Historic evening will honor SMU’s Halperin
By Deb Silverthorn
Chabad of Plano/Collin County will host a Historic Evening with Natan Sharansky, honoring Dr. Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Human Rights Program, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22, at The Eisemann Center. The event’s signature sponsor is H.E.B./Central Market.
“The vision of Chabad of Plano/Collin County will be defined as we come together. Natan Sharansky and Rick Halperin are heroes of intellect, humanity and a welcoming spirit,” said Rabbi Menachem Block, who with his wife, Rivkie, is celebrating 31 years in Plano/Collin County.
This will be the first time the honoree and the speaker will engage in a conversational interview.
“5783 is the year of Hakhel, when all Jews gathered at the Holy Temple [every seven years] for the king to read from the Torah. In the Temple’s absence, we still act by gathering our communities for inspiration,” said Block. “This event is most certainly an expression of just that.”
Sharansky was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, the center of the current war there. As a child his Jewish heritage was all but invisible.
“The only ‘Jewish life’ was antisemitism. No brit milah, no shul, no holidays and no Jewish books. None of it. [We were treated as though] our blood was diseased. Lots of discrimination and hatred,” he said. “As a Jew, the best you did was to study math, chess, science — professional success was all that defended you even partially.”
In 1967 at the age of 19, after Israel’s Six-Day War, Sharansky joined an underground activist group. He was jailed intermittently for 15-day periods, the sentence for gatherings of 10 or more. He says it was worthwhile because while their protests were small; around the world tens of thousands were gathering in supportive rallies.
“It’s how the struggle was built. Then I was sent to prison for nine years,” said Sharansky.
Upon his release, Sharansky madealiyah. He formed the Zionist Forum assisting Soviets making aliyah, then the Yisrael B’Aliyah party helping to integrate Russian Jews. He served in four Israeli governments holding various Cabinet positions such as minister of Jerusalem affairs and trade minister as well as deputy prime minister. After the Knesset, he served nine years as head of the Jewish Agency.
Sharansky, a recipient of the United States Congressional Medal of Honor in 1986 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006 by President George W. Bush, is the only living non-American to receive these honors. He sits on the board of the Bush Freedom Institute at SMU. In 2020, he was named Israel’s Genesis Prize Laureate. The Genesis Prize recognizes and celebrates Jewish talent and achievement, honoring individuals for their accomplishments and commitment to Jewish values.
For Sharansky, author of four books, speaking at a Chabad comes with respect for the connection they’ve held for generations around the world. While working at the Jewish Agency, Sharansky visited many college campuses and saw Chabad almost everywhere he went. He said that once Jewish life was again permitted in the Soviet Union, it was Chabad’s shluchim, emissaries, who were the first to come and to go into the furthest places.
“Chabad built new Jewish communities,” he said. “Some Jews complain why Chabad has conquered Russia. I told them ‘If you have some other Jews who speak their language and want to share their lives, go ahead.’ No one else was ready.”
This isn’t Sharansky’s first visit to the Metroplex; it’s his third. At a demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 1987, among 250,000 protesters was a Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas–sponsored planeload of locals.
He doesn’t remember who it was, but someone asked if he’d come to Dallas. He answered, “If I can have such a hat as your cowboy hat.” He came and he got the hat. He returned and received boots. On this trip, he jokes, maybe he’ll be gifted a horse!
Sharansky’s life is why Halperin does the work he does. To interview him, a man he’s looked up to for decades, is extraordinary.
“I’m appreciative and thrilled to share this evening with Mr. Sharansky,” said Halperin. “We all need to know about him and to understand his struggle. He’s nothing less than remarkable.”
Halperin was born in Alabama and raised during the height of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. He credits his mother, Ruth Halperin, with his life’s path.
“My mother raised me to believe in human dignity, to have manners and to know there’s no such thing as a ‘lesser person,’” he said. “Our program’s tagline, ‘There’s no such thing as a lesser person,’ expresses her values.”
Halperin earned degrees at George Washington University, Southern Methodist University and Auburn University before coming to teach at SMU in 1985. Outside of the classroom he enjoys time with his longtime partner, Lauren Seipp; his service of 52 years to Amnesty International, three of 13 years on its board as president; and, for nearly 40 years, his playing in the Temple Shalom Softball League, this year with Ruckel’s Bananas.
In 1986, he began taking students out of the classroom and into the world. Except for two years, due to the pandemic, he’s made annual treks to Poland. In 2005, Lauren Embrey, a liberal arts master’s candidate, took her sons Jeffery and Lindsay on Halperin’s tour of 13 concentration camps, and the seed was planted.
“What I learned in class, and then on our trip, was integral. I should’ve learned so much in high school and as an undergrad moving into young adulthood,” said Embrey. “That I knew nothing about so many atrocities in the world was not OK. Knowing more, knowing anything, would have informed and guided me.”
When she returned, she spoke with her sister Gayle, with whom she was running their family’s Embrey Family Foundation. The sisters met with Halperin and asked about his dream, which within the year resulted in the founding of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, now known as the SMU Human Rights Program.
“Rick has brought human rights to the forefront for our students and our community. He lives his work and is the example of kindness, dignity, equity and dedication to his work,” said Embrey.
More than 100 classes are offered, by 66 faculty members of nearly every school at SMU, for the interdisciplinary program with students majoring and minoring in the studies.
“Our program, one of nine in the country, looks like a mini-United Nations. It’s the most diverse program on campus with phenomenal students,” said Halperin. “Education is the gift that continues, and it has changed my life and that of hundreds of students. It is a legacy of the tragedy of the Holocaust.”
In 1978, when Sharansky was arrested, the Boston-based band Safam released the song “Leaving Mother Russia.” Years later, Safam played it for Sharansky himself.
“We are leaving Mother Russia, we have waited far too long. We are leaving Mother Russia, when they come for us, we’ll be gone,” Robbie Solomon penned. “For 15 centuries we’ve called this land our home. We love the Russian soil as much as anyone. In countless armies our young boys have died for you. Never did you call them ‘son,’ you always called them ‘Jew.’”
Forty-three years later, Sharansky is heading to Texas — his only U.S. appearances this season at Chabad of Plano/Collin County and Chabad Lubavitch of San Antonio — and he says “Thank G-d, we left.”
For details, tickets and sponsorships, visit www.chabadplano.org/sharansky.