Alan Potash
Striving for balance as a Jewish American and a Zionist

Inspired By Natan Sharansky 35 Years ago – Now

A View of the Mediterranean from Sdot Yam Photo by Alan Potash
A View of the Mediterranean from Sdot Yam Photo by Alan Potash

Being connected to the greater Jewish world is important to me. No matter where I go, I always try and find a Jewish connection. I am not unique in this pursuit and I am sure I am not the only one who is still surprised when I am in a remote part of the globe and the person next to me turns out to be Jewish. Most of us take a bit of pride in these experiences. The same type of pride when we learn that someone Jewish achieves something incredible.

Growing up Jewish in a post WWII America we have witnessed acceptance on one level but cautious of the next level. 2021 is a reminder that the levels of acceptances change.

I recently finished reading, Never Alone by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy.  This blog post will not be a review of the book but an inspiration to reflect on my own connection to Israel and the Jewish people. As a student of the 70’s and very much aware of the Freedom for Soviet Jewry Movement I followed the struggles the refuseniks. As I look back to that time, I am reminded of the privilege afforded me growing up Jewish in America. An experience different than our cousins in Russia and privilege I hope I didn’t take for granted. It was on my second trip to Israel in 1984 when I knew I needed to move to Israel.

In the early days of 1986 (35 years ago now) and following Sharansky’s struggle I knew the time was right to give Israel a try. I made the not so difficult decision to get up and go. Granted, it was much easier for me to move to Israel in 1986 than Sharansky and the other refuseniks. To be honest, I felt guilty as a 26-year-old American Jew with all the opportunities in front of me knowing that some guy I never met but knew a lot about really wanted to be in Israel. He was in a Soviet prison for something I had the freedom to do. I wonder now, how many other people felt the way I did at that time in solidarity with him.

Opening up the map from the Jewish Agency’s Kibbutz Aliyah desk, I found a red dot in the Mediterranean Sea; by the way the only ulpan listed in the water. Coming from the great land locked state of Nebraska a kibbutz in the water seemed perfect for me. Sdot Yam isn’t really on the water but close enough to hear the waves crashing every night.

I romanticized my move to Israel; like many immigrants and refugees before me.  I decided to make my journey by boat from Europe to Israel.  Getting off the ship in Haifa I knew I made the right decision. Even though there wasn’t a party to greet me (I did not have any family in Israel). No one welcoming me, but when I arrived at the pensione and told the owner I was moving to Israel he gave me the only room with a shower.

After a day in Haifa and a quick trip to see friends in Jerusalem (I missed meeting my future wife by a few hours), I headed to the kibbutz to start the ulpan. As I walked through the entrance I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the kibbutz (it truly is one of the most beautiful places in Israel), until I saw the room, I was going to spend the next 5 months in-I think it dated back before Israel was a country (the idea that it might have been used by Hannah Senesh made it a little easier to digest). Also, no indoor plumbing.

I am going on about this is to provide context to the fact that while I was settling in to Kibbutz life Natan Sharansky was being released from prison and making his way to Israel.

A lot has changed in Israel over the past 35 years and some of the changes are for the better. I am not sure if we can say the same about how Jews in America have adapted to Israel’s evolution. Israel for many of us in the diaspora (oh, ya I lasted five years in Israel) has not kept up with the advances in Israel. While our cousins in Israel have been inventing, healing, defending, growing, educating, building (a lot of building), making movies, winning Eurovision, Gal Gadot what more can I say. Are we the shlumpy cousins in America?

Here in America Jews have been lagging behind the inspiration of Israel. Yes, there are more American Noble prize winners who are Jew-ish, and of course more billionaires, philanthropists, a few sports stars and politicians to think of but have we matched Israel’s ingenuity for survival as a democracy in the desert?

What I am really trying to say is that Israel has been moving forward on most levels to meet the needs of a country not even 75 years old. While on some level holding the proverbial bag for the rest of the Jewish world. For the past 75 years Jews in America have been moving forward at a pace no other minority has been able to achieve. And this is creating a new challenge for us. At the same time its connection to its cousin on the other side of the world appears to be faltering

Some of us still plant trees and collect zedakah in our JNF Blue Boxes and travel on missions. We take great pride when Jews and Israelis achieve greatness but we also hide when Israel is being criticized. We struggle to find the right words to criticize Israel’s actions while questioning whether we have the right to do so.

We also don’t know how to support Israel when some voices on the left or right tell us what Israel really is; in their eyes.

From where I sit today, as a Jewish professional I see that the horizon is not as clear as I would like when I listen to those voices. Now at a point in our relationship when we need to ask each other, do we really care about each other? Or should we go our separate ways? Why do I ask these questions? The farther removed we are from each other the harder it is to understand what we can do for one another. Now, more than ever we as Jews in the diaspora and Jews in Israel need to get on the bus together and strengthen our relationship.

As Sharansky writes in his book, the relationship between American Jews and Israelis has also changed dramatically. As a Jewish professional today, the demands on advocating for the American Jewish and Israeli relationship gets harder and harder. I have been on my own type of personal shlichut for over 30 years working across the spectrum of the Jewish world helping people find their path to understanding why Israel is important and why it is okay to be proud being Jewish too. I want to thank Natan for inspiring me again and reminding me we are never alone. Thank you!

About the Author
For over 25 years I have been embedded in American Jewish life. As a professional working for Hillel, ADL and Federation I continuously advocate for and write about how to make a stronger connection to Israel and the Jewish world. Helping people map out their Jewish Journey.