BALTIMORE—Modern Jewish education, according to Natan Sharansky, ignores an event of historic proportions akin to the exodus from Egypt.
While in dialogue on Monday with Elie Wiesel, arguably the world’s best-known Holocaust survivor, Sharansky—perhaps the best-known “refusenik” and now chairman of the executive at The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)—made that statement about what he perceives to be a lack of educational material being conveyed to youths on the success stories of their parents in the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
“Why is it not part of the curriculum of every Jewish school?” Sharansky asked, adding that it was “a big, big loss in all of our Jewish education,” and something that leaves him “really puzzled.”
“American Jewry lived through this, actively participated in this,” he added. “They did it. That is what is so surprising [about its lack of presence in Jewish education].”
During a plenary session at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly in Baltimore, Sharansky and Wiesel reflected on the 25th anniversary of the Dec. 6, 1987 “Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews,” which drew 250,000 people in Washington, DC, leading up to a meeting between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Misha Galperin—CEO, International Development for The Jewish Agency for Israel—said in an interview with JNS.org that Sharansky’s comparison of the Egyptian exodus to the Soviet exodus was apt, calling the freedom of Soviet Jewry “one of the great peoplehood actions” of Jewish history. Galperin was born and raised in Odessa, Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union.
“The Soviet Jewry movement galvanized Soviet Jews, it galvanized American Jews, Australian Jews, Argentine Jews, Jews in Israel,” Galperin said.
Galperin also cited the efforts of Freedom 25, which is partnering with major Jewish organizations—including JFNA—to “enlist one million people in an online ‘virtual march’ to mark 25 years since the Freedom Sunday March,” according to its website.
“[The Freedom Sunday March] was a reaffirmation of the idea that we’re all part of the same family, and I think it’s something that unfortunately many in the Jewish world are losing and missing, and here (in Freedom 25) is a way to teach it, to remind us about it, and teach our children about it,” Galperin told JNS.org, echoing Sharansky’s call for more education on the Soviet Jewry movement.
Wiesel, a leading figure in the fight to free Soviet Jewry who said at the 1987 march “We are not silent today,” recalled at the GA plenary that American Jewry initially “didn’t want to hear” about the plight of Soviet Jewry. In 1969, Wiesel said he had to use that year’s GA as a platform to urge Max Fisher, top executive of the Jewish Federation system at the time, to make Soviet Jewry a priority. This stood in contrast to the Israeli Jewish community and government’s immediate embrace of that issue.
“Israel is the symbol of Jewish survival, and the fact that the Israeli government was taking this so much to the heart, [that] Soviet Jewry should be defended…It was great, a great medal, a medal of honor,” Wiesel said.
Wiesel said there was eventually “a certain guilt feeling in America” among young Jews that that U.S. did not do enough during the dark years of Soviet Jewry, and those youths did not want to be burdened with the same criticism being levied on their parents and grandparents in that area.
Then, when young people proceeded to take up the cause of Soviet Jewry, “the parents actually liked it,” Wiesel said.
“We were following a sense of history,” he said. “History in its totality has been moving [people] in a direction of human rights… It appealed to people, it was romantic to work for human rights, and human rights therefore in the Soviet Union.”
Sharansky said that in the Soviet Union, Jews were deprived of freedom, but also of their identity, as Hebrew schools, Yiddish schools, and Jewish theaters were all closed. “When I was growing in the Soviet Union…there was nothing that you can touch in your past, in your heritage, in your culture, in your religion—nothing,” he said.
The former refusenik—who spent nine years in the Soviet Gulag—said activists on behalf of Soviet Jewry “discovered what we [as prisoners] discovered, in a different way—their identity.” The activists learned “they can make a historical change, and they were devoted to it,” Sharansky said.
Wiesel said an important lesson from to movement to free Soviet Jewry was “to have imagination,” describing that his conversation with Sharansky on the GA stage would have been unfathomable at the time the struggle for freedom was taking place.
Additionally, Wiesel reminded the GA audience to keep its attention focused on the Jewish state.
“Israel is still in danger, Israel is still threatened, Israel still needs the Jews of the Diaspora more than ever before, and I don’t feel the commitment,” Wiesel said.
“We have not mobilized our people for Israel, not enough,” he added.