Just a few weeks ago the Simon Wiesenthal Center with great pride hosted Natan Sharansky at the 2017 Dorothy Gardner Adler State of Anti-Semitism annual lecture series endowed in perpetuity by her son Allen Adler. One after another, those both in my age group as well as the generation before us stood in awe of this figurative giant of a man. Program participants who have many times been in front of significant figures, angled to shake this man’s hand, prodded him to take a soon-to-be-treasured photograph, and whispered stories in his ear about how his presence pushed them to combat the hate that all too consistently follows the path of our people.
To me, Sharansky is an inspirational giant. He is the embodiment of all that we in the Jewish world should aim to be. He was and remains a role model for unabashedly Jewish pride, enlightening us all to the modern-day depths of anti-Semitism, and our ability both as a people and as individuals to both fight back against the bigots and rise above in the eyes of the world. Simply put—he is a living legend.
When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Sharansky was the example taught, he was the man discussed at our dinner table, and he is one of the key individuals that inspired a generation of effective leadership and impassioned activism in the Jewish world.
What struck me, however, in the weeks leading up to this important event were my conversations with a number of yeshiva high schools that we invited to have join us at this unique opportunity. While one after another, the administration personnel clearly exhibited their excitement, they simultaneously told how today’s high school students need to attend because they have for the most part never heard of this man that we around the table revered.
Who is Natan Sharansky?
To myself and my generation he represents an ideal. Sharansky represents what our actions should be, if only we were both freed of the shackles of our own inhibitions and had the courage, talent and dedication to protect the Jewish world in the way that he has shown us throughout most of his now 70 years.
As the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its peer organizations strive to instill these emotional qualities into the next generation of our community, we need to recognize the heroes of our youth. The schools that I addressed were not public schools outside of our community who we aim to teach our history for the building of intercommunal relationships, but the Jewish day schools in our very own backyard.
We need to tell the tale of Sharansky’s languishing in a Soviet hard-labor prison for nine years, falsely accused of high treason simply because he fought for himself, his family and Soviet Jews like him for the right to emigrate to Israel. We need to tell the story of how this man rose from the ashes to become the deputy prime minister of Israel focusing on protecting international Jewry and their right to find democracy, human rights and a sanctuary in their ancestral homeland. We need to tell the story to show the next generation what is truly possible.
It is equally critical for us to recognize that many of the current class of Jewish leadership came from the Soviet Jewry movement that Sharansky ignited. From Malcolm Hoenlein to Dov Hikind, the roots predominantly have that common thread.
Who is Natan Sharansky?
To children such as my own who are growing up in a world where the Soviet Union itself has not existed in their lifetime, Sharansky must remain a living breathing ideal if there are to be future leaders like him. We must ask ourselves, who will my children look to in the way that we looked at the most famous of the refuseniks just the other night, and as the generation prior looked at Holocaust survivors such as Simon Wiesenthal, and the generation before that looked at Zionists such as Chaim Weitzman. Who will stand strong in the face of our enemies in a way that captivates the imagination as Sharansky has done for decades. Who will once again unify us all under a solitary banner and rally us all to the just cause of our people?
While we might not yet have identified tomorrow’s similarly iconic figures, we must understand that they will not appear at all if we can walk into a classroom of even those who we insularly educate and find that the name Sharansky so soon does not sufficiently ring a bell.
Who is Natan Sharansky?
He is a symbol that we must all bring back into our lives so that he enters the consciousness of our children. He is the symbol of what is possible for our people and a symbol of hope for those who will follow him.
By Michael D. Cohen, Eastern Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center