Behind the Headlines: Sharansky Marvels at Growth of Jewish Education in Russia

Semyon Tayts, an 11-year-old Jewish day school student, had never heard of the time when Hebrew instruction was forbidden.

For him, learning the language often involves nothing more difficult than looking up words in a computerized Russian-Hebrew dictionary.

His situation provided a stark contrast to the experiences of Natan Sharansky, who returned here last week as Israeli trade minister 11 years after he was released from a Soviet gulag.

During his visit, the former refusenik recalled how he and his friends strove to learn Hebrew secretly during the early 1970s.

“Someone would write down the Hebrew lessons broadcast” by Israel Radio, Sharansky said. “Then, those who had learned 300 to 400 Hebrew words would be considered good language teachers.”

Sharansky added that he was strongly impressed by the progress the Jewish community had made, especially in the area of education, since his departure from the Soviet Union as part of a 1986 prisoner exchange with the West.

Discussions with teachers at Jewish schools in Moscow indicated that Russia had achieved much during the past decade in granting greater religious freedom, he said.

The Jewish educators complained about lack of funds and discussed proposed improvements in their schools’ curricula, Sharansky told a news conference.

“Those were quite normal complaints I could have heard from any Jewish educator in any country,” he said.

Sharansky, who came to Moscow with the formal mission of improving Russian- Israeli trade ties, said he considered his meetings with members of the Jewish community the highlight of his visit.

Those contacts with the community proved that Russian Jewish life is as rich and diverse as in other nations where the tradition of Jewish life had never been interrupted, he said.

“These meetings had not been much different from those I’ve had in Jewish communities around the world,” Sharansky said at one event last week, when he addressed more than 1,000 Moscow Jews in a packed concert hall.

During a visit to the Jewish day school where Tayts studies, Sharansky told a gathering of pupils what today’s Russian Jewish revival means to him as a former dissident.

“Years ago, you had to fight against the regime in this country if you wanted just to be a Jew,” he said.

“I’m happy that this contradiction does not exist anymore,” Sharansky added, sporting the school’s trademark baseball hat.

Sharansky was the first member of the current Israeli Cabinet to visit Russia. One of his primary responsibilities was to lay the groundwork for a visit, scheduled for next month, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Accompanied by a 70-member delegation from Israel’s business community — the largest official Israeli delegation ever to visit Russia — Sharansky met with several members of the Russian Cabinet to discuss bilateral trade and future Israeli investments in Russian high-tech industries and real estate.

He said there was a unique potential for expanded business ties, given the high number of Jews from the former Soviet Union — about 700,000 — who arrived in Israel since 1989 and who could serve as a bridge between the two countries’ economies.

He added that trade between the two countries now totaled some $350 million, about the same as Israeli-Thai trade totals.

During a meeting he held with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the conversation turned from trade to the country’s treatment of minorities.

“Anti-Semitism still exists,” Luzhkov said. “However, in general, the way our society relates to different nationalities and religions has changed radically.”

Sharansky’s visit to Moscow also included a trip to Lefortovo Prison, where the KGB held him for 18 months before he was sent off to a labor camp on charges of spying for the West.

“I was probably the first man ever who was afraid to be late” for an appointment at Lefortovo, Sharansky said.

“If I were late, the prison officials could have used this as an excuse not to let me in.”

Sharansky said he returned to Lefortovo not in hopes of receiving an apology, but to understand how far Russian reforms had gone since he left the country.

“Prison is the institution where you can see changes in a society very clearly,” Sharansky said at an improvised news conference outside Lefortovo after taking a 90-minute prison tour with his wife, Avital.

He had brought with him a gift for the prison library: five copies of “Fear No Evil,” a book he wrote after arriving in Israel.

The book includes descriptions of how to stand up to injustice and not to give in to the interrogations at Lefortovo, Sharansky said.

But, recalling some of the prison’s rules, he did not autograph his books: A prison rule prohibits marking up any books on penalty of their being confiscated.

Many things had changed inside the prison’s stone walls, Sharansky said. Inmates are getting more food, radios are available and the windows that were bricked up 20 years ago now allow glimpses of daylight into the cells.

“I did not expect any apologies,” Sharansky said. “In any case, the regime I was fighting against does not exist. Did I forgive them? Would you forgive anyone who is dead?”

His prison tour included a visit to cell No. 47, where he spent “some of the most interesting days of my life,” as he put it.

“For me, this the symbol of our common victory,” he said of the cell.

“That prison, that punishment cell, is really where I won the most important victory in my life.”

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