I’ve often been asked why I chose a career in public service and what the impetus was for such a life decision.
The answer: the Soviet Jewry movement.
When I was 6 years old, my mother told me about children living in the Soviet Union, referred to as “refuseniks” who weren’t free. To me, that meant they couldn’t eat pizza when they wanted, play Little League or hang out with their friends.
I was moved to try to do something. I became involved through my synagogue and school, Beth Sholom Congregation and Forman Hebrew Day School. I also joined Operation HOPE, a grass-roots letter-writing and advocacy program that my mother created.
My pen pal was Avi Goldstein from Tblisi, which is now in the country of Georgia. I sent him dozens of letters, often without receiving a reply. But in my gut, I believed it made a difference.
To bring more attention to Avi’s plight, I started an international pen-pal program, called “Children for Avi,” which organized children in the United States, England and Canada to write him letters, too.
My writing to Avi only intensified with time. His replies, few and far between, because the Soviet government intercepted them, only fueled my efforts to find more free children to write.
As our pen-pal program grew in people and purpose, so, too, did the role that the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community played in the international movement to free these refuseniks.
Leaders in our Philadelphia-area community commandeered the movement and, to me, they were freedom fighters. They were not constrained by the boundaries of our country; they often traveled to the USSR, secretly meeting with refuseniks.
My parents were among those who went to the Soviet Union. They were armed with letters, optimism and a tallit that Avi could wear for the Bar Mitzvah that he would have to have in secret in that Communist country.
We also connected with our elected officials about the plight of the refuseniks. I spoke at rallies at the Liberty Bell and lobbied members of Congress like Joe Biden and Arlen Specter. Sen. Biden listened to me and the other young writers. He acted on our behalf. He showed me that I had a voice.
I was very young but I vividly recall learning from this experience the power of organizing and advocacy.
Just weeks before my Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom, I received a call with stunning news — the Goldstein family had been granted a visa by the Soviet government and Avi would soon be free to live in Israel.
But his journey to the Jewish state had a detour. We arranged to have Avi come to Pennsylvania to be “twinned” with me on the bimah at Beth Sholom where he wore that tallit my parents took to him in the USSR.
The boy I’d written to through the watch of a Communist regime would join me in freedom; together, we became Jewish men in my shul. This was an improbable story but not that different from other freedom movements in our history.
In each case, it took three things. First, a willingness of brave people suffering an injustice to rise up. Second, a committed external constituency to bring light to their cause. And, third, free governments like the United States becoming motivated to act because they had heard from a committed constituency.
As that committed constituency in Philadelphia looks back decades later, we can collectively take pride in knowing that we played a significant role in freeing an oppressed people.
For me, this was a defining moment in my life that I would not fully appreciate until a decade later as I drew from that experience the fortitude and determination to pursue a career in public service.
The lessons I learned from the Soviet Jewry movement motivate me to organize, outreach and overcome on behalf of my constituents. While today that means fighting for the 800,000 residents of Montgomery County, not children in the USSR, I still draw from the legacy of this great effort right here in the Greater Philadelphia community to accomplish good for the people whom I represent.
Josh Shapiro, an Akiba graduate, is chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners and served in the Pa. House of Representatives.