A crowd packed a room at Kohelet Yeshiva on Oct. 29 to hear Natan Sharansky, the human rights activist and refusenik who served for a time as Israel’s deputy prime minister and, until recently, as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The event was planned in advance of the shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh, but when the day came around, the massacre of 11 congregants weighed heavily on many. The attack came up soon into the event. Before Sharansky delved into his childhood in the Soviet Union and the years he spent as an activist, he addressed the topic head on, bemoaning continued anti-Semitism.
Kohelet Yeshiva Head of School Rabbi Gil S. Perl opened the event. He spoke about how some of his hardest-working students come from families with roots in the Soviet Union.
He then introduced one of those students, junior Allen Shalmiyev. Shalmiyev gave some background on Sharansky, a recipient of both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honors. Then, Shalmiyev dropped a few words of Russian.
“Your Russian’s not bad,” Sharanksy said, taking the stand. “How’s your Hebrew?”
The crowd laughed, but the tone shifted immediately to a more somber one as Sharanksy addressed the shooting. He reflected on other attacks that have happened against Jewish communities across the world over the years and noted that anti-Semitism was not new.
Then he spoke about growing up devoid of Jewish life.
“There was one Jewish thing in our life — anti-Semitism,” Sharansky said.
As a child, being Jewish meant one other thing. To his parents, it meant he must be the best of his class and the best in his profession. This was how the Jewish people survived in the Soviet Union, he said. He was a chess prodigy and later was accepted into a prestigious mathematics institution.
“There was no identity in our life,” he said. “There was also no freedom. From a very young age, you find out there is no freedom.”
When he was 5, Josef Stalin died. He remembers his father telling him and his brother about it, and telling them that his death would be a good thing for Soviet Jewry.
The next day in his kindergarten, Sharansky cried along with the other children and sang songs about how grateful they were to Stalin and the Soviet Union. He had no idea how many of the children were sincere and how many were pretending, like him.
When later he was accepted to one of the best mathematical institutions in the country, he thought he would be safe.
Then, in 1967, the Six-Day War broke out.
Sharansky wasn’t particularly involved in the Israeli cause, he said. His career was more important to him. Despite his lack of involvement, the war and Israel impacted how others treated him. Overnight, the stereotype of a Jew went from someone who was weak to someone who was vicious.
Sharansky decided to start reading about Israel and Judaism. He read about how young people, many of them from Eastern Europe, built the Jewish state. He felt inspired and connected by what he learned.
“You discover that you have a history,” he said. “You discover that you have a people.”
In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel and was denied. He had become a refusenik.
Afterward, he became an activist, participating in demonstrations for the right of Jews to emigrate. Then he was arrested for high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Under intense international pressure and a campaign led by his wife, his imprisonment ended after nine years.
The event also included a question-and-answer portion.
Some had family from the Soviet Union.
One woman recalled, as a child in school, sending Sharansky letters and supplies. Sharansky said he never received anything, but it was still important that people had sent things, as it put pressure on the Soviet Union.
Another woman recalled participating in protests to fight for Sharansky’s freedom. She remembered her mom saying they would never release him because he meant too much to Jews. She asked him what life holds for him next.
“I still didn’t become what I really wanted — a world chess champion,” Sharansky said.