Last November, Natan Sharansky was invited to share his thoughts and answer some questions from the entire delegation attending the Jewish Agency for Israel’s North America conference. I remember one moment when Natan was asked what his dream job would be if he weren’t the chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency. He said with a big smile and shining eyes that he would probably be a professional chess player.
I think this answer says a lot about Natan, a man who showed to the entire world that with great patience, wisdom, belief and planning ahead, you can achieve tremendous things. This is why Natan is so deserving of the Israel Prize, the State of Israel’s highest cultural honor, which he received April 19 on Israel Independence Day.
Ten years ago I began my journey with the Jewish Agency as the Israel fellow at UC Santa Cruz Hillel. At the time, I was one of a group of 15-20 Israel fellows in all of North America. It was then, when I first met Natan, that he shared with us the importance of our role on campuses and his vision to expand the fellows program to many Hillels in North America.
My two years at UC Santa Cruz Hillel were eye-opening for me and shaped my entire life. As an Israeli, it was my first meaningful exposure to the Jewish community outside Israel, with all of its beauty and also the struggles we had on campuses. The same challenges and opportunities continue today.
I will never forget one of my conversations with a student I met on campus. He told me, “I think I’m Jewish, but I’m not sure.” This shocked me, and I thought to myself, “How can you not be sure if you’re Jewish or not?!” That first conversation led to more conversations and to inviting this student to Shabbat dinners at Hillel, where, for the first time, he felt part of a Jewish community.
In 2015, five years after I graduated from my shlichut (emissary work) and moved back to Israel and was working at an Israeli high-tech company, I was offered my current position as West Coast coordinator for the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows. I was excited to take the position, knowing how much I believe in this program and how I could use my own experience on campus to guide and inspire the new fellows on the ground.
I am overjoyed to see that in only five years, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program has expanded to 77 fellows serving 150 campuses around the world. In 2016-17 alone, the fellows had one-on-one interactions with 17,000 Jewish students and attracted more than 37,000 students to Israel-education events. The Israel fellows are the face of shlichut on campus, as part of the Jewish Agency’s network of more than 2,000 Israelis emissaries worldwide. Natan’s vision has come to life!
In March 2016, I attended an event with actor Michael Douglas and Natan at Stanford University, held by Hillel at Stanford. As an Israeli, I was excited to meet the famous actor in person. But the thing I remember clearly from that night is the respect Natan received from some of the Jewish students who grew up on his legacy.
In mentoring the Israel fellows, along with the great success stories they share with me, I also see many of the challenges they face on campus these days — apathetic Jewish students, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel acts in the form of lectures, apartheid walls, BDS resolutions and more.
In these difficult and uncertain times, listening to Natan’s words on our long and rich Jewish history and knowing his personal story give us perspective and hope and inspire us to continue with our important mission in the U.S. and the diaspora.
It has been one of the great privileges of my life serving the State of Israel through the Jewish Agency as an Israel fellow and as the program’s West Coast coordinator. Being able to see the fulfillment of Natan Sharansky’s dream grow stronger makes me feel that the future, despite its challenges, will be bright.