Originally published in the YLD Haggadah, by Miriam Katz
Every Passover, we say "Next Year in Jerusalem," knowing that only a plane ticket stands between us and Zion. For Refuseniks, even these words were forbidden.
The term Refusenik refers to Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate to Israel and abroad in the 1970s and 80s. Under Soviet governance, Jews didn't have the religious freedoms that we take for granted - the right to attend synagogue, to light Shabbat candles, even to study Hebrew. As the daughter of a Federation executive, my life in the mid-1980s was marked by rallies and fundraisers in which I petitioned for the release of our brothers and sisters across the ocean.
Natan Sharansky became the symbolic leader of the Refusenik movement at age 30, an age when Boston Jews are engaged in YLD leadership. In a fear-dominated society where Jews who applied for exit visas to Israel were fired from their jobs, spied upon by the KGB and threatened with imprisonment; Natan Sharansky publicly announced his intent to emigrate to Israel and was sentenced to prison. A movement was borne by American Jewish youth, then accelerated by the Federation movement and community-based organizations with the slogan "Let My People Go." Jews and non-Jews alike joined in battle for human rights and dignity, and for the right of Soviet Jewry to practice Judaism. In 1986, Natan Sharansky was released after nine years in prison (a nine years of separation from his young wife) , and the following year my family and I stood alongside 250,000 activists at a national rallyto free the rest of Soviet Jewry.
When my brother became Bar Mitzvah, he adopted a "twin," a Soviet Jew of the same age who was prevented by his government from marking his transition to Jewish adulthood. When I became Bat Mitzvah, four years later, Natan Sharansky joined me on the bimah, heralding a new era of free emigration of Soviet Jews with an aliyah to the Torah, an act that was illegal in his country of origin. As we read tonight, Jews in every generation are obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Egypt. For Refuseniks, this Exodus is no stretch of the imagination.
To learn more about the Refusenik movement, check out Laura Bialis' riveting documentary Refusenik.
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