Sharansky, hero of Soviet Jewish movement, speaks here

(From left) Marlyn Essman, Natan Sharansky, Alyn Essman and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Misha Galperin at the Essman home Sunday. Photo: Bryan Schraier/courtesy


Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and world-renowned human rights activist, told of spending 16 horrific years in Russia’s dank Lefortovo Prison when he spoke in St. Louis Sunday to key members of the Jewish philanthropic community. Later, after his application for a visa to Israel was refused in 1973, he spent time in a notorious prison in the Siberian gulag. 

Local community leaders gathered at the Ladue home of Alyn and Marlyn Essman to hear Sharansky discuss his experiences and the current needs of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Sharanky’s journey from Lefortovo Prison to becoming the head of a major international Jewish organization was described as “heroic” by several of those in attendance, including Barry Rosenberg, Jewish Federation Executive Vice President. “You have long been one of my heroes,” Rosenberg told Sharansky.

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Sharansky credits his equally heroic wife, Avital, as well as the Jews in the United States and around the world who demanded his release – which finally came in 1986 when he was released as part of an East-West prisoner exchange. “If you are going to spend time in prison, make sure you marry someone like Avital first,” said Sharansky, who exuded an aura of warmth and good humor.

After emigrating to Israel, Sharansky founded a new political party, Yisrael b’Aliyah in Israel to represent the interests of Jews from the former Soviet Union. After serving in various Cabinet posts under several Israeli governments, Sharansky accepted the position of chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the central entity responsible for allocating funds raised for programs in Israel through Federation campaigns in North America and similar efforts in other parts of the world.

“Usually an Israeli will take the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency as a stepping stone to become a Cabinet minister or an ambassador. I did it the other way around,” Sharansky said. “I accepted this position because I believe the Jewish Agency provides an opportunity for Jews in Israel and around the world to work to encourage positive Jewish identity and Jewish solidarity, the very things which led to my release and the release of one million Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel and a similar number to other countries, including the United States.”

Sharansky was born in the Ukraine and graduated with a degree in mathematics from the Physical Technical Institute in Moscow. “I was a typical Jew from the Soviet Union,” he said. “I had no knowledge of Jewish history, the holidays or Jewish culture. My family encouraged me to do well at the university and in my field, the only way to attain some kind of success in a country in which there was so much anti-Semitism.”

He said that after Israel’s stunning victory over the Arab states in the Six-Day War of 1967, more and more Soviet Jews became interested in and positive about their Jewish identity. “Suddenly even the anti-Jewish jokes changed. We were no longer described as blood-sucking economic parasites. The fact that the Jewish State defeated Egypt and the other Arabs states which had been supported by the USSR gained us a new respect.”

Sharansky became part of a small group of Soviet Jews whose applications for exit visas had been refused. “We would gather to demonstrate in a small square in Moscow, knowing the KGB knew about us and that we would be arrested, but we continued our activities.”

Sharanksy was arrested in 1977, convicted in a show trial in 1978 and sentenced to 13 years in prison for treason. His 1986 release took place when he was freed on the border of a still-divided Germany. He was met on the Western side by the Israeli ambassador, who immediately gave him his Israeli passport under the Hebrew name of Natan Sharansky instead of his Russian first name of Anatoly.

When he landed in Israel, he was greeted by then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and was given a hero’s welcome.

“If it had not been for the development of a positive Jewish identity and the mass demonstrations around the world, especially the Soviet Jewry March on Washington, I and one million other Jews from the former Soviet Union would never have gained their freedom. As Chairman of the Jewish Agency, I want to work to assure that positive Jewish identity and solidarity, especially among younger Jews, who love Facebook and the Internet, will continue,” Sharansky said.

Sharansky said it was “essential that we work to strengthen the connection between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.”

“For example there are thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union who have settled in Germany,” he continued. “If we do not provide Jewish cultural and other programs for that community, they may become Jews in name only.”

Sharansky stressed the importance of young people from the United States and other nations spending summers or years abroad in Israel.

“These experiences deepen the ties between our communities and help Jews from America understand Israel, and Israeli Jews understand Jewish communities in the United States and other nations.”

Asked how the downturn in the global economy, including the recession in the United States had affected fund-raising for Jewish Agency-supported programs, Sharansky said, “Five years ago, Jewish Federations collected a total of $160 million. This year we estimate a total of $103 million, down about one-third. This means we may have to close some Jewish schools in Russia, reduce some summer camping programs or the number of Hebrew classes we offer in various communities. We hope to make up the reductions. The American Jewish community remains the richest and most philanthropic in the world, but only 15 percent of what its members donate goes to specifically Jewish causes, such as Federation, Hillel, AIPAC and the like. If we can raise that percentage to 20 percent we can meet all of our needs, and I believe we can get there.”