When the Jewish hero Natan Sharansky spoke in Portland for the first time on June 5, a crowd of 500 filled the hall at Congregation Neveh Shalom for the historic 92nd annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. Sharansky, a leader in the struggle for Soviet Jewish emigration, spoke about his life as a Russian dissident, finding his identity as a Jew and his goals as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“Whether the young generation of Jews will be ashamed of Israel or proud of Israel,” he warned, “defines whether they will be part of the Jewish community or not.”
The audience included local heroes like the Stern family, who chartered a planeload of Soviet refugees and flew with them to Israel, and the many who helped JFGP raise more than $2.2 million for that effort, Operation Exodus. Arden Shenker who with his wife, Lois, recently received the Rabbi Joshua Stampfer community enrichment award, introduced the speaker.
“Our daughter Diana and I went to the Soviet Union in 1984 while Anatoly Sharansky was still in prison,” he said. “We visited with 32 refusenik families. He was the hero for all of those families then, as he was and is our hero.”
During a moving speech, Sharansky called American universities the most important battlefield for today’s Jews. “I wrote an article, ‘Traveling to Occupied Territories,’ where occupied territories meant American universities,” he said. “I understood how dangerous and successful our enemies are, and the power of their propaganda. Many young Jews are distancing themselves. Every young Jew is challenged with this question: ‘Do you believe in universal human rights or are you only concerned about your tribe?’ If a young Jew has to decide, he will choose universal. That’s the basis of Judaism. But this choice is false. If you want to make the world better, you must be strong. And there is nothing stronger than your Jewish identity.”
Benjamin Shmulevsky, a senior at Catlin Gabel High School, spoke of his parents’ emigration from the former Soviet Union. “Like many of the immigrants who flooded the United States in the late 20th century, [my parents] came not for their own American dream, but for their children,” he said. “They wanted to live in a society where their children could practice Judaism without oppression, where they wouldn’t be victimized on the playground, denied entry to certain colleges and even refused employment because of their Jewish heritage. What my parents didn’t expect was the strength of the Jewish community here in Portland. Our emigration may have been made possible through your tireless activism – an inspiring show of solidarity for worldwide Jewry that men like Mr. Sharansky exemplify.”