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Thirty years ago this month, a modern-day Jewish hero was freed from prison. Back then, it never would have occurred to me that Natan Sharansky and I would become colleagues. Today, nonetheless, I am honored and proud to count this man – who has inspired generations of Jews around the world and engendered goodwill even in politically complex scenarios – within my circles. Ours is a relationship borne of a personal bond that began while he was still a Soviet prisoner.
I first met Natan’s extraordinary wife, Avital, in 1978 when she was campaigning for his freedom in the U.S. She came to enlist the support of the campers and staff of the then-UAHC Camp Swig, where I was a 22-year-old unit head in Solel, the camp’s Hebrew speaking program. A fluent English speaker, Avital agreed to address the camp and members of the press and community in English.
To our surprise, she began speaking in Hebrew at which point the camp director motioned me to step up and translate her words. The words were not hard to translate, but the emotion was nearly impossible to convey. She told us that because her husband was imprisoned for the crime of wanting to speak Hebrew and live as a Jew, she felt it important that we, too, should communicate in the one language that unites our people across millennia and oceans.
Much more recently, when I met Natan for the first time, I gave him a copy of a photo of Avital and me taken during her visit to Camp Swig nearly four decades ago. From that moment on, he and I have shared a strong bond that extends to our two organizations – the Reform Movement and the Jewish Agency. Each summer the Jewish Agency sends hundreds of shlichim to North America, where they share their love of Israel with everyone in our 15 summer camps. In turn, they return home with a newfound spiritual home in Reform Judaism.
Over and over again, Natan’s leadership has brought our people together.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu wisely appointed Natan to devise a solution to resolve the tensions prompted by Women of the Wall’s longtime presence at the Kotel each Rosh Chodesh, Natan quickly formulated a goal – One Wall for One People – that advanced a viable solution for all. He was instrumental in overseeing the politically complex process necessary to create the pluralistic, egalitarian prayer space at the Southern Plaza of the Kotel.
Two years ago when MK Rivlin was being considered as Israel’s next president, I was concerned because of some harsh things he had said about the Reform Movement. In an open letter to him in HaAretez, I asked to update him about the largest Jewish religious movement in North America. It wasn’t until Natan brought us together in his office at the Jewish Agency, however, just days before Rivlin became Israel’s 10th president, that I was able to discuss with President- Elect Rivlin ways he might include the Reform Movement’s 1.9 million Jews in his circle of responsibility and relationship.
And then there was the time the Jewish Agency board met in Kiev. While most everyone was enjoying an historic tour of the city from a boat on the Dnieper River, a few of us missed the tour guide’s explanations because we were working with Natan on the latest crisis of Jewish pluralism. When I asked Natan if we could take a break and hear some of the history, he offered to explain it himself. “You see that village on the river bank? Our people were slaughtered there. And look down the river at the next town, you see it? Well our people were murdered there as well.” In a few short minutes he conveyed the excruciating history of our people’s life in his native Ukraine. Sadly, it’s a history that continues today.
I’m writing these words from Tel Aviv, where I joined 330 rabbis from North America, Israel and around the world for a wonderful CCAR convention. At the same time, I spent significant time refuting the harsh words spoken by too many ultra-Orthodox political leaders in response to our victories around the Kotel and use of state funded mikvaot throughout the country.
I also joined leaders from throughout the Jewish world for the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting. The JAFI gathering included a special luncheon to celebrate the remarkable leadership of Israel’s new attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit. In his previous role as cabinet secretary, he helped bring about the government’s vote in favor of the new Kotel space.
Like Natan, Avichai is a leader who inspires Jewish unity at a time when many lack the courage to lead our people to respect the many ways we live and practice authentic Judaism. Now, more than ever, we cherish the guidance and direction of Natan and Avichai, who show us how to unite the Jewish people through courageous and wise leadership.