It was a dream come true. There beneath the chupah stood Rachel Sharansky, daughter of Natan and Avital Sharansky, with her beloved, Micha Danziger.
The hills of Jerusalem encircled us, like a wedding ring around the whole city. Jerusalem’s chilly winter days took a respite as the sun shone brightly; even the weather knew it was the time to feel the warmth and love of bride and groom.
Attending the wedding were many heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement, proud Jews who had struggled against the Soviet regime. There was Zev Dashevsky, the great Moscow Hebrew teacher, and Yosef Begun, one of the longest-serving prisoners of Zion.
Activists from the west who did all they could to free Soviet Jewry were there as well: former Union of Councils president Stuart Wurtman; Jerry Stern, who took out the first ad publicizing Natan’s plight; Gordy Zacks, a friend of the elder George Bush, who intervened on many occasions for Avital.
Also taking part in the great joy was the team of unknown Israelis who, while never seeking glory, were active throughout the struggle. Rabbi Zvi Tau, who orchestrated the team. Eli Sadan, the brilliant ideologue who inspired Avital. And Avi Maoz, Avital’s indefatigable and savvy right hand.
There, too, were the souls of those who made this moment happen but were sadly not present to join in the simcha. Ida Milgrom, Natan’s mother, the woman who never caved in to Soviet brutality and who gave Natan the strength to never give up. And Avital’s brother, Mikhail Stieglitz, a forceful figure for Natan throughout the world, an Israeli army officer who died at too young an age.
Beneath the chupah Natan recalled his wedding to Avital 34 years earlier. It was held in a small room with barely a minyan present. Natan recounted that it had all seemed incomprehensible to him as the rabbi read the blessings and carried out the wedding ceremony, but when the time came to break the glass, it all became clear.
“The dream of immigrating to Israel, building Jerusalem, was our hope,” he explained.
Turning to Rachel and Micha, both just 21 years old, Natan pointed out that in certain ways the struggle today is much greater than the one he and Avital experienced, since the dream of Jerusalem and the responsibility to protect and defend the holy city is more complex.
The wedding took place at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel just before the Shabbat on which we read the refrain that resounded throughout the Soviet Jewry movement: “Shalach et Ami,” “Let My People Go.” The last blessing under the chupah, sung to Shlomo Carlebach’s tender tune, was the Shabbat welcome prayer “Lecha Dodi” — “Come my beloved to greet the bride.”
This time the words of that blessing jumped from the page. The hills of Jerusalem resonated with song, and the countless words describing joy of bride and groom, which at times seem repetitious, all made sense; no words were sufficient to express that happiness.
As we sang, Avital shed tears. Not the tears of sadness she shed when advocating for Natan, tears and resolve that moved the world. Tears of joy and happiness.
And then we danced. First the men and women were separated by a mechitza, but soon Natan and Micha joined Rachel and her sister Chana and Avital and Micha’s parents, and all danced together.
What a far cry from that wedding 34 years ago in Moscow when Natan and Avital were forcefully separated the following day. They would not see each other for another 12 years, including nearly nine that Natan spent in the Gulag.
When they were finally reunited, Natan’s first words to Avital were, “I’m sorry I’m late.” For their children there would be no such separation, no such apologies.
Avital was once asked whether she had ever written to Soviet officials after Natan’s release. She replied that she had sent them pictures of each of the girls after they were born. One wonders if Avital had also sent to any of the tormentors over whom Natan had triumphed an invitation to Rachel’s wedding. For those blessed to be there, the Sharansky wedding was a microcosm of Jewish history. There have been many forces of evil that have bedeviled Am Yisrael, and yet, the good has prevailed.
Off to one side in the wedding hall, confined to a wheelchair, was Yeshayahu Nebenzahl, an accomplished professor in Israel. We danced a bit, total strangers but brothers in joy.
He whispered to me: “When I come to heaven they’ll ask me what have I done in life? I’ll be able to answer, ‘I was at the wedding of Sharansky’s daughter.’”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He serves as national president of AMCHA – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. His new book, Journey to Open Orthodoxy, is scheduled for publication this winter.