Natan Sharansky, the 61-year-old author, activist and former Soviet dissident, was elected chairman of the Jewish Agency by a unanimous vote of the 120-member Jewish Agency Assembly on Thursday afternoon. "This closed a great circle for me," Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post shortly after the election. The circle "began in Moscow, where we lived as Jews without identity, weak. After 1967, we suddenly began to feel the existence of Israel, of the Jewish people. We had an identity. We started to fight." Sharansky's fight for human rights under the Soviet regime, as part of the movement led by Andrei Sakharov, led him to be arrested on espionage charges in 1977. He served nine years in a Siberian labor camp before being released in 1986 in an exchange for two Soviet spies captured in the West. An awakening such as his, he continued, "has to happen now to Jews around the world. We're in a world where Jews are losing their identity. Israel and world Jewry are like receding galaxies, floating apart at a time when contact is easier than ever." Since 1986, Sharansky has lived in Israel, serving as a minister in Likud-led governments and as the chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Affairs in Jerusalem's Shalem Center. He was awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal in 1986 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. Born in the Ukraine in 1948, Sharansky graduated from the Physical Technical Institute in Moscow with a degree in computer science. He has played chess all his life, from winning the championship of his birthtown of Donetsk at age 15 to defeating world champion Gary Kasparov in a simultaneous exhibition game when Sharansky was minister of industry and trade at age 52. He may need all his strategic prowess to take on the job of running a Jewish Agency whose complex leadership structure is drawn from throughout the Jewish world. The agency has suffered badly in the international financial storm and must answer serious questions about its future and goals in the years to come, as aliya dwindles and some of its functions are spun off to smaller, boutique organizations. His goals for the agency went beyond connecting with Diaspora Jews, he said. "Abroad there is the problem of assimilation, but in Israel, too, young Jews are growing away from their roots. It weakens us as a people. If we create contacts between the Diaspora and Israel, we strengthen their identity and ours at the same time. The Jewish Agency is that meeting place, the ideal tool for developing that connection." His first act as chairman? "To start to understand what the Jewish Agency is, exactly." For the first time, the chairmanship of the agency is not also the chairmanship of the World Zionist Organization. Recent reform efforts aimed at separating the agency's leadership from Israeli political influence have weakened the link between the two leaderships. Sharansky was elected for a full four-year term that will end in 2013, not, as some have called for, as an interim chairman until the Zionist Congress next summer. The WZO, meanwhile, will continue without a chairman until the congress.