In memory of Michael Sherbourne

Statement by Natan Sharansky
on the Passing of Veteran Soviet Jewry Activist
Michael Sherbourne

JERUSALEM – Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky has released the following statement upon the passing of veteran Soviet Jewry activist Michael Sherbourne:

"Avital and I were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Michael Sherbourne earlier today in London. At a time when there was no internet, no satellite television, and no free communication at all between the Soviet Union and the free world, this modest teacher of the Russian language in London became the primary channel of communication between Soviet Jewish activists and Jews all over the world. Michael personally made many thousands of telephone calls on our behalf and was the first to publicize some of the most dramatic moments in our struggle. He was so deeply invested in our campaign that a word of his invention—refusenik—became our internationally-recognized moniker. Michael Sherbourne demonstrated that one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history. We will miss him dearly."

June 21, 2014


Michael Sherbourne died. During decades he was one of the outstanding activists of the united fight of all-World Jewry to support the Russian Exodus and the fight of refuseniks in the USSR for national rights of Jews.
Zichrono of Zadik l’Vracha.

Yosef Begun


What a terrible loss!
Michael's contribution to the cause of liberation of Soviet Jewry was invaluable.
His input in the present-day struggle to preserve reason and decency in the so-called "Free world" was remarkable.
And his friendship was a blessing for all of us.
His vitality at his 97 years of age, his sense of humor, his vast erudition, and his fearless honesty will be sorely missed.
Passing away in his sleep he confirmed that he was a tzadik.
יהיה זיכרו ברוך!

Eleonora Shifrin



Michael's words in one of his last (how to believe?) messages could be seen as his testament:

"Is the population of the Jewish State of Israel that was established in 1948, a mere 65 years ago, now developing a suicide complex?

I gave up a great deal and my family suffered a great deal (about which I have never before spoken) as a result of my volunteering for Machal in 1948 and until now I was proud of what I then did in Hativah Sheva. But I am for the very first time beginning to wonder (and despair).

Was it all a waste of time and effort?

Are the Jewish people so blind and stupid as not to be able to see that creating an Arab state in Yehuda and Shomron will be handing it over to Hamas (et al.) as a second Gaza another base from which to fire rockets into Israel and kill ever more Jews in the process towards eliminating Israel as a Jewish State ??"

Michael must be immortalized - in addition to his blessed memory in our hearts - in the name of a street in Jerusalem.

זֵכֶר צַדִּיק לִבְרָכָה

Dan Roginsky


If anyone needs proof of the good that just one person could accomplish, Michael's life of 97 years was the example. He had learned Russian on a dare, and utilized that skill to make thousands of phone calls to refuseniks and families of Prisoners for Zion. He was a human lifeline between our brethren trapped in the USSR and those of us in freedom in the West. The Soviets attacked him the their press, calling him at one point, erroneously, Lord Sherbourne. His passion, incisive knowledge, and sharp wit will be sorely missed.

Glenn Richter


We all knew Michael as the consummate Soviet Jewry activist -meticulously accurate in gathering and transmitting information, a strategic and straight thinker, and so indefatigable. He was my role model, my teacher. Once when Lenny and I were in London, I sat with him and with the tape recorder running, he talked about the early years with Muriel, their preparation to make Aliya, how they left London for France on their way to Israel as the Nazi invaded Poland. He was a giant. We all loved him.

Pam Cohen


We affectionately called Michael Sherbourne, Lord Sherbourne. He was a prince of a man. We were honored to call him our friend and work with him. When we were expelled from the Soviet Union in 1975 all we wanted to do was get to Michael so he could call into Kishinev and find out if the KGB had arrested the refuseniks we had visited. We returned to the US through London, met Michael and began a friendship of almost 40 years. We saw him in Israel, Europe, and the US at Soviet Jewry meetings. In later years we kept up via e-mail.

We fondly recall Michael sitting on the floor of our house in Miami, playing dreidel with our three young children when he was on a speaking tour on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Years later he came to their b'nei mitzvot. His contributions to the Soviet Jewry movement were truly monumental. He was an inspiration to us all. May his memory be for a blessing.

Joel & Adele Sandberg


Letter to Norma, Michael’s daughter:

Dear Norma! I asked Michael all the time to write a book. His life was a real history of Israel and Soviet Jewry.

He was witness and participant of all was going in the Jewish world.

He suffered very much with all of us in time we were in USSR. And he worked day and night trying to reach each small piece of information from Russia. He translated thousand letters and statements and distributed among all organizations in the World working for Soviet Jewry release. He was not only a translator but also an expert in all issues, and helped to understand the situation to all new and new people involved in the struggle for our liberation.

He was real our friend, and he did not miss any opportunity to support us morally. He suffered with each prisoner of Zion as if he himself was in a Soviet prison!

Michael was also a real patriot of Israel, he fought for Israel as a soldier and fought against anti-Israeli propaganda in peacetime. He was really ill if something was wrong in Israel.

People alive until they are remembered.
While we are alive - we will remember our friend Michael!!

Dina and Yosi Beilin


London Jewish Chronicle

Michael Sherbourne the man who helped to free millions

Michael Sherbourne, who died last weekend, was a key figure in the campaign
that supported Soviet Jews in their fight to escape an oppressive regime

By Colin Shindler,
June 26, 2014

During the summer of 1970 while working as the political secretary of the World Union of Jewish Students, I received a telephone call from an irate caller who told me that the spelling of the organisation's name in Russian on its headed notepaper was incorrect.

I tried to explain that this was none of my doing, but the caller would have none of it and berated me for committing a crime against the sacred beauty of the Russian language.

This was my first encounter with Michael Sherbourne, the man who played a pivotal role in the UK campaign supporting Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate. He it was who was credited with the first use of the English translation of otkaznik - "refusenik".

His passing last weekend at the age of 97 was recorded by the Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, himself a former refusenik, who remarked that Michael demonstrated how "one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history". Not a cliché, but a remarkable truth.

Michael was part of that inter-war generation of British Jews whose world outlook was forged by the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism. As a teenager, he wanted to run away to fight Franco in Spain, but his mother got wind of it before he was able to leave.

As passionate Zionists, Michael and his new wife Muriel, emigrated to Palestine in 1939. He fought at Latrun during Israel's war of independence before returning to London in the early 1950s due to Muriel's tuberculosis.

Michael was a keen linguist who spoke French, Spanish and Hebrew fluently - and learned Russian to win a bet. He was a self-educated man who read widely, and about the history of the Jewish tragedy during the 20th century in particular. Above all he understood why it was important to participate in the onward voyage of the Jewish people, and not to be a bystander.

Following the Six-Day War, the Soviet Union broke off relations with Israel. Israel's lightening victory, however, catalysed an emigration movement of Soviet Jews who wished to leave. Individual letters led to collective ones which led to demonstrations and sit-ins. The struggle of these courageous people was facilitated by wide press coverage and growing support in this country.

The campaign had initially been led by the Universities Committee of Soviet Jewry - a group of students who felt impelled to act. The decision by the Kremlin to allow a trickle of Jewish activists to leave in 1968 and the change in policy of the Israeli government to proclaim openly their support for the cause was the blue touchpaper which brought many people into the campaign. Michael first become involved in 1969.

It was very much a grassroots movement attracting people who had no aspiration to leadership. They were teachers like Michael, housewives like the 35's group and businessmen such as Ladbroke's Cyril Stein who was willing to fund them. They all understood the meaning of "never again".

In 1970 telephone connections were established with activists in Moscow. A network of Russian speakers, including Michael, was established. Open letters to Soviet leaders and appeals to Golda Meir and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson were passed over and published in a weekly bulletin, Jews in the USSR. Refuseniks from Estonia to Siberia explained the justice of their cases to the activists in Moscow who would transmit them to Michael in London. In this fashion, London became the central hub of information.

In 1975 a well-known doctor Mikhail Stern was accused of poisoning children. A chain of contacts stretching from the court itself to Michael in north London enabled Dr Stern's defiant speech to the judges to be published within hours in London.

Michael was a marked man in the eyes of the Kremlin. Soviet propaganda turned him into "the notorious Zionist, Lord Sherbourne" - a title which pleased him greatly.

During this period, he was head of languages at a Southgate School as well as working at a local synagogue. During the evening he campaigned non-stop for Soviet Jews. The first two tasks fed his family, the other his heart.

It could never be said that Michael was a diplomat. He never warmed to Jewish organisations and was critical of Israeli institutions. He was never easy, but easy people would not have confronted the KGB.

He was a central figure in a group of British Jews which broke all the rules - and whose efforts ultimately made possible the emigration of a million Soviet Jews in the 1990s.

Truly he made a difference.

Colin Shindler was active from 1966 to 1975 in the campaign as chairman of the Universities Committee for Soviet Jewry and as editor of 'Jews in the USSR'