Feb. 11 marks 25 years since Natan Sharansky crossed the Glienicke Bridge from East to West Germany and became a free man. Countless stories have been told about his defiance of the Soviets and courageous actions during more than nine years of imprisonment.
Sharansky is one of many heroic prisoners of Zion. But it is through his wife, Avital, that the world came to know him in ways that we did not know the others.
Avital and Natan were married in July 1974. The next morning, Avital was ordered out of the Soviet Union with a promise that her husband would soon follow. It was not to be. Four years later, the Soviets accused Natan of spying for the United States and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. It was during this period that Avital undertook the worldwide campaign that led to her husband's release.
Avital's style as an activist was modest, yet intensely focused and unwavering. She spoke out in the spirit of the biblical message to the prophet Elijah that the most profound form of protest is delivered in a still, small voice.
At the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations in Washington, she addressed the plenary, concluding her remarks by softly imploring the audience to walk with her to the Soviet Embassy to raise a voice on behalf of her husband. Her call was gentle, yet powerful, and hundreds followed her.
She also had the uncanny ability to walk a fine line, working within the establishment, as well as from the outside. Avital knew that she needed the help of the mainstream, but was careful not to march to their orders. She walked the tightrope, understanding that results would come only from a symphony of voices.
On International Human Rights Day in 1984, influential figures gathered at the White House to listen to a talk by President Ronald Reagan. Members of the audience were given strict instructions to remain in place. Suddenly, Avital stepped out of the line, approached Reagan and asked for an appointment to speak with him about the plight of her husband. The president assented.
The picture of Avital leaning down as she spoke to him made the front pages.
Despite unbelievable odds, Avital was always full of faith — not only faith that she would succeed in her quest to gain her husband's release, but also religious faith.
Even in the heat of the struggle, Avital never lost her sense of humor. After Leonid Brezhnev died, she stood in front of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations and announced to the media that the Soviet premier had passed away because he had not released her husband. I pulled her aside and said that message would not resonate with the larger public.
A year later, after Andrei Kosygin died and was replaced by Yuri Andropov, she stood in the same place and declared that her husband was not yet free, and warned Andropov that he would suffer the same fate if he did not let Natan go. A year later, after Andropov died, there she was again, warning his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev: Here's your chance; if you don't release Natan, you'll face your end.
To this day, if you were to ask Avital why Gorbachev is still alive, she would say he was smart enough to let Natan go.
As Natan celebrates the 25th anniversary of his release, no doubt tens of thousands of people will proudly and deservedly take some personal credit for his liberation. That was Avital's strength. She made each person feel as if she or he were making the difference. Though it is true that many dedicated souls did contribute, it was Avital who led the battle.
Once in a Toronto airport, I overheard a woman telling Avital that she named her newborn after her in admiration of her courage and her struggle. Avital thanked the woman and humbly walked away.
I have no doubt that in the world today, there are many young women named Avital. Natan's freedom is not only a celebration of his great courage, but a celebration of one woman's formidable moral and spiritual strength.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and founder and president of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, both in New York City. He was national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.