Natan Sharansky grew up living a double life in the Soviet Union. He remembers Stalin’s death in 1953, when he was five. His father told him it was a miracle.

The next day, he went into kindergarten and cried with all of the other children, even though he knew that he should be happy.

Sharansky knew he was Jewish because of anti-Semitism. It was not until Jewish tourists began sneaking books into the country that he began to learn about Jewish history and developed a Jewish identity.

In 1977, at age 30, Sharansky was arrested for refusing to hide his political and religious beliefs. The KGB repeatedly offered him freedom if he would agree to condemn Zionism at a press conference.

Instead, Sharansky sat in prison for nine years, five of them in solitary confinement, until his release in 1986.

“It all comes from my identity. The fact that I discovered my roots, my people – that gave me my strength,” Sharansky told young adults from the Diaspora at MASA’s Your Next Step conference in the capital on Tuesday.

TV personality Kobi Meidan interviewed Sharansky, now the chairman of the Jewish Agency, before an audience of 1,300 MASA program participants at the Jerusalem International Convention Center [Binyanei Ha’uma].

Believing in universal principles of human rights fits perfectly with being a Jewish nationalist, Sharansky said.

“They were pushing me to make a choice, ‘You’re a person of the world or you’re a Jewish nationalist.’ It’s an absolutely false choice. If you want to be a person of the world you have to be proud of your Jewish identity.”

Avi Steinberg, MASA’s educational director, recalled the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and Sharansky in particular. “I was raised on his personal story and I demonstrated for his release,” Steinberg said.

“I think the young generation today is not familiar with his personal story and I think he represents the story of the State of Israel. It’s very important to give participants the opportunity to meet this hero,” he said.

MASA is a joint program of the government and the Jewish Agency that brings young Jews from the Diaspora to Israel for extended periods.

Its programs include Jewish studies in yeshivot, pre-college gap-years, undergraduate and graduate academic study abroad and post-college volunteering and career building.

This conference was a new initiative this year, adding panel discussions and speakers to the annual end-of-the-academic-year concert. Hip hop/funk septet Hadag Nahash performed for 3,000 MASA program participants.

The conference included sessions in English and Russian on subjects such as representing Israel on North American campuses for gap-year participants and returning on aliya for post-college participants.

“This event is a continuation of the educational vision, rather than just a performance. We want participants to think about their aspirations after this program and what they want to do when they go back or choose to stay here,” said Noa David, academic program director for MASA.

Sharansky pointed to North American college campuses as the next center of anti-Semitism. During his first visit to an unnamed campus, he heard a disturbing comment.

“As a liberal Jew that believes in justice for everybody, I really feel that it would be better for me to live in a world where Israel does not exist,” an American student told him.

Sharansky used the lessons of communism to address the call for a pluralist world without a Jewish state.

Soviet Jews joined the Communist Party so that they would no longer be considered “a people of the ghetto,” he said

Through their assimilation, they helped create one of the worst regimes in history, Sharansky warned.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger