When I was a Columbia University student in New York, I headed my college branch of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). In those days, when Jews in the Soviet Union could not practice their religion or easily emigrate, I marched under banners that said “We Are One,” in Cherry Hill, Philadelphia, New York and Washington. I lobbied congressmen, was arrested in acts of civil disobedience and did what I could to pressure the Soviet and US governments to free Soviet Jews.
During one protest across from the UN, I stood in a cage wearing a prisoner’s uniform with a poster around my neck. On the poster was a large photograph of a Prisoner of Zion named Anatoly Sharansky. His wife, Avital, stood with me as demonstrators chanted around us.
Now, almost 20 years later, Natan Sharansky is a minister in the Israeli government. I recently heard him speak as he reminded the audience that it was four students who started SSSJ and that because of what they did, the movement to free Soviet Jews snowballed into an International movement which in no small part contributed to a change in Soviet policy and his own release from prison. Yes, it was the voices of students and housewives that eventually triumphed over the Kremlin.
Recently, I heard Minister Sharansky speak while I was participating in an event sponsored by another grass-roots movement — a unique event, the first of its kind.
While many American Jews have the opportunity to go on missions to Israel, rarely are Israelis invited to participate. As part of the Conservative Movement’s “Project Reconnect” I, together with hundreds of other American Israelis, “reconnected” with other alumni of Conservative Movement programs during Kesher L’Yisrael, Project Reconnect’s Israel solidarity mission. Project Reconnect’s aim is to help alumni of Conservative Movement programs such as USY, the youth movement; their Solomon Schechter school system and the network of Ramah camps. The Project Reconnect chair, Jackie Saltz, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism president, Judy Yudoff, have made it very clear that they believe we are one people and as such, no matter where alumni of Conservative Movement programs find themselves or what their current religious affiliation (or non-affiliation) is, Project Reconnect wants to help in any way it can.
While networking is taking place throughout North America, and a large database-backed Web site allowing alumni to reconnect is to be launched shortly at http://projectreconnect.org, there is a special emphasis in supporting alumni who have chosen to live in Israel. As part of this, the grass-roots initiative held its first mission to Israel with the goal of not only bringing North Americans to Israel, but of reconnecting and showing solidarity with those of us who have chosen to make our homes here.
The generosity of anonymous donors allowed Israelis to participate in several events at no cost, including the dinner with Minister Sharansky. The climax of this ingathering was when hundreds of American Israelis attended a private concert, together with mission participants. Included were scores of “lone soldiers” who have immigrated to Israel without their families and who are currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. American Israelis of varying levels of religious observance, ranging the political spectrum, came from throughout the country. It is rare that such a mixed population would come together for any event, but we all felt a draw to reconnect and take advantage of the opportunity to have a fun evening out, in a safe environment at no cost.
Just as Minister Sharansky reminded us that four students could create a revolution and succeed in accomplishing the unthinkable by unifying Jews on a single issue, those of us who organized and participated in Kesher L’Yisrael seek to change the way we relate to our fellow Jews. Using the means at our disposal, we also hope to bring together Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, across political and religious lines in mutual support of each other. In this first mission we have already been met with success.
Among the Israelis with whom I spoke, there was an overwhelming sense of gratitude, that American Jews came and included us in their programs, that they did not just look at us from tour buses and hotel rooms. The organizers succeeded in reconnecting Jews who despite their common origins are now in different segments of the population and spread throughout the world. They reconnected us and reminded us that we are one.