Liz Piper-Goldberg, a first-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, writes:
Jerusalem, like Washington, D.C., is really just a small town bursting with political celebrities. Rather than tallying up run-ins with Senators and Supreme Court Judges, I can always count on seeing an Israeli politician and a Jewish celebrity or two on every street corner. I live in a neighborhood called Rehavia adjacent to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s residence - his motorcade often delays my walk to school. I heard a d’var Torah given by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem when I attended Slichot services at the Great Synagogue across the street from my apartment. Every month that I attend Rosh Chodesh services, I pray with Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Walland the Israel Religious Action Center.
This past week, I encountered another celebrity when Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, spoke to the students and faculty of HUC-JIRJerusalem and leaders of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). Sharansky has a long history of political involvement in Israeli society and a lifetime of activism on the global scene. Born in the Ukraine, Sharansky embodied and was imprisoned for his leadership of the movement to liberate Soviet Jewry. Simultaneously, Sharansky served as the unofficial spokesman of human rights movement across the Soviet Union.
Throughout the evening, Sharansky spoke clearly and eloquently about this exact tension between the particular and the universal, between the rights of the Jewish people and the freedom of all people. This intersection and tension between universalism and particularism resonates strongly with Reform Jews to this day. As a leader of both the human rights and Soviet Jewry movements, Sharansky explained that he was pushed to decide which cause would receive his complete support: universal social justice or Jewish religious freedom. He argued that these two movements are far from incompatible, and that he always found a connection between the desire to belong and the desire to be free.
Sharansky described his upbringing in the Soviet Union, explaining that he was a completely assimilated Jew, and grew up knowing nothing. There were tens of thousands of Soviet Jews in this same situation, who only understood Judaism in terms of the restrictions it imposed on them, whose identity only had negative meaning. They were unable to express or connect their Jewish identities, but they also had no freedom, living under a dictatorship.
Everything changed in 1967, after the Six Day War. While Israel’s victory emboldened anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments, it also initiated a change in the Jewish people worldwide, augmenting their dignity and pride. At this time, the underground movement for Soviet Jewry began, with support from Jews abroad who recognized their own Jewish self-identity, seeing themselves reflected in a worldwide movement. The Soviet Jews inserted themselves into the Exodus story, discovering that they belonged to a rich and ancient narrative, to a people that supported them, and to a nation that they could call home. Sharansky explained that this discovery of history, peoplehood, and the State of Israel is fundamental to a vibrant Jewish identity to this day.
In 1987, it was the Jews of North America who organized the national March on Washington for Soviet Jewry, which – with more than 200,000 supporters – was one of the largest demonstrations in American history. Sharansky emphasized the importance of grassroots support for social justice movements. For the two months prior to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s first trip to Washington, the RAC became the march’s operational headquarters. The RAC conference room was packed with desks, computers, phone lines, and scores of volunteers as the RAC staff mobilized congregations throughout the country and coordinated the efforts of other Jewish organizations to make the march a huge success.
I was moved and excited by Sharansky’s emphasis on Jewish Peoplehood during his address. He argued that the same awakening of Jewish identity that occurred in Soviet Jews has happened for the more than 300,000 Birthright Israelparticipants, and all the more so, for participants in long term Israel programs, such as EIE, NFTY in Israel, or HUC-JIR’s Year in Israel. As he stated, “Israel doesn’t have any magic Zionism to give you – so what’s happening?” North American Jews who visit Israel are discovering that we have a stake in a history, a people, and a nation – a nation that is exciting and interesting, despite the problems and challenges that we also find here.
Sharansky concluded his remarks by emphasizing that the central battleground of this false choice between the universal and particular is happening on our North American college campuses. This is the place where Jewish young adults are pushed to make a choice between human rights and Judaism, where they do not want to be accused of supporting narrow interests to the exclusion of universal justice. Important work is being done in this arena by the Avi Schaefer Fund, named in memory of a friend and Jewish leader. It is dedicated to carry on his work to change the climate of the Israeli-Palestinian discussion on college campus. For all those who wish to work for tikkun olam, the repair of the world, and against oppression, dictatorship, and tyranny, these values are rooted in our Jewish identity and tradition.