At a tribute dinner hosted in his honor by the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency on Sunday night, outgoing chairman of the organization Natan Sharansky had some tips for his successor Isaac Herzog.
Sharansky warned Herzog that life would become a nonstop series of conference calls, budgetary cuts, bureaucracy and visits to the airport to welcome plane loads of new immigrants.
In spite of all this, he told him, the new chairman must not forget to be strong in defending the Jewish people in his presentations to the government of Israel, and no less strong and proud when speaking to Diaspora Jews about Israel.
“They have to be proud and supportive,” said Sharansky, who made strengthening Jewish identity and Jews’ connection with Israel the focal points of his tenure.
Sharansky recalled that when he served in government, he had resigned on two occasions – but insisted that he had never once thought of resigning during his nine-year chairmanship of the Jewish Agency. “I loved every minute of it,” he said, especially meeting plane loads of new immigrants, and bidding farewell to Jewish Agency emissaries who were going abroad either for civilian national service or for a year of pre-military community service to fight BDS on college campuses and to instill Jewish pride in Jewish youth around the globe.
Four such young emissaries were among the speakers at Jerusalem’s Orient Hotel during the evening. One of them, Slav Leiblin – who was also master of ceremonies for the tribute – was also the first Jewish Agency emissary at Princeton University. During his time at Princeton, he was accused of being a spy for Israel, was constantly being criticized and also had to contend with BDS.
It was tough and it was lonely. There were defamatory articles about him in the media, and he felt terribly alone and afraid that he had failed in his mission.
One day, he got a phone call from Israel. When he heard that the caller was Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, he was sure that he was going to be fired. But instead, Sharansky asked him about the problems he’d encountered and listened attentively to every word. He then told Leiblin that people criticize because they care, and that the criticism was a sign that he was making a difference and that he was succeeding. He himself had been subjected to a lot of criticism in his endeavors, Sharansky had told Leiblin, but the important thing was to persevere in what he thought was right.
After that Leiblin didn’t felt alone any more.
Ben Yael, who had served as an emissary in Toronto, Canada, and today is an officer in the Israel Air Force, said: “Today, as an officer in the IAF, I’m protecting Israel. In Toronto I was creating spiritual strength to protect the Jewish people.”
Board of Governors chairman Michael Siegel noted that under Sharansky, the number of Jewish Agency emissaries had increased by 46% to 2,000 and that during the nine years in which Sharansky chaired the Jewish Agency, more than 200,000 immigrants had come to Israel. Siegel also spoke of Sharansky’s contribution to finding a solution for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall; of his influence with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon; and with Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Gallant for the construction of 2,650 affordable housing units.
Taking a leap back in time, Siegel said that for those Jews who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, it had been a privilege “to be part of an amazing phenomenon to free Soviet Jews.”
He said that as someone who had been part of that movement, he felt honored to call Sharansky his friend and colleague.
Irwin Cotler, international human rights activist, professor of international law and former Canadian justice minister and attorney general, characterized the evening as a tribute to a human rights hero, whose many human rights activities included the founding of the Helsinki Watch Group, which Cotler said had a transforming impact on members of the Soviet Jewry Movement.
“They were our human rights manifesto in the Soviet Union,” said Cotler, who also spoke of his meeting forty years ago with Nobel Peace Prize laureate physicist Andrei Sakharov, the famous Russian dissident and human rights activist who had been a friend and mentor to Sharansky.
Cotler said when Sharansky was imprisoned on trumped-up charges, Sakharov had declared the imprisonment of Sharansky was the imprisonment of human rights in the Soviet Union. He had told Cotler: “Sharansky is each and every one of us. He represents us all.”
Cotler, who had been an activist in the world Jewry movement for the freedom of Soviet Jews, said that Sharansky has been “the face, the voice and [the] identify of the Jews of the Soviet Union,” and had remained “an incredible person of commitment and compassion – a role model for all of us.”
Cotler described Sharansky as “what being Jewish and the pursuit of justice is all about.”
In terms of being a role model, Sharansky also set the pace for other Jews who are former citizens of the Soviet Union, and who have become affluent since the collapse of the Communist regime. Several of these wealthy FSU Jews have involved themselves in the future of the Jewish people through large scale philanthropic activities in Israel and the Diaspora.
Among them is Mikhael Mirilashvili, the Georgian-born pediatrician turned industrialist who is president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and who was recently elected president of the Euro-Asian division of Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal.
Through Keren Hayesod, Mirilashvili has given large donations to several national projects in Israel. Together with David Koschitzky, chairman of the Keren Hayesod-UIA Board of Trustees, he presented Sharansky with Keren Hayesod’s Defender of Jerusalem Award.
Avraham Duvdevani, chairman of the World Zionist Organization described Sharansky as “a great Zionist.”
Richard Sandler, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America said that he had first met Sharansky in St. Petersburg eight years ago in the course of a federation mission, and since then they had become firm friends – so much so that whenever he and his wife are in Israel, they spend a Shabbat with Sharansky and his wife Avital and members of their family in the Sharansky home in Jerusalem.
Tributes were also paid to Avital Sharansky, who veterans of the Struggle for Soviet Jewry Movement remember traveling around the world to implore political leaders to campaign for her husband’s freedom from prison. She was thanked for agreeing to share him with the Jewish world.
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