Natan Sharansky .
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
In a year when relations between Diaspora Jewry and Israel reached a new low, longtime Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was a vital player in attempting to mediate. Issues of religious pluralism caused particular strife, with government decisions on an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall and on conversion angering many liberal Jews.
Sharansky had told The Jerusalem Post last year that he intended to step down from his role as Jewish Agency chairman, but upon the request of the board of governors agreed to extend his term in order to see through unresolved issues pertaining to the various religious Jewish streams.
Sharansky spearheaded the agreement to create a state-recognized pluralistic prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall, and was blindsided by the government’s June decision to cancel it. The controversial decision was announced the same day the government decided to advance a contentious conversion bill that would grant the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly over conversions in Israel.
It remains to be seen whether Sharansky can help bridge the differences between the ultra-Orthodox-influenced Israeli government and the pluralistic sensitivities of US and other Diaspora Jewry. While he may not have won that fight – or at least not yet – he has recently reached a number of other achievements which he takes pride in.
Among them is the shift the agency took under his helm to focus on Jewish identity and not just aliya. It currently deploys 89 emissaries on campuses across the US, and that number is expected to continue to grow.
However, his life quest for the past 45 years – to connect between Israel and world Jewry – has hit bumps in the road.
Sharansky, though, is a man accustomed to challenges. A former Soviet refusenik imprisoned for nine years, a veteran of Israeli politics, and a world-class chess player, Sharansky, as he sees out his ninth and apparently final year as agency chief, is always mulling the next move.
He previously told the Post that he intends to invest in educating Israelis about the importance of the Diaspora and the need for more engagement between Jews in Israel and Jews around the world.