There are not too many things I miss not holding onto from my youth. One of those was my Anatoly Sharansky bracelet from high school. The bracelet was part of the Free Soviet Jewry solidarity movement. I had a bracelet for Sharansky and Ida Nudel. They were Prisoners of Zion, prisoners of conscience. I wore a bracelet to express my hope that they would be allowed to leave the U.S.S.R. and live freely as Jews. I wrote letters to elected officials, wrote my first letter to the editor, signed petitions and adopted special prayers at the Passover seder yearning for the freedom of Soviet Jews.
In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel, but was refused on “security” grounds. Following this denial, Sharansky became more involved with the Jewish refusnik movement and became an activist for Soviet Jews. On March 15, 1977, he was arrested by the KGB, accused of treason and espionage and languished in Soviet prisons.
Sharansky was released 30 years ago on Feb. 11, 1986, as part of a larger exchange of detainees. He was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev due to intense political pressure from Ronald Reagan. But the exchange took on suspense thriller proportions. After the deal was struck, the KGB gathered on one side of the Glienicke Bridge, and West German and U.S. officials assembled on the other side. This was not the first time opposing secret agents and secret agencies gathered on opposing sides of the bridge. Many east-west prisoner exchanges, including Francis Gary Powers, occurred on this famous “Bridge of Spies.”
Sharansky was driven part of the way onto the bridge. A car approached from the other side and stopped in roughly the equivalent spot. Sharansky was not told of the prisoner exchange, just that he should walk across the bridge and not turn back. Fighting back fear and hoping he would not be shot in the back during an alleged escape, Sharansky exited the vehicle and proceeded across the bridge. He was met on the other side by West German and US diplomats and quickly escorted to a waiting Israeli plane for his flight to Israel.
Once in Israel, he adopted the Israeli name Natan and began building a distinguished career in Israeli public service. He became politically active, created the first political party of Russian olim, served in the Knesset and served on the Israeli Cabinet as deputy prime minister (among other ministerial portfolios). He left the government and soon became the chairman of the executive (equivalent to CEO) of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the largest beneficiary of our Jewish Federation’s Annual Campaign for Jewish Needs.
From wearing Sharansky’s bracelet, to rallying to Free Soviet Jews, my”connection” to Natan Sharansky continues with my recent election to the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors. One of only five Jewish Federation executives elected to serve on the JAFI Board of Governors, I will be honored to participate in decision making on key JAFI programs ranging from the growing number of Jews making Aliyah to Israel (a near 100 percent increase this past year), to the growing engagement programs such as MASA, Onward Israel and Birthright Israel.
Years ago at a conference in Jerusalem I heard Sharansky speak about his release from Soviet prison and his bridge crossing in Germany. It was not a large meeting so I had the opportunity to speak with him in the hallway after his talk. I told him that I had worn his name on a Prisoners of Zion bracelet in the 1970s. With a slight grin, he noted that it was nice to finally meet me because when he crossed that bridge, he was coming to thank me!
The great Hassidic Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav once said, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.” Commenting on these words, which have become a moving song in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, noted rabbi David Wolpe writes, “The world is a bridge on which we pass from one thing to another. There is no stability. Each new place, new change, creates fear. Rabbi Nahman did not compare the world to a field on which we might rest, but to a bridge, the symbol of passage, of journeying. And the secret is not to find a safe place, but to navigate the narrow crossing and remain unafraid.”
Natan Sharansky’s heroic life underscores the challenge of crossing bridges. I am honored to be working with him for the betterment of the Jewish people and to achieve the goals of the Jewish Agency for Israel.