Natan Sharansky took heart from the young speaker who preceded him at the podium at an event in Scotch Plains on May 25.
Addressing the annual gathering of the Builders and Allied Trades Division of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Jean-Paul Le, a 29-year-old business consultant from Summit, described how a Birthright trip sparked his love for Israel and a new passion to learn more about Judaism.
Such transformations are exactly what Sharansky, as chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, wants to see.
“Thousands and thousands of young Jews have discovered that they belong to a much more interesting and exciting story than they thought, and that being Jewish isn’t just about a bar mitzva,” Sharansky said in the evening’s keynote address. “They’ve seen that Israel is an unbelievably exciting start-up nation, with more freedom of debate and communication than in the United States.”
Since taking on the JAFI chairmanship, the former Soviet refusenik has been sounding alarm bells about the need to bolster Jewish identity among young Jews in the Diaspora.
He has also championed programs to bolster their support for Israel, to counteract the antagonism pro-Israel students encounter on campus.
“The statistics are alarming; 500 Jews a day are becoming assimilated,” he claimed.
Sharansky noted that a huge proportion of the young people who go on Birthright respond the way Jean-Paul did.
Sharansky recalled that the Birthright Israel program — which provides free trips to Israel for Diaspora youth — was criticized at its founding as both too simplistic and wasteful.
But these days, it’s recognized as “one of the best investments” ever made to build Jewish identity, and, he added, the Israeli government is committing more money to support Birthright.
Sharansky also spoke of JAFI efforts to train Israeli students to come to the United States to help “build a network of young Jews ready to defend Israel ” on college campuses.
Describing American universities as “occupied territory,” he said enemies of Israel have been allowed to “hijack the banner of human rights” in defending their anti-Israel activity at colleges.
Many of those in the audience remembered campaigning for freedom for Sharansky, who was among the many Jews blocked from leaving the Soviet Union and was imprisoned for his activism. He paid tribute to that effort, pointing out how awareness of Jewish peoplehood grew simultaneously for Soviet Jews — facing oppression and recognizing their solidarity with other Jews — and for those elsewhere, as they fought for their fellows behind the Iron Curtain.
On his cellphone, Bob Kuchner of Westfield showed Sharansky a photo taken at a 1979 Free Soviet Jewry rally, with a backdrop of a big poster of the refusenik — with more hair, they both pointed out.
Dave Cooper of Maplewood said that shaking hands with Sharansky was one of the biggest thrills of his life. He grew up with a grandfather who was a passionate campaigner for Jews in the Soviet Union.
“He died 13 days before Natan Sharansky was released” from the Soviet prison in 1986, Cooper said. He told Sharansky that not only was he a hero for what he endured in Russia, but also because he was willing to resign in protest as Israel’s Diaspora Affairs minister in 2005 to protest the disengagement from Gaza.
“We really need people of principle like you,” Cooper said.
Those attending pledged a total of $150,000 in new pledges. Developer Mark Wilf chaired the program.
“It has been a challenging year, but still, we are the lucky ones,” Wilf said, delineating the range of ways in which the federation has aided those in need, in New Jersey and in Israel.
His brother Zygi Wilf, calling for pledges, said, “We have a lot of work to do to free Jews, and to make Jews in this country think about their identity.”
His call was echoed by federation president Julie Lipsett-Singer, just back from a visit to Israel.
“It is a very rich and dynamic start-up nation, but it still needs our help,” she said. “It still really needs us.”