Rysia de Ravel knew she would visit Russia one day. Born in Poland and raised in France and Canada, de Ravel, a Princeton resident, has traveled to Eastern Europe many times and is conversant in Russian. However, before embarking on a trip she regarded as inevitable, the time and circumstances had to be just right.
In July 2010, the time was right. To mark the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus — the campaign that raised more than $1 billion to rescue some two million Soviet Jews and resettle them in Israel and North America — the King David Society mission to Saint Petersburg (for donors of at least $25,000) was scheduled. The trip, sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America, led by the UJA-Federation of New York, and open to all communities, proved to be the ideal vehicle for de Ravel.
Why? She needed only two words to explain: Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky — a symbol for human rights and the “refuseniks” of the Soviet Jewry movement during his nine-year imprisonment and subsequent diplomatic efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews — is now chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel. When de Ravel heard he would take part in the mission, she decided she would, too.
“To me, Natan Sharansky is a legend,” said de Ravel, president and CEO of DeraCom Conference Call Services, which she founded in 1985. “I care so much about the issues with which he is identified, so how could I not take advantage of this opportunity?”
De Ravel’s Jewish community support is both local and widespread. In addition to serving as an active Lion of Judah donor on a national level, she is deeply involved in the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and is immediate past vice president for its Israel and Overseas division and headed the Israel@60 committee in 2007-08.
Regarding Sharansky, de Ravel said, “I wanted to find out what drives him. I wanted to ask him how he feels about the things he has experienced. I wanted to get to know him and not just hear one of his speeches.”
‘Ignite their passion’
But first, there was a pre-mission assignment. Each participant was required to view Refusenik, a critically acclaimed 2007 documentary. Told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, many of whom survived the Soviet Gulag labor camps, the film is a series of first-person accounts of heroism, sacrifice, and, in the end, liberation.
De Ravel said she was so inspired that she watched the film again, the second time along with her mother, a Holocaust survivor. “What an incredible story, and what a thrilling outcome,” said de Ravel, who vividly remembers putting her Russian-language skills to use in the ’80s when speaking to refuseniks who were “just getting off the boats on their way to freedom.”
“In terms of the organized Jewish community, it’s among our finest moments. The film chronicles the 1987 demonstration on the mall in Washington, DC, that attracted 250,000 people. You cannot watch that without being profoundly moved. Refusenik illustrates the importance of Jewish solidarity as well as the need for the State of Israel. It can demonstrate to the new generation of Jewish leadership that you really do have the ability to change the world.”
By the time the mission arrived in Saint Petersburg on July 11, de Ravel and her significant other, Peter Gelb, had spent a week in Moscow. The mission included tours of the region, briefings with an impressive array of VIPs, and activities with young people.
But de Ravel’s primary motivation was to interact with Sharansky, and she was not disappointed.
“The thing that really struck me about Sharansky is his unyielding optimism,” said de Ravel, who formerly was involved in the production of PBS documentaries and independent television consulting. “He passionately believes that it’s up to us to maintain a positive outlook, and as long as we do that, good things will happen. For example, he is anxious for all Jews from the former Soviet Union to reconnect — or, in many instances, connect — with their Jewish roots. He wants to do everything he can to make sure they know that if they choose to explore their Jewish identity, the opportunities are there.”
“Given his track record, given the breadth of his accomplishments, what keeps Sharansky going is his belief in human kindness and the worthiness of his causes,” de Ravel said. “During his years of imprisonment, who would have imagined that one day, he and his wife [Avital] and their daughters would be living in Israel, and that he’d have the kind of impact he’s had?
“He sees his release as a miracle, and he believes that people make miracles happen.”
One evening in Saint Petersburg, a dinner was held for mission participants and local Jewish leaders — many of them successful businessmen in their 30s and 40s. Most of the local guests, de Ravel said, were unfamiliar with Natan Sharansky, a man whose sacrifices helped pave the way for the current generation of Jewish leaders in the former Soviet Union.
That night, a disappointed de Ravel found herself thinking about the documentary she had watched twice before the mission.
“I’m concerned that the same thing could happen here,” she said. “It’s so important for us to inspire the next generation, to ignite their passion. They need to see Refusenik so that they will know about Sharansky and they will know about Operation Exodus, and perhaps most important, so that they will be inspired.”
More information about Refusenik can be found at www.refusenikmovie.com.