Former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky recalled the dark days under the oppressive communist regime when Jews were forbidden to explore their Jewish heritage.
Speaking March 13 at the closing program of the three-day Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, Sharansky recounted the forced assimilation of much of Eastern European Jewry.
Sharansky had become an activist in the free Soviet Jewry movement when his application to immigrate to Israel was refused. After being tried for trumped-up charges of spying for the United States, he was held prisoner in the Soviet gulag system for 13 years. He was freed under pressure from the U.S. government and a groundswell of support from the American-Jewish community.
“The American-Jewish community physically built a living bridge between us and the free world,” said Sharansky, now chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “Every day they brought us information. Every day they brought back information. When we asked why they would do this for us we got the message: ‘Because you are family.’”
That support helped lead Soviet Jewry on the path to spiritual rebirth and discovery of a story dating back to the exodus from Egypt.
“Once you discover that unique history you want to be part of it and discover the Jewish people,” said Sharansky. “When we make that discovery we discover our strength.”
One of the elements that continues to contribute to the rediscovery of Judaism is the network of summer camps in the former Soviet Union run by Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Agency, Chabad, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a partner of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Sharansky called the camps “a powerful instrument in building Jewish identity.” The young campers in the FSU are “absolutely assimilated,” he said. Some “only found out they were Jewish two or three days before they come, and in just 10 days, these girls and boys discover they can be a part of this exciting and very interesting story.”
Sharansky said the youngsters get to know Israel though the Israeli counselors they meet and make a lasting connection to Jewish history, holidays, and tradition.
He said it was “no accident” that the camps receive the support and are visited by leading rabbis and Jewish federations because “they come to see how our story is so powerful.”
If the camps can play such a vital role in establishing Jewish identity in the former Soviet Union, Sharansky said, they can have an even more profound effect on American youth, whose Jewish education often ends with their bar or bat mitzva.
“I know from experience that the discovery of our identity can give us unbelievable strength,” said Sharansky. The Jewish camping movement, he said, “is the most guaranteed way to renew this pride in our Jewish family.”
Founded by Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair in 1998, FJC works with camps to imporve their management and programming, and with communities to increase awareness and promote enrollment in Jewish camps.