism.
I told Sharansky how I grew up hearing about his struggle and going to demonstrations to call attention to his case and call for his release. My parents used to take me as a young child to the marches in Manhattan, and I went with them to Washington for the big march. His story was well known to everyone, but it touched me in such a meaningful way because I realized even in my youth how important it was for him to be freed. What you have been able to do in preaching the importance of freedom and tolerance is absolutely remarkable, I told him, somewhat embarrassingly.
We spoke about his time in prison. Being familiar with the story, I felt compelled to ask him how he was able to survive. Discussing the various ways that he maintained his faith and a sense of hope during his imprisonment, whether it was through chess, analyzing his case, reciting his special prayer, or dreaming about being reunited with his wife, I asked how he was able to maintain his focus and optimism under such inhumane conditions. His response was simple, yet profound. Most people don’t need to be tested in that way, he said, but when you face a test like that, you have to rise to the occasion. There is no choice.
Perhaps the most special part of our conversation was when we discussed my eldest daughter, who made aliyah. I told Sharansky how I became emotional when I read in his book Fear No Evil about his reuniting with his wife and traveling to Israel to begin their life together there. I told him with great pride about my daughter’s magical journey to Israel and how I completely understand the feeling of yearning for our Jewish homeland. He commented on how extraordinary it was for her to relocate to Israel as a teenager and how wonderful it was that we, her parents, supported her decision to make aliyah.
I felt like I could have talked with him for hours, but we then pulled up to our destination and it was time for him to go. I sheepishly asked if he would sign my copy of one of his books before he left, and he graciously agreed. While looking at the inscription after he exited the car, I smiled as I read his last line before he signed his name. Quite fittingly, it said in Hebrew, “Am Yisrael Chai,” a testament to the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people. Coming from a man like Natan Sharansky, a true hero who embodies the resiliency and perseverance that has sustained the Jewish people for generations, that phrase takes on a whole new meaning.