A while ago, as I was happily taking down the “Free Gilad Shalit” sticker from my notice board, I started to think about the impact of Gilad’s freedom. For five years Jews in Israel and the Diaspora had fought together across philosophical lines for Gilad’s freedom. We sent letters, signed petitions, sang songs, wore badges, set places at our Seders and Shabbat dinners in his honor and never forgot.
This reminded me of another Jew who fought for his freedom. Someone else who had caused the Jewish people to come together and whose freedom we celebrated when it came—Anatoly Sharansky, the Soviet “refusnik.” As a young child, I remember watching a film about the difficult life the Jews faced in the Soviet Union, where their religious freedom was denied. I purchased (through an international magazine) and wore a silver bracelet bearing Sharansky’s name. Years later, once he had been freed, he happened to visit my high school while he was on a tour of South Africa. I remember nervously walking up to speak to him after his presentation, taking my bracelet off and handing it to him. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said two words—words which I will remember for the rest of my life: “Todah Rabah” (thank you).
Fast forward to today, to us sitting safely in North America while our brothers and sisters are fighting for security and survival in Israel. The media bombards us with politics, rhetoric and stories to illustrate their agendas. Our children hear us speaking, may glimpse something on television or may even be totally aware of the current Middle East situation. As Jews in the Diaspora, Israel’s survival is vitally important to us. We can only live freely in the Diaspora as Jews because of Israel’s existence. No matter what we think about the fighting or how we feel about the victims of war and the leaders whose orders may or may not have caused casualties, it is important for our children to understand our allegiance to Israel and to see us model it. Many of us know or are related to soldiers on the ground, families who live in Israel or students studying there. Share their stories, show their photographs and think of the enormous impact they are making by living in Israel and in some cases, fighting for the survival of the Jewish nation.
When we work together toward a common cause, we generate power. I am sure that Anatoly Sharansky’s “Todah Rabah” is echoed by Gilad Shalit and his family. This is the same “Todah Rabah” we extend to those who choose to live their lives in Israel and to fight for its survival. These are the moments that shape all our lives and build us into proud Jewish people who believe in freedom, democracy and equal rights for everyone, no matter where they live. ✿
Sue Penn is the mother of three, Education Director at University Synagogue, president of Jewish Reconstructionist Educators of North America and a member of the Jewish Educators Assembly.