Russian speaking Jews – because of our experiences – we are the strongest supporters of the State of Israel in any country where we live.”
These were the words Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said at the Limmud FSU dinner that received massive applause from the 800 Jews gathered in the ballroom of the Oakland Marriott City Center in California on Saturday night.
For many of those in attendance from the former Soviet Union, Sharansky was the poster child for their own struggles.
They too were refuseniks who had fought to create new lives for themselves in the West.
Sharansky spoke of how angry Israel became when many refuseniks that managed to leave Russia, thanks to efforts by the State of Israel, chose instead to move to North America, Europe or Australia.
“They were even more unhappy when people like me – activists – said we don’t think [you] should deprive people of freedom of choice.” Sharansky said he stood by this belief both before his arrest in Russia and after he was released and moved to Israel.
He went on to say that while Israeli authorities told him it was good to have freedom of choice, they were concerned that those who chose to move to the Diaspora would “disappear in one generation because of assimilation.”
Standing in front of the Limmud FSU crowd – an organization dedicated to enriching the Jewish lives of Russian Jewry, Sharansky said he was proud to see this was not the case.
“Whenever there are pro-Israel demonstrations in Australia or Germany or New York or San Francisco, there are more and more people at these demonstrations speaking Russian,” he said. “Please keep the banner of Zionism strong here in America.”
Shlomi Kofman, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest, was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1970. He made aliya at the age of nine along with his family, after they had been refuseniks for three years.
Kofman addressed attendees in Russian before switching to English and focusing on two words: freedom and connection.
“Our parents had no freedom back in the Soviet Union,” he said. “They fought for freedom and we need to cherish it. It’s not automatic and it’s not obvious.”
Kofman went on to say that back in the FSU, Jews were connected not just because of their families, “but because of our surnames. We knew how to identify the surnames and people knew how to identify us.”
Being able to now embrace their freedom, Kofman called on attendees to stay connected not just with each other but also with Israel. This, he said, was one of FSU Jewry’s most valuable missions, and attendees had already demonstrated that by being at Limmud. “By coming here you are staying connected with the family of the State of Israel,” he said.
Emory University professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt, who also spoke, is perhaps best known for defeating a libel suit brought against her in the UK in 2000 by David Irving – the world’s leading Holocaust denier.
She told attendees, “I didn’t win alone. There were people from the US, the UK and Israel who stepped forward to support me.”
Lipstadt said the message she wanted to leave people with was that you can’t fight every battle, “but some battles you cannot turn away from, and this was one battle I could not turn away from.”
She also spoke of her first trip to the Former Soviet Union in 1972. “I had a little run-in with the KGB, it was an aborted trip. It was not so easy to speak truth to power in the former Soviet Union. It is important to challenge our enemies and to win.”
The late president Shimon Peres’s daughter, Tzvia Valdan, spoke about her father’s final book, which he dictated several weeks before his death in September 2016. The book, she said, is dedicated to the next generation of Jews. She noted that in his epilogue, Peres said his grandfather told him, “Promise me, my boy, to always remain a Jew and always remember the Jewish legacy.”
Valdan said, “It seems to me that Limmud is a perfect example of how we keep Jewish tradition going.”