I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was five years old and I stood squished with my brother, sister, cousins, aunt and mom. We were standing with the throngs of people in the international arrival area at JFK airport. The feeling of anxiety still lingers in the pit of my stomach. It was the look on my mother's face, the pushing of the crowd, the smell, the noise and the commotion that sticks with me. There was a cacophony of yelling and crying as loved ones were reunited. There were tears, hugs, kisses and smiles. And then, there was silence. It was like the world stopped when my father and uncle emerged among the weary travelers. Never had I seen such a look of love and relief on my mom's face. We ran to greet them and clearly they were exhausted, haggard and thankful to be home.
It was 1976 and my father and uncle had just returned from almost three weeks in the Soviet Union. My father, a Russian speaker, and my uncle, a Hebrew speaker, had been asked to go meet with Soviet Jews who were trying to live Jewish lives behind the Iron Curtain. They were “refuseniks”. One of my father and uncle’s main objectives was to find out the status of Natan Sharansky, who was leading the charge to free Soviet Jews from oppression. They learned he was alive and under house arrest. This information was reported back to the Israeli government.
At the time I knew my dad was doing something important, really important. It was not until later that I realized he and my uncle had helped bend history for the Jewish people. That day in 1976 changed the course of my life, too.
I have had the opportunity to meet Natan Sharansky and hear him speak several times, most recently in his capacity as the Chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Natan Sharansky continues to be a leader on key issues of concern to the Jewish people, especially his stance on religious pluralism.
Natan Sharansky is a symbol of the steadfast survival, freedom and opportunity for the Jewish people.
So why am I thinking about Natan Sharansky today? There are two reasons. On December 6, 2017, it will be 30 years since the Jewish community arrived en masse in Washington to demand from Mikhail Gorbachev to "Let My People Go." It was the eve of the summit between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. 250,000 people came from across the United States and marched on Washington in solidarity with people whom they had never met, but for whom they felt a primal duty and obligation to support and help.
The other reason is that we have modern day heroes today who still fight for the rights of all Jewish people. One of whom is Anat Hoffman. She is a hero of mine and I am delighted that she will be in Rochester on December 14 to talk about how all of us can and should have the ability to practice Judaism in a way that is honored and respected. Learn more about the program and consider joining us.
Jewish heroes come in the form of public figures like Natan Sharansky, Elie Weisel, Henrietta Szold, David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and so many others. But there are also quiet heroes, individuals like my father, and countless others, who went to the Soviet Union and who went to Washington, to make it their business to advocate and fight for Jewish survival. I didn't really understand this when I was five, even though I am certain that my course was set to work on behalf of the Jewish people because of how I felt that day at Kennedy airport, but I do now.
All of these heroes say that it is an honor to serve the Jewish people, and I could not agree more. Each one of us, professionals and volunteers, who supports the work of the global Jewish community have the opportunity to bend history. We have done it already. We continue to do it every day. Natan Sharansky, Anat Hoffman and many others are living reminders that we all have the power to make a difference and to make miracles happen.
With Chanukah quickly approaching, let’s remember to be grateful that our people have survived and thrived. It was our strength and tenacity that gave us the will to free one million Soviet Jews. As we look to the future, let's make more miracles together as we go from strength to strength building a strong Jewish future in Rochester, Israel and around the globe.
Meredith Dragon, CEO