Opinion | What we can learn from Natan Sharansky’s book, ‘Never Alone’

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (Courtesy of Congregation B’nai Tzedek)

By Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt

Natan Sharansky’s most recent book, “Never Alone,” co-authored with Gil Troy, is a must-read for anyone who cares about the American Jewish community, and especially for those in leadership positions.

The book is divided into three sections covering three phases of his life: his nine years as a Soviet dissident and in a Soviet prison, his nine years in Israeli government and nine years as head of the Jewish Agency.

Sharansky’s willingness to take on Soviet authorities is an inspirational message of courage and of the power of faith, a faith discovered late in life. Learning about the Judaism denied to him by the Communist regime set him on a journey that deepened his love and commitment to his heritage and people. His Jewish identity provided him a sense of purpose and of belonging and was the key to being free in a totalitarian state that sought to control everything, including one’s thoughts.

Being a member of a people with a proud history who have faced adversity throughout the millennia provided him with the encouragement and tools that liberated him. Fortified with this, along with his chutzpah, courage, keen intellect, wonderful sense of humor and mischievous nature, he found the strength and the will to persevere in unimaginable circumstances and to defy the Soviet regime and its concerted efforts to break his will.

Alone in prison, he knew that he was anything but alone, for he was confident that Jews around the world were with him in his struggle and working on behalf of his freedom and that of Soviet Jews.

As inspiring as this chapter of his life is, with important lessons for all of us, his insights about Israel, Israeli politics and his honest and frank assessment of Israeli leaders and policies is equally fascinating as it provides valuable background information that takes us behind the scenes and beyond the headlines.

But the real reason I recommend the book so strongly for leaders in the American Jewish community is because of the section that deals with his role as head of the Jewish Agency. In this role, he decides to change the agency’s focus to promote not just aliyah, but Jewish identity, the birth of Birthright and battles waged on college campuses and elsewhere against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the closed-mindedness prevalent on so many college campuses.

We learn the inside story of the reasons for the breakdown of the agreement over the Kotel as well as other issues pertaining to the sometimes-rocky relationship between the Jews of America and Israel. He speaks of the difficulty surrounding the inability of American Jews to appreciate the fear Israelis have for Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

I found his analysis of the root causes at the core of the differences to be especially illuminating and helped explain complex, seemingly incomprehensible matters. His observations and insights are important for anyone who wants to better understand the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.

“Never Alone” takes its title from the fact that even as he languished in a Soviet prison, he knew that he was not alone. He has devoted his life to helping others recognize the power of solidarity and to feel what he feels, that being a part of an eternal people shows us the path forward.

The book helps pave the way for greater understanding. His story is an inspiring one. His journey and mission are a living testament to the fact that when we are united we can achieve great things, and that our sense of unity, solidarity and purpose must transcend whatever issues of the day may divide us.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is chair of the Zionist Rabbinic Coalition and senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.

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