Sharansky to Post: Don't take future for granted

Jewish Agency chairman believes strengthening of Jewish identity, pride among Diaspora engendered by the “shock” of Holocaust has worn off.

Natan Sharansky 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Natan Sharansky 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
“We cannot take the future of the Jewish people for granted,” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Interviewed at Jerusalem’s Inbal hotel following a speech to leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the former refusenik stated that he believes the strengthening of Jewish identity and pride among Diaspora Jews engendered by the “shock” of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel has worn off.
“The connection to Judaism through classical Jewish education” has also declined, he said.
“That decline used to be compensated for by Israel involvement.”
However, with polls indicating that only half of American Jews under 30 would be disturbed by the destruction of the State of Israel, American Jewry’s connection to Israel is eroding.
Sharansky, during his tenure as head of JAFI, has steered the agency on a new course, focusing less on its former core mission of facilitating mass aliya, and is pushing programs that strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
Discussing programs such as Birthright, which bring young Jews to Israel for a free tour, Sharansky noted that an “Israel experience is becoming absolutely crucial in strengthening Jewish identity.”
While he acknowledged that “on the one hand Jews are less emotionally involved with Israel,” he noted that “if you look at the young Jewish leadership now versus 25 years ago, they are much more connected to Israel than before.”
Programs such as Birthright and the recently announced Onward are “our main hope,” Sharansky said.
These programs “are the only thing that can compensate for the weakening pain of the Holocaust and the triumph of the creation of the State of Israel,” he said.
Asked about his agency’s change in focus, he said that it is not, as some claim, a “betrayal of aliya.”
“We are no less passionate about aliya, but when it comes to the free world it is not a question of rescue” like with Ethiopian or Soviet Jewry.
“In order to encourage aliya you must make Diaspora Jews feel closer to Israel. If you want to stop assimilation you must make people less indifferent to their Jewish identity and more passionate about their belonging to the Jewish family.”
Many of those at the most risk of assimilation abroad he said, are the children of Israeli expatriates and Russian Jews who have moved to the United States.
“The most dangerous situation is among those speaking Russian and Hebrew,” he said. Sharansky claims that this is because the kinds of communal institutions that help maintain Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews do not appeal to Israelis and Russians.
“We have to strengthen the Jewish identity of Israelis abroad,” he said.