Natan Sharansky: A man of partnership
I never thought that becoming a Jewish Agency shlicha (Israeli emissary) in the Jewish community of Cincinnati would lead me to the moment where I found myself sitting with Natan Sharansky — the living legend — in a chavruta (one-on-one studying) around a Jewish text.
It was a cool November morning during the annual convention for shlichim. We were exploring what “70” is all about, and trying to envision and rethink Israel at 70. This exercise was the first time I was introduced to The Shlichut Institute, a new initiative of The Jewish Agency for Israel that aims to deal with the unique challenges of emissaries in today’s world and in a new era for Israel-Diaspora relations.
Humbled by the opportunity of having a private, close conversation with Natan, I kept my mouth shut and waited to hear his thoughts. But Natan, in his modest way, was interested in listening before speaking. We had a nice conversation, full of humor, but also honesty. When the study was over, we were called back to the circle of everyone present at the session, and I had to share my conversation with Natan with the rest of the room.
Although this opportunity was undoubtedly remarkable, that feeling of familiarity and intimacy with Natan is not experienced only by those who sit with him one-on-one for a Jewish text study. Natan — regardless of his position, his life experience, and his knowledge — remains an accessible person to every Jewish Agency shaliach or shlicha. That is precisely why I am inspired to share my reflections on Natan after The Jewish Agency celebrated his accomplishments with the organization on March 7 in New York City.
When I think about Natan, a heroic image appears, of the refusenik, of the man who fasted for 400 days — a symbol of justice, of bravery. But I also see another image, much more down to earth, tangible. A modest man, humble and direct, a man of vision and faith. A man who believes in hard work and honesty, who will step up and go the extra mile for what he believes in, for the greater good, for human beings, for the Jewish people. I think about his great sense of humor, always with a smile, always with the ability to laugh and not take himself too seriously.
Above all that, Natan is man of partnership — of seeing the bigger picture, of not giving up. He is a man who remembers why he is doing what he is doing, and has the strength and the future of the Jewish people as his north star.
This past year, Natan experienced great disappointment. An agreement that he had brokered for the creation of a Western Wall egalitarian prayer space was frozen due to political pressure from Israel’s religious parties.
The Jewish communities in the Diaspora — the communities we serve as shlichim — were extremely frustrated. It wasn’t the Western Wall that they were so upset about. What disappointed them was the dashing of hopes that Israel was finally going to officially recognize their way of being Jewish as legitimate.
Together with other senior shlichim, I drafted a letter signed by more than 100 emissaries in North America and around the world, affirming and strengthening Natan in his important work and his struggle to achieve an agreement that would be a meaningful recognition for American Jewry, and supporting the communities we serve in their justifiable demand to have a voice and a place in the Jewish State.
We met Natan a few months later, and by that time, it was clear that all his efforts to speak for klal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood) in this matter, to help achieve an historic agreement between the different religious streams in Israel, was put on hold. But Natan was already “calculating a new route.” He was not dwelling on the past, was not complaining. He was not talking badly about the government or the Orthodox parties who blew up this agreement. He was realistic, he was planning, he was readjusting. He focused on what can be done and our important role in the process.
Natan has reminded me of the importance of seeing the bigger picture, of remembering the need to keep the future of the Jewish people in mind, and of the importance of creating a true partnership — a partnership that respects all sides at the table, acknowledging the differences, and fighting for unity.
Maia Morag is The Jewish Agency for Israel’s community shlicha (emissary) in Cincinnati.