Until I joined The Jewish Agency for Israel as an emissary, I knew nothing about Natan Sharansky. When I got the job, I suddenly saw that my father was very excited. I asked him why he was so thrilled, and he said, “You are going to work with and maybe even meet one of the greatest legends of our time and a hero of our family.”
Indeed, Natan has now inspired three generations of my family. I am honored to share my family’s story as Natan prepares to received the Israel Prize (the state’s highest cultural honor) on April 19 for Israeli Independence Day.
At age 19, I am a Shin-Shin—a young emissary for The Jewish Agency as part of the Shinshinim service year enrichment program—in the Jewish community of the Upper West Side in Manhattan. As a Shin-Shin, I volunteered to delay my Israeli army service in order to engage an overseas Jewish community with Israel. I work in eight different Jewish institutions in the Upper West Side, including Jewish day schools and JCCs. I run a variety of activities related to Israel’s culture, language, music, food, and more. My goal is for children to have a personal connection with an Israeli in order to bolster their overall connection to the Jewish State.
As an emissary, I am inspired to help bring Natan’s dream to life. Thanks to Natan’s vision, The Jewish Agency now has an ever-growing network of more than 2,000 Israeli emissaries worldwide.
But I was not the first member of my family to forge a unique bond with Natan. My grandfather Aryeh Gur was born in Sanok, Poland, in 1925. His sisters were murdered by the Nazi forces and he barely managed to flee to Russia, where he was unwillingly drafted to the Soviet army and stationed in Siberia. His dream through all these hard times was to come to Israel and help make the Zionist dream come true. After an incredible journey, he managed to arrive in 1947, and was immediately drafted to help defend the new country. After Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, he was drafted as one of the first employees of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, where he served until his retirement. One of his key assignments was to help smuggle Jews from former Soviet Union countries and Eastern Europe. He was working side-by-side with The Jewish Agency, which was always committed to aliyah and the rescue of Jews in countries where they were in danger. He was always very proud of his role in saving many lives and bringing Jews to safety in Israel.
My father explained to me how my grandfather admired Natan’s struggle to come to Israel from the then-closed Soviet Union. Apparently, my grandfather told my father many times about this incredible struggle. My father said it was not merely the love of Israel that inspired my grandfather—it was the uncompromising resolve to be a free person and to live your own identity, no matter how hard it was and what sacrifices had to be made. Natan was one person who faced the entire Soviet cruel machine and did not let brick and steel walls break his spirit. That’s why my grandfather admired him so much, and that’s why my father did as well. My father said that Natan did not only struggle all these years to come to Israel, but felt such a deep responsibility towards his people that he continued to dedicate all he could for making Jews’ lives better in Israel and around the world, even after he was finally released.
My father was not a stranger to the cause, either. He served as a strategic consultant to The Jewish Agency at the turn of the millennium, helping its leadership redefine its vision, goals, and strategy. This was a turbulent time. Israel seemed to be making huge strides forward, building its economic strength and turning itself into a high-tech superpower. The Jewish communities in the U.S. felt that it was time to reconsider The Jewish Agency’s mission and activities. A fierce ideological struggle took place concerning the importance and relevance of the organization’s involvement in aliyah.
But one thing was always clear and was agreed upon by all: that The Jewish Agency should always rescue Jews in distress wherever they were in the world. Other issues were more controversial—the role of partnerships among Jewish communities around the world, how should The Jewish Agency should deal with or even promote a more pluralistic and tolerant approach towards American Jewish denominations, and so on. My father was very proud to play an instrumental role in creating a new agenda that was geared towards new realities. The vision of Jews fighting for their right to live Jewish life and for their privilege to come to Israel was always there, and my father was particularly inspired by Natan’s story and his ongoing and unwavering life commitment to these causes.
And then it was my turn. My father was so excited when he heard I was going to be an emissary for The Jewish Agency. He thought this would be one of the most important and meaningful experiences in my life. Seven months into the role, I know he was so right. My role as a bridge between the Upper West Side’s Jewish community and Israel is probably the most important and most exciting duty of my life to date.
I can think of nobody who in his life and through his deeds has demonstrated the values of shlichut (emissary work) more than Natan. I know that my grandfather would be proud that I’ve had the privilege of taking part in this long chain of commitment to Israel, Jews, freedom, and morality.
Itamar Gur is a Jewish Agency Shin-Shin (young emissary) in Manhattan.