Yesterday afternoon, I had a late meeting at the Jewish Agency offices on King George Street. As I made my way down the hall, I saw a man wearing a signature green army cap, walking quietly toward the exit. No entourage of security guards or other people accompanied him. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was leaving the building. I rushed to catch up with him to wish him a good day. This was not my first, very brief encounter with Sharansky but it was unique. Despite the appearance of this being a day like any other, it was not. I wanted to acknowledge the day’s specialness, to wish my hero a great day.
What made yesterday so special? On February 11, 1986, Anatoly Sharansky, as he was known at the time, was freed from Russia. He walked across the Glienicke Bridge, which at the time separated East and West Berlin, and flew to Israel. To this day, I get goose bumps thinking about it. Talking with Chairman Sharansky yesterday reminded me of first near encounter with him, twenty years after his release from the Gulag to freedom.
In January 2006, on my way to Israel (via Paris) to hire summer shlichim for camp, I wrote about my near encounter in a weekly d’var Torah to the Ramah Darom family:
“For me, this week’s parasha came to life in an amazing way.
Standing in line at El Al security in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I discovered I was standing next to a modern day figure of near Moshe Rabbenu character. Just to my right, no more than a foot away, stood a short man wearing a tattered, green army cap, speaking in Russian on his cell phone. Physically short, the man was actually a giant as a hero. I was standing next to Natan Sharansky.
When I was in high school and college, Natan Sharansky was a heroic figure for his willingness to stand up to the Soviet Union, to endure years of imprisonment, and demand the right of emigration to Israel. I attended protests in front of the Russian Embassy in New York to demand his freedom and freedom for the other Prisoners of Conscious in the former Soviet. We chanted his name, read about his life and his character, sang about him and were inspired by his act of courage.
I remember watching in tears as he left bondage in the modern day mitzrayim that was the former Soviet Union and watched again as he arrived in the land God promised us. His courage and leadership inspired other Prisoners of Conscience, Refusniks, to stay the course. He inspired tens of thousands to take a stand for freedom, to live a meaningful Jewish life. Here I was, standing less than two feet away from him.
Alas, his call ended just as we both arrived at separate stands to answer the battery of El Al security questions.
It was years before I would be once again find myself so close to Sharansky that I could introduce myself, say thank you and wish him well.
Since his release, Natan Sharansky has dedicated his life to serving the Jewish People and the State of Israel. For years, he was a member of the Knesset and the cabinet. He traveled the world inspiring Jews to become more involved while exhorting all to strive for democracy and against terrorism and authoritarianism. Now, he serves as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
One would think that the anniversary of freedom for a leader of such stature, who sat in the gulag for years simply because he was a proud Jew, would be noted in the Israeli press or even in school. Yet, a quick review of yesterday’s Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Post, and the Times of Israel revealed not a single mention of the uniqueness of the day. Walking part of the way to school with my thirteen-year-old daughter this morning, I asked if they talked about a man named Natan Sharansky in school yesterday. She said no and asked who he was and why he was important.
I certainly bear responsibility for not teaching my daughter about one of my heroes. At the same time, I am surprised that the freedom anniversary of a modern-day Zionist hero was not marked at school, at least not in the seventh grade. My surprise was reinforced by the absence of any mention of the day in the Israeli press. Is it because Sharansky entered politics, somehow diminishing his stature? Is the omission because of the Israeli survival mechanism of not focusing on trials and tribulations, of crying and then moving on? Is it that the hamentaschen are out so we are now focused on another story about those who wanted to destroy us and failed and those who brought about our salvation? I wish I had a good answer for the oversight
Yesterday, February 11, should be a day of pride and celebration:
We should take pride in the fact that Jewishness, Judaism and Zionism are such important parts of identity that some are even willing to risk imprisonment in the face of authoritarian governments to gain the right to live here.
We should celebrate Natan and Avital Sharansky and others who left Russia, came to Israel, built families and lives, made and continue to make a difference.
Thank you Chairman Sharansky for talking with me yesterday.
Thank you for allowing me to wish you a good day.
Thank you for all you do on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish People.
I hope to bump into you again in the future.