Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency and former Soviet Union Refusenik, recently spoke to students and faculty members of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). The event, which was sponsored by ARZA, ARZENU, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), the College and the student body, resulted in a packed audience of students, faculty members and other guests.
Yaron Shavit (IMPJ chair) brought greetings from the IMPJ, Rabbi Na’ama Kelman (HUC Dean) brought greetings from the College, Dan Utley represented the student body, Joan Garson (ARZENU president) spoke on behalf of ARZENU and Rabbi Stan Davids spoke on ARZA’s behalf.
Natan Sharansky spoke about human rights and Jewish freedom and his time as a Refusenik and as a prisoner in Siberia, and how he fully embraced both these two ideals. He never allowed pressures from one side to deter him from being active on the other side.
He said he often had issues with some supporters in Israel who wanted him to give up his activities on behalf of human rights so as to focus only on Jewish issues, and that he had problems within the human rights community in the Soviet Union who wanted him to set aside his particularistic Jewish concerns and to be the great universal leader.
He told story after story in which he pointed out to the students why it was important for him to be both and why he remains both. He was a particularistic Jew who embraces human rights. He spoke about how his captors in Siberia tried to break him, to convince him that he had been abandoned by the world, especially by the Jewish world, and how he never believed that.
He then talked about the students themselves and how they have to respond to the needs of their world and must not be found wanting in taking on the burdens of moral and political leadership, as well as Jewish leadership as rabbis, cantors and educators. And that means that they cannot turn away from the human rights issues, which torment our world today, even as they cannot turn away from the Jewish issues, which are overwhelmingly present in Israel and in the Diaspora.
The students then asked him how this is done, including one student, who stood up and said that she was having a hard time figuring out how she could bring back a positive message about Israel to the people she’ll be serving (in the US) when she sees in Israel so much that is disturbing to her as someone who embraces and endorses human and civil rights.
He mentioned you have to operate out of love for Israel, you have to operate out of understanding for Israel; you have to teach your community that love and that understanding, and then you also have to be honest in your love about the problems you want to address. It is not sufficient to be aware of the deficiencies; you have to be committed to work to heal and to rebuild and to repair.
He stressed the work that the students have to do when they go back to the States. He challenged them and inspired them and let them know how important the tasks they will confront really are. And to have the head of the Jewish Agency, a genuine Jewish hero, stand before you and say that the course of studies you are undertaking will be leading you to an opportunity to save the Jewish people had an extraordinary impact.
Click here for HUC-JIR’s account of this visit.
Natan Sharansky speaks to a packed audience. Seated L-R: Rabbi Stan Davids, Rabbi Na'ama Kelman, Joan Garson and Yaron Shavit
(L-R) Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem , Yaron Shavit, Chair, IMPJ; Natan Sharansky, Chair, Jewish Agency for Israel; Rabbi Stanley Davids, Former Chair, ARZA, and Member, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem Board of Overseers; Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director, Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism; and Dalya Levy, Director, Arzenu; at the Murstein Synagogue at HUC-JIR Jerusalem.