For many, the release of Natan Sharansky in 1986 was monumental.
One of the most notable refuseniks held prisoner in the Soviet Union, Sharansky became an inspiration in the Soviet Jewry movement.
Senior Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi reflected on his impact at Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation’s event, “Distinguished Voices: An Inspiring Speaker Series on World Jewry,” on Tuesday, June 14.
She recalled how many would wear bracelets bearing his name or listen to Sharansky’s wife, Avital, tell them about what it meant to be a Jewish person in the world at all times.
“It was not just a movement to free Soviet Jewry,” Beit-Halachmi said. “It was actually a movement that taught us about Jewish peoplehood, about what it meant to be a Jew — what it meant to be a human being — committed to freedom and democracy.”
In the second lecture of the Distinguished Voices series, scholar-in-residence Sharansky shared lessons from his journey.
He began by setting the scene growing up in an antisemitic Soviet Union where citizens often hid their true lives out of fear. One notable example came after Joseph Stalin died.
“I was 5 years old. Stalin died, and my father explained to me that it is very good that Stalin died — that we Jews were in a very big danger. But, ‘don’t tell it to anybody, do what everybody does,’” he recalled his father telling him.
The next day, he was at kindergarten with the other children, crying and singing songs to mourn Stalin.
Judaism offered him the chance to be connected to something beyond that life — a history that started thousands of years before and a cultural family that spanned the world.
It’s that sense of identity, he said, that can give you strength to start speaking your mind and become a free person.
Despite the pressure to keep up appearances, Soviet Jews were vocalizing their struggles — even though demonstrations could be shut down in as little as five minutes and mean five years of prison time, Sharansky said.
And American Jews were risking their freedom to be part of that struggle, sending letters for refuseniks — those denied a visa to go to Israel.
Sharansky served nine years in the gulag Soviet labor camps.
Years later, he visited the prison, and a journalist asked him why he would want to go back to a place that had been a source of such pain. But Sharansky saw it as an inspiration.
He noted that the KGB and the Soviet Union don’t exist anymore, yet a million Jews that were imprisoned here and beyond are now free.
“Isn’t it inspiring to think that that is the power which our Jewish people have to change the world?” Sharansky said.
In the second part of the evening, Sharansky sat down for a living room–style chat on modern issues with Beit-Halachmi and Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein, who served at large during the Obama administration working on religious freedom across the world.
Sharansky found parallels in dealing with struggle — in the pandemic and during his prison time — and suggested always finding some ways to lighten the mood, as he did telling anti-Soviet jokes in prison when no one was allowed to laugh at them.
He joked at the time, “You can’t even laugh if you want to laugh, and you want to say I am in prison, not you?”
Saperstein brought up the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the context of a global movement of declining democracies beginning in 2006. When asking Sharansky about his “sense of the future of human rights and democracy,” Sharansky replied that the issue was less about democracy than it was about freedom. Problems arise when countries fail to balance a national sense of belonging with a desire for freedom, as evidenced in the imperialist nationalism with which President Vladimir Putin shaped Russia and the freedom-based nationalism of Ukraine, Sharansky said.
It was freedom in identity that Sharansky ultimately connected back to Israel when Beit-Halachmi asked how the Jewish people can have hope moving forward.
“With all our political disagreements … you have one history and one faith,” which are powerful, Sharansky said.