Last week I had the incredible honor of interviewing Natan Sharansky at an event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. For those of you who don't know, Natan Sharansky is one of the most respected names in Israeli politics and has endured more in his life than most people could ever imagine.
A native of the now Republic of Ukraine, he became a human rights activist and spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group after he was denied an exit visa to Israel in 1973. Natan was arrested in 1977 and spent nine years in the Gulag, a Soviet labor camp, where he endured torture and abuse. His wife, Avital Sharansky, played a key role in making the world aware of the Jewish persecution happening in the Soviet Union during that time. Natan became the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev, and he was finally able to emigrate to Israel.
Today Natan is a well-known political activist, serving in many capacities and leading the movement of Soviet Jews into Israeli society. Natan has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award, among many others. He has held many offices and is the current Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Natan has also published three books and is a world-class chess player.
I am humbled by Natan’s unsurpassed bravery and leadership, and enjoyed his down-to-earth personality. Imagine surviving years of solitary confinement. How would you keep your sanity? He said that he passed time in the Gulag by playing chess in his mind. With humor, he added: “And I always won!” Natan answered many questions from the audience and talked about how Jews from Israel, the U.S., and Russia can work together to mold the future of Judaism.
I felt very privileged to have been chosen to interview Natan during the event. My father emigrated from Russia (now Bialystok, Poland), so it was a moving experience to meet the man who has given hope and inspiration to millions of Russian Jews.