This past week, Vladimir Putin made news by insinuating that Jews were behind the Russian meddling of the American elections. What did not make the news was that he was also “elected” president of Russia yet again. But we kind of saw that one coming now, didn’t we?
There are many Russian Jews who are defending Putin’s remarks, suggesting that something is lost in translation or that there is a cultural nuance that we, non-Russians don’t get. And that could very well be the case. But to suspect there to be Russian anti-Semitism, one cannot be blamed.
Russian anti-Semitism runs deep. Whether it was Jews being forced to live in the Pale of Settlement in the 18th century, the many anti-Jewish policies of Alexander the Third in the 19th century, which ultimately led to the terrible anti-Jewish violence of the 1880’s. In 1903, the Protocols of Zion were published for the very first time in, you guessed it, Russia. And from 1918 to 1922, the international community was astonished that pogroms still existed, as an estimated 150,000 Jews were massacred during those four years in Russia.
Of course, after World War One, anti-Semitism became illegal in Russia. But that only made it harder to combat, because it was still there in all its ugliness, just hiding behind even more insidious lies.
And so in 1929, the observance of Shabbos became illegal in the Soviet Union, and in 1953, the Doctor’s Plot could have brought about another Holocaust had it not been for the death of Stalin. So it’s hard not to see a Russian politician, a former KGB officer’s statement as not having been influenced, in some way, by the rather deeply-rooted Russian anti-Semitism.
For many of us though, when we think of Russian Jewry, we think of the Refuseniks of the 70’s and 80’s. Relative to other eras of Russian anti-Semitism, the post-Stalin anti-Semitism was mild but certainly still there. Refuseniks, Jews who wished to emigrate to Israel, or to practice their religion were persecuted, forced out of jobs, harassed, and jailed.
Despite the KGB’s efforts, these Refuseniks managed to galvanize the energies of the Jewish People world-wide. What started in the 60’s as a small hippie group, the triple S-J, and a small violent group under Meir Kahane, eventually evolved into an international movement of the entire Jewish establishment. On Yom Kippur afternoon, in the early 70’s, here in Ner Tamid, after services, Rabbi Leibowitz led the over fourteen hundred-person crowd on a march down Greenspring to send a message to the Kremlin that discriminating against Jews was unacceptable.
The amazing thing is that these protests were actually successful. The international pressure caused the Soviets to drop their diploma tax- the fines they would impose on the educated who tried leaving, and ultimately, they let an unprecedented amount of Jews to leave their country.
If you have never yet read Fear No Evil, you are missing it out. It’s an especially appropriate read for Pesach as it gives you a perspective on modern day slavery. Fear No Evil is an autobiography of one of the most famous Refuseniks, Anatoly Borisovich Scharansky, otherwise known as Natan Sharansky. I’d like to spend the rest of my talk discussing Sharansky because I think his life is rather instructive to you and me.
For those who do not know who he is – Natan Sharansky was a Russian Jew, arrested in 1977 for trumped-up espionage charges. After a mock trial, he spent nine years in Russian jails. Of those nine years, he spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement; the “punishment cell,” not only without human interaction but without heat as well. He went on hunger strikes to secure his rights, one of them lasting a full 110 days. And through extreme KGB censorship, he was virtually cut off from the rest of the world.
However, Natan had three things at his disposal that kept him not only alive but spiritually strengthened throughout his incredible ordeal.
The first was humor, which he used all the time. In his biography, he relates how before he was jailed he was constantly being followed by the KGB, but they were not very good at being discreet. One day he noticed that his tail was clearly under the influence so Sharansky stopped at a phone booth and called the local KGB office to let them know that the guy following him was drunk. Of course, the KGB denied that he was being tailed, but Sharansky ignore them, told them where he was standing and that he would wait for them until they send a replacement.
Sure enough, ten minutes later, a car pulled up, the drunk officer was taken inside and a new agent started following him. May as well have a good time being a political enemy, right?
The second weapon at his disposal was his mind – he was a master chess player and used that analytical mind of his to create strategies of how to outfox the Russians, which he did at every turn. As one example, he would make educated guesses throughout his stay in jail, and in conversations with KGB officials he would pretend that he knew that Avital, his wife, was meeting with specific dignitaries around the world. He really had no clue but it caused the KGB to assume that Sharansky was somehow communicating with the outside world and forced them to think twice before harming him in any way.
And the third weapon was his faith. He created his own moving prayer that he would say whenever he was scared. And although his knowledge of Hebrew and Judaism was severely limited, Avital, had given him a Tehillim and he would read from it every single day. A few years ago, someone spotted him shopping on the streets of Jerusalem and asked him if he still carried the Tehillim that Avital gave him. Sharansky pulled it out and smiled. He said, “I don’t carry the Tehillim. The Tehillim carries me.”
Sharansky is a folk-hero to so many of you for what he was able to accomplish back then, but I believe his true heroism is for what he’s doing today. Allow me to explain.
People asked why we’re focusing on Russian Jewry as opposed to all the other types of Jews out there. What’s so special about Russian Jews? And I would argue that the struggle against the former USSR was such a pivotal time for American Jews. It was our second chance. The response to the Holocaust in America was tragically weak; the Jewish community was scared to speak up, scared to stand out. But American Jews rocked this Free Soviet Jewry piece. The acclaimed author, Yossi Klein HaLevi, argues that the success of the Soviet protest movement was really a turning point in the life of Jewish Americans. Because through them, the Jewish People recognized their political power, and from there on in, used it whenever they could. It was an exhilarating time to be an American Jew. We can change the world. We can bring the iron curtain down – and we did!
That’s one reason to take a moment and reflect on Russian Jewry; to remind ourselves of what they had to go through and to remind ourselves how it impacted us. But there’s another reason –
And that is that once the Russian Jews got their freedom, we stopped caring. Maybe that’s a little harsh. We tried to care but it didn’t work and so we stopped. We tried to integrate the influx of Russians into our Jewish communities, but most of them weren’t heroic Refuseniks with fascinating stories to share, nearly all of them had no Jewish knowledge and were strongly atheistic, and culturally, they were different, very different. And so what you have today in many cities, cities such as Baltimore, is large Russian Jewish populations that have created communities onto themselves. (https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/1.5211012)
And that’s so tragic. Because when they were not allowed to go to Synagogue, we protested. When they were not allowed to learn the Alef-Beis, we protested. When they were not allowed to speak approvingly about Israel, we protested. But now that they can do all those things, we are silent.
Rabbi Paysach Diskind is a local rabbi who did pursue Russian Jews and tried to teach them about their heritage. I once asked him what his original connection was to Russian Jews, was his family from there? Where did he learn Russian? How did he meet these people?
And you know what he told me? This blew me away. He told me he had no connection to Russia, he knew no Russian. Nonetheless, he would knock on doors in section-eight housing complexes, where he knew immigrants were being housed. He would find them and he would teach them about who they were and what Judaism is all about.
But whereas 250,000 people marched on the capitol to free the Russian Jews, once they were freed, there was only one man knocking on doors.
This is the great challenge of freedom.
As Sharansky himself writes, “In the punishment cell, life was much simpler. Every day brought only one choice; good or evil, white or black, say yes or no to the KGB. Moreover, I had all the time I needed to think about these choices, to concentrate on the most fundamental problems of existence, to test myself in fear, in hope, in belief, in love.”
“And now,” he writes in the final pages of his memoir, after arriving in Israel, “now, lost in thousands of mundane choices I suddenly realize there’s no time to reflect on bigger questions. How to enjoy the vivid colors of freedom without losing the existential depth I felt in prison? How to absorb the many sounds of freedom without allowing them to jam the stirring call of the shofar that I heard so clearly in the punishment cell? And now, most important, how in these thousands of meetings, handshakes, interviews, and speeches, to retain the unique feeling of the interconnection of human souls which I discovered in the Gulag? These are the questions I must answer in my new life, which is only [now] beginning.”
Not that we would ever wish to be in such a compromised situation, but as Sharansky notes, and Russian Jewish American history has proven, it is far easier to fight against an injustice, far easier to rescue the abandoned, far easier to bring justice to the oppressed, when the lines between good and evil, problem and solution are clearly drawn. But in a free world, in a crisis-free world, eh… why bother?
Imagine if in the 90’s during the economic boom Jewish leaders would have started thinking about the affordability of Jewish education; if they would have started putting money aside to care for such things.
Imagine if Jewish schools, synagogues, institutions would proactively build towards a better future, instead of waiting for the institution to fall apart. A Jewish fundraiser once joked that the best way to get people to give is to tell them that the organization is about to bankrupt. Why would I want to give to a shul that is about to go bankrupt?! But people do.
Because we’re very good at freeing slaves. We’re very good at fixing problems. My least favorite saying is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s somewhat true. It’s true for your roof, or for your heating unit. But it better not be true for our lives, certainly not our spiritual lives.
One of the salient themes of this upcoming holiday is freedom. There’s this tiny little part of every one of us that yearns slavery, that yearns the simplicity of a crisis, of an acute issue. Because we all know what to do when there’s a problem that’s staring us in the face; we mobilize immediately and save the day.
But thank G-d, we’re free. And freedom comes with a new set of far more complex challenges. We’re free to practice our faith and to grow endlessly. Do we seek out G-d in this free world or do we wait until we have a crisis of faith and only then search for a solution?
As a Jewish community, we have the freedom to inspire others. Do we wait until Avi invites us to his wedding with Mary or do we proactively seek to engage our fellow Jews?
As Jewish Americans, as a financially comfortable community, we have the freedom to plan for a better Jewish future. Do we have a vision or do we just wait for the next crisis so we could put out the flames?
The reason I adore Natan Sharansky is not only for what he did in the 70’s and 80’s, but for what he did afterwards. Sharansky received his freedom but he never stopped fighting. He accepted the challenges and complexity of free life and he threw himself into it. This year he will be the recipient of the prestigious Israel prize. And that’s because following a non-stop political career, he has served as the chair of the Jewish Agency for the past nine years, and I am confident that despite the fact that he could easily retire tomorrow at the age of 70, he will keep on going. Sharansky understood what it meant to be a slave and he also understands what it means to be free.
Freedom is living beyond survival mode. Freedom means to rise above the stress and busyness of life and to live for a higher cause. Freedom means building for a better tomorrow even when today is just fine.
May we all be blessed with a Chag Kasher V’sameiach and with the ability to experience the beautiful and complex taste of true freedom.