Some people are just not like others.  When faced with adversity, they appear to acquire superhuman powers.  When I heard about the passing of Esther Pollard, the remarkable woman who devotedly rallied for the sake of her husband for nearly thirty years, I thought about the incredible emunah and strength she exhibited throughout her ordeal.  It also brought to mind others who throughout their own trying circumstances did the same.  These are people who set a goal and will do absolutely whatever it takes in order to achieve that goal.  They will travel as far from their comfort zones as is imaginable and then travel even further out, and they persevere despite the many roadblocks placed in their paths leading to one setback after another. 

I thought of Avital Sharansky. Avital fought valiantly for years to secure the release of her husband, Natan, from Russian imprisonment.  Avital, whose visa was about to expire, left Russia for Israel the day after their wedding.  Natan was denied an exit visa and was imprisoned in 1977 on charges of high treason. Avital led an international campaign which eventually resulted in the release of her husband in 1986 as part of a larger exchange of detainees, after he spent nine years in a Siberian prison.  When Avital spoke at my graduation from Stern College, I was amazed at how such a soft-spoken and gentle woman showed such strength and dignity in the difficult fight to save her husband, as she met with lawmakers, including Walter Mondale, the vice president at the time.  From where did Avital get the fortitude to wage and endure the battle that she eventually won? Her husband was known for his resistance in the Gulag.  Even when he was released, he was told to walk straight across the Glienicke Bridge to freedom. In his final act of defiance, Sharansky walked in a zig-zag as he crossed the bridge.  From where did he garner such inner strength? What exactly are these people made of? Once Sharansky came to Israel, Avital left the public eye and Baruch Hashem they were able to raise two daughters.

I also thought about Yonah Baumel, the father of Zachary Baumel, an American soldier who was captured along with five others in 1982 in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub just hours before the declaration of a ceasefire of the first Lebanon War.  For twenty-seven years following his capture, the Baumels traveled the world, leaving no stone unturned in their search for their son and his fellow soldiers. They pursued every clue about the MIAs by establishing a network of contacts, including former Israeli intelligence personnel, members of the international intelligence community, and even contacts in the Arab world.  Yonah Baumel functioned like a private investigator and interviewed hundreds of people.  He turned to European politicians and even to the Vatican for help.  This is clearly not a regular person I’m talking about.  I once attended a parlor meeting at which Zachary’s father spoke about his son’s tragic story and his attempts to locate him.  Approximately twenty years had passed since the battle, yet he continued to cling to his belief that his son was still alive.  After Yonah’s presentation, I privately asked the representative from the MIA organization who brought him to speak if he, too, believed Zachary was still alive. He thought that most likely he wasn’t, but he would never want to take hope away from his father.  Unfortunately, Yonah passed away 10 years before his son’s remains were returned to Israel, thirty-seven years after he had been captured.  He never experienced a sense of closure regarding the fate of his son.  But for twenty-seven years he had a single goal that he courageously pursued with resilience and perseverance.

Esther Pollard was another one of those heroic people.   She was determined, selfless, and sacrificed any semblance of a normal life she might have lived for the sake of her husband, Jonathan, who was arrested in 1985 and convicted of espionage.  Jonathan agreed to a plea bargain which was accepted by both the prosecutor and the defense, expecting a more lenient sentence.  He kept his part of the bargain and was shocked when he was given a life sentence, making him the only American to receive a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally of the U.S.

Esther was in Israel in the summer of 1990, totally unaware of Jonathan’s plight.  Someone mentioned to her that a certain Jew in prison gets chizuk when he receives letters from those outside the prison walls. So, as a chesed, she wrote him a letter.  He responded with two letters: one was an informational package, and the other was a more personal letter.  Esther was touched by the fact that that the personal letter did not contain bitterness or anger, but rather an expression of love for Jews and Eretz Yisrael, values that Esther herself was passionate about.  From then, Esther sent thousands of letters of encouragement to Jonathan, only receiving five from him in return, as many of the letters he sent were intercepted by the authorities. Jonathan and Esther got married in a secret halachic ceremony in 1994 in Butner prison.  Esther dedicated her life to the release of her husband.  She traveled the world on his behalf, knocked on every door, met with United States and Israeli government officials, and even went on a hunger strike pleading her case.  She faced indifference from some, and opposition and hostility from others.  But she was not deterred and maintained her vigorous campaign even while she battled cancer.  Jonathan was eventually released in 2015, but was kept in the United States by parole rules and was not allowed to travel to Israel.  It was only a little over a year ago that the couple was finally able to come home to Israel.  After so many trials and tribulations, the time they had together after finally coming home was unfortunately short-lived.

Thousands of Jews from all different backgrounds came to pay a shiva call.  As the shiva progressed, it became more crowded, and visitors were given just a few short minutes to pay their respects before being ushered out to make way for the next group. The line outside the apartment on Motzaei Shabbos was endless. During the shiva and at the gathering in Esther’s memory the evening after the shiva was completed, many stories were told about Esther’s determination and steadfastness. Jonathan, who referred to Esther as his wife and teacher, talked about the time when there was no visitation at the prison due to a major snow storm.  Unexpectedly, Esther arrived at the prison for a visit, surprising the guards and Jonathan.  She had walked five miles in the snow to see her husband.  Who on earth does that?  Absolutely nothing stood in her way. The guards were so impressed by her extreme devotion that they decided to drive her back to her motel.

Yossi Dagan, the head of the Shomron Regional Council, spoke about the days of the Wye Agreement, which was being negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians in 1998. There was talk about releasing Jonathan Pollard from prison as part of the negotiations of withdrawal from the Shomron.  When Esther heard about this, she stood up and stated that despite the fact that Jonathan was living under terrible conditions in prison, if Jonathan’s release was conditioned upon withdrawal from Israeli territory, they both would prefer that he remain in prison! Talk about selflessness!  He also mentioned that the Pollards’ first public event after making aliyah was a Hachnasas Sefer Torah at Kever Yosef.  Over a ten-year period, the Pollards saved up money one coin at a time from their very limited funds and they took out a loan in order to have a Sefer Torah written to bring to Kever Yosef when they would be zoche to make aliyah.  When the final letters of the Sefer Torah were being written, Esther explained that due to Jonathan’s incarceration, they were never able to have children.  This Sefer Torah was their child and they were bringing it to Kever Yosef.

All of these exceptional people started off as regular people, but rose with Hashem’s help to meet the challenges in their lives and to become extraordinary people.  We should never find ourselves in the positions these people found themselves, but we do have much to learn from them.

Suzie Steinberg, CSW, is a native of Kew Gardens Hills and resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh who publishes articles regularly in various newspapers and magazines about life in general, and about life in Israel in particular. Her recently published children’s book titled Hashem is Always With Me can be purchased in local Judaica stores as well as online. Suzie can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  and would love to hear from you.