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Freedom to Celebrate
The front page of the Feb. 14, 1986 Jewish Exponent said it all: A full-page photo of Natan Sharansky with a red block stamped across the bottom proclaiming that the world's most famous prisoner of conscience was "Released From Soviet Prison."
Just three days earlier, the man then known as Anatoly Shcharansky had walked across the bridge linking East and West Germany in arguably one of the most crucial treks in Jewish history.
Twenty-five years later, Sharansky's amazing journey is well- known. His first steps to freedom, after serving nine years for a trumped-up charge of treason, marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime, and the oppression of those who had been denied the basic right to emigrate and to live as proud Jews.
The ensuing years led to a mass aliyah to Israel that changed the face of the Jewish state, and simultaneously paved the way for a renaissance of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, where communism had stifled but not extinguished the yearning for Jewish practice and knowledge.
Sharansky himself very quickly understood his new role. With a celebratory arrival in Israel alongside his wife, Avital, who had campaigned arduously for his release, he transformed himself from compelling dissident to Israeli politician to today's head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, where he is seeking to infuse a new sense of purpose and structure to the very organization that had facilitated the aliyah of 1 million Soviet Jews to Israel.
Among the most important activists campaigning for Sharansky's release was a group from Philadelphia that took the cause to heart and helped propel the liberation movement worldwide. Among that group were Connie and Joe Smukler, who had traveled extensively to Russia, furtively meeting and encouraging the refusenik community. Joe Smukler was -- and still is -- a Philadelphia attorney who, in fact, was one of three Americans charged, along with Sharansky, as "secret agents of the CIA apparatus." On the basis of that accusation, he was advised at the time to halt his visits to the Soviet Union.
It is mere coincidence that the Smuklers are being honored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia next week -- the same time that the Jewish world is remembering Sharansky's pivotal crossing. But the timing of the tribute at the Kimmel Center is quite fitting. Like Sharansky, the Smuklers didn't stop when Soviet Jews had attained their freedom. Like him, their tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish people, and for our community in particular, have continued.
There has yet to develop a cause that has so galvanized Jews across the political and religious spectrums. Yet both Sharansky and the Smuklers demonstrate, each in their own way, that the work to sustain Jewish continuity and peoplehood is not over.
It just looks a little different.