From Moscow to Washington
By Jonathan Feldstein
Reflecting on my role in an historical movement
that helped change the future
many Jewish organizations, newspapers and museums worldwide have celebrated the
40th anniversary of the beginning of the Soviet Jewry movement. This is indeed a meaningful and
historic milestone. Yet 2007 also
marked the 20th anniversary of another milestone of that movement,
an event that was unprecedented, timely and may have had a meaningful impact on
the outcome of this struggle.
December 1987 saw the largest demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jewry in
Washington DC, with more than 250,000 protestors raising their voices to pray
and appeal to the USSR for the freedom of all Soviet Jews.
attributed this as one factor that lead to the eventual dissolution of the USSR
and freedom for Soviet Jews to emigrate.
Perhaps it was. But there
were many other factors and geopolitical concerns that played off one another
in a symbiotic way: Jewish and human rights groups fighting for religious and
civic freedom, and the Reagan Administration leading the charge against Soviet
Communism and totalitarianism. The
Soviet Jewry movement gave popular support to the goals of US foreign policy,
and US foreign policy propelled the Soviet Jewry movement. These were among the many factors that
contributed to the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union. And there were many more factors that
led to the redemption of Soviet Jewry.
Even though 1987 is celebrated as the 40th anniversary of
that movement, this was a process that started, in many ways, with the rebirth
of the State of Israel.
generation that has passed, more than one million Soviet Jews have immigrated
to Israel and hundreds of thousands more to other countries.
struggle for Soviet Jewry started out as a grassroots effort, it gathered steam
and ultimately involved world leaders – political, civic and others. It served as a cause for Jews worldwide
to gather around and participate in, together. It was hard to imagine then that the outcome would have been
so thorough, literally seeing a modern exodus of historical proportions.
from an expert or a major player in the movement, from a young age it became a
central part of my identity. A
passion. Even a crusade. While others spent early adult years
focusing their spare time on far more mundane things, my activities revolved
more and more around freeing Soviet Jewry. I write not with any authority on behalf of any organization
– past or present – but simply to tell the story of my own
involvement. Perhaps it was no
more than a comma on the pages of Jewish history. Or perhaps, it is a catalyst that, while applicable in its
time and place more than two decades ago, that will find a follower to pick up
the baton and continue in the spirit from where my energy and involvement came.
Uris wrote “Exodus” in 1957, chronicling the story of European Jewish refugees
settling Israel a decade earlier and the struggle for Statehood, it is hard to
imagine that for many Jews behind the Iron Curtain, this would be attributed
many years later, as a spark igniting Jewish identity and nationalism, and
inspire hope to live in Israel or anywhere else outside the USSR, as free Jews.
years, with every secret Hebrew class, every clandestine holiday celebration,
every unauthorized brit mila, Jews in the USSR became more bold, more daring and even
more hopeful. Even though they
were physically imprisoned, they began their liberation in the USSR by defying
authority, very much the way the Jewish People’s Exodus began in Egypt.
all this, people across the world organized, demonstrated, and advocated on
behalf of Soviet Jews, whether as an end in itself, or as a model on behalf of
all human rights violations in the USSR.
Its’ participants were Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds. This movement was both grassroots, and at
the same time, very much connected to the organized Jewish community. Its players were students, housewives
and retirees. It involved loud
street protests, and (behind the scenes) quiet diplomacy. And, in an all too typical character
for a people where, as the joke goes, there are three synagogues for every two people,
there were a wide array of organizations both allied with, and even pitted
against, one another.
milestone year, I began to reflect on my own role and involvement in this
movement half a lifetime ago. To
be sure, I was a very small player on the stage of this unfolding real life
drama, but in many ways it was the sum of mine and others’ efforts that gave
the breath of life to this movement, and generated an undercurrent of activity
that was probably unstoppable.
humbling to look back at a significant portion of my life that represented no
more than a millisecond on the radar of Jewish history. Yet with the privilege
of hindsight, and the freedom of Soviet Jews a reality long ago, it is
important to revisit these events that made up one bit of the activity that
took place on behalf of Jews in the USSR.
For even if they were not intended to be writing the pages of Jewish
history at the time, the reality is that they did just that. And for every thing I did, there were
countless others who were involved, working parallel to, teaching, leading,
briefing and motivating others. With all the milliseconds added up, this became
one of the finest hours of Jewish history and peoplehood.
years, I had the privilege of working with many of the most dedicated leaders
of the Soviet Jewry movement, people who guided and looked out for me, and whose
activism lead a movement that changed the course of Jewish history. In turn, I had the opportunity to serve
as a guide and teacher for many others, inspiring them with my commitment and
activism, and motivating them to join the world-wide efforts that ultimately
led to our collective success, the redemption of the Jewish people in the USSR.
Catalyst – An Early Beginning
Early in my
teens, I was peripherally aware of the situation afflicting Soviet Jews. I knew that they were persecuted,
imprisoned, discriminated against and prevented from leaving the USSR. But as much, or as little, as I knew
about the plight of Soviet Jews, my early adolescence was focused on other more
mundane interests; school, baseball, and girls.
In a time
and era that seems so distant, my mother prepared dinner and we ate together as
a family on most evenings. These
dinners were not particularly remarkable then, except in reflection that it is
something that is done less and less among contemporaries today. However, one night, in the months
leading up to my brother’s bar mitzvah, we sat at the dinner table and my
mother shared a story from Hadassah magazine which would make this meal
memorable as it would change the rest of my life.
earlier, at my own bar mitzvah, while the plight of Soviet Jews was known, the
notion of “twinning” a bar or bat mitzvah was not in vogue. By 1982, this had become somewhat
commonplace. Twinning meant different
things to different people. Families
and their children who did participate undertook many different ways to share their bar/bat mitzvah
celebration with a Soviet teen who was not given the opportunity to celebrate
on his or her own.
twinning served two purposes.
First, to raise awareness and not forget the plight of Soviet Jews; to
make their situation not just public, but something which we adopted as a
personal responsibility to help attain their freedom, family to family and
child to child. Second, to the
extent that it was possible and Soviet censors did not prevent it, by
corresponding with the Soviet Jewish teens (and their families) with whom
Americans twinned their bar/bat mitzvah, this would serve as a means of giving
them hope and inspiration that they were not forgotten, that they were a part
of a broader Jewish people, and that others cared about them.
It was said
that the hope this instilled was invaluable. It was also understood that to the extent one was able to
make the plight of a specific Soviet Jewish family high profile enough, it was
as an insurance policy of sorts that nothing bad would happen to them. Of course, nobody knew for sure,
because the only thing that was consistent with the Soviet Union was their
inconsistency. And because there
were any number of geo-political factors at play through the 1970s and 1980s
Cold War when Soviet Jewry became the cause, one never knew what motivated the
Soviets to relent, or pushed them into greater intransigence.
tight lid on all elements of Soviet society, there was very little that was not
controlled by the state. This was
not just in the case of socialism where things were state run and implemented
in successive five year plans, but all the bureaucracy as well. It is said that one of the reasons the
Soviets were able to brag about zero unemployment is that they used their
citizens as arms of the state (and KGB) to spy on one another.
twinned his bar mitzvah with a boy, Mikhail, who lived in some distant Soviet Republic. He wrote letters. My mother wrote letters. Mention of Mikhail was made at the bar
mitzvah ceremony and at the party, but there was never any indication that
Mikhail or his family ever received any of these correspondences, or knew of
any of the efforts and concern on his behalf going on in suburban New Jersey.
felt inspired to do something myself, at the same time, I felt cheated about
not being given an opportunity to do something like this at my bar
mitzvah. As a member of the local
Young Judaea chapter, I decided to adopt a family of my own, and use a wider
group of peers and others to take on their cause, locally, regionally and
magazine referred us to Action for Soviet Jewry which provided me with a name
and short bio of a family in Moscow, the Shteins. Father, Victor, was a chemist. His wife, Lyudmila was a linguist who served as a
translator. They had two
daughters, Katya and Yelena. Inspired
by the relatively large exodus of Soviet Jews in 1979, the Shteins submitted
their application to leave the USSR for Israel. Thinking, as did many others, that the door to freedom was
open and that they’d be free in short order, Victor and Lyudmila applied to
leave the USSR, but were fired from their positions, and branded in every
aspect of Soviet society as traitors.
the fast growing world of “refuesnicks,” Soviet Jews who clearly wanted out but
were refused permission to leave and therefore became shunned, discriminated
against and imprisoned in their own homes.
able to get odd work on his own, a particularly difficult challenge in a
country where everything was state controlled. He worked as a night watchman, as a photographer and
anything that would enable him to earn a few rubles to sustain his family as
normal as possible.
two years younger than I, was a good student with very good English. Yelena was too young and did not know
about her family’s status as refunesnicks. Her parents tried to keep her sheltered from their
reality. While they were able to
continue to attend school, it was not without moments of discrimination and
anti-Semitism. As she got older,
Katya was prevented from going on to higher education as a doctor. But she was
able to get training, and even work, as a nurse because of the high demand for
this relatively underpaid profession.
Pals and More
order, I began a monthly ritual of writing letters to the Shteins initially and
eventually to Katya. Every page of
every letter was documented to indicate “this is the first/second/third page of
my first/second/third letter” so that should one arrive, they knew which
letters and which pages were missing, edited or outright stolen by the Soviet
censors. At the same time, I always
encouraged others to write as well. Some did, sometimes. But nobody took on the diligence and commitment I had.
One day, a
letter arrived from Moscow. Kate
wrote on her family’s behalf, that because we were close in age we could become
friends. It was also a good way to
practice her English. She signed
her letter, “Kate.” So began
my friendship with Kate, and my adoption of the Shteins as my Soviet Jewish
letters were very neutral. I was
given strict guidelines as to what could and could not be said. The wrong phrase, or even word, could
be used as evidence that could get them arrested for any of several common
trumped up charges that Soviet authorities typically used to harass and
imprison Jewish activists.
were also sent registered, return receipt requested, in order to provide some
documentation of the letters being received, or conversely, the Soviets
blocking of such correspondence.
In my first
letter, I wrote of mutual friends who told me about them, of wanting to
correspond and learn about their lives, and my interest in the Soviet
Union. All things tame enough, and
the first letter was able to pass the extensive Soviet censorship. After a while, it became hard to tell
what letters had arrived and what letters had not. But at the same time, as much as it would have been nice for
all the letters to arrive, the Shteins knew I was writing, and the people
charged with stopping the letters from getting through knew as well.
passed, my commitment grew and my plans and activism intensified. My goal was
simple, to get the Shteins out of the USSR. The means would take many directions, ways that I could have
never imagined when I wrote, or received, that first letter.
in the USSR
than a year of writing and a few letters actually being received by us both,
one of Kate’s letters that got through suggested I come to Moscow in the summer
of 1985 for the International Youth Festival. In truth, her words finally gave expression to an idea I had
already considered for some time.
After she asked me to visit, how could I say no. But the task of getting
there seemed to me almost as great at the time as getting them out of the USSR
to begin with.
many hurdles. I was 20 and had a
relatively short time to make my trip a reality. Going to the USSR was not a simple thing in and of
itself. Just getting a visa was a
dragged out process. As I
connected more deeply with leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement, everyone
discouraged me from traveling alone. I was paired with another American student to travel
together, but her plans changed and I ended up traveling alone, in spite of the
advice of others not to do so.
Not that it
was possible to travel alone in the literal sense because all tourists to the
USSR had to be on recognized, official, state run and controlled tours with
tour guides empowered and
encouraged to report back every move of every guest, along with imparting a
required dosage of Marxism-Leninism.
But there were
other hurdles. My family, for some
reason I never understood, was not supportive. My father was discouraging. Maybe he was afraid for me. I don’t know.
My brother actually suggested I would shame the family. But while they certainly gave me
little reason for encouragement or support, that did not matter. Maybe it even propelled me to make the
trip happen. No matter, I had a
mission to undertake and was not going to be stopped.
main obstacle was financial. The ten
day trip to the USSR cost $2000. I had no savings. A poor starving student. To me, it was like $1 million. Though I did not know what I was doing, I decided I’d raise
the money somehow. $50 here. $200 there. I was not particularly well connected to Jewish leaders, though
I had already served as president of the Emory Hillel and was making a name for
myself there – and in the wider Atlanta community as an activist. Slowly and steadily, I got around to
people and groups, one by one, regardless of politics about which I was too
naēve. The money did start to come in.
This was my first fund raising campaign. Ultimately it would become a career.
money for the trip to the USSR, I thought it made most sense to turn to those
who knew me best. My friends and peers
were as poor as I was, but I did take my case back to my home town. There, I started soliciting friends’
parents, and friends of my parents, to my parents’ horror. While successful with a few, my father
did not like the idea about my asking his friends for money. So, we struck a deal. He’d buy me out, pay for the rest of my
trip, and I’d leave his friends alone.
Rather than offering others the opportunity to invest in my humanitarian
mission as I saw it, my father became the main shareholder in a venture in
which he had little interest.
the Law- An Advanced Lesson in Civil Disobedience
mindful of the legitimate concern for my physical safety in the USSR as I
expected to be followed and harassed and even physically prevented from visiting
the Shteins and other refusenicks as I had planned. As I prepared for my trip, I joked with friends that they
could write to me in the gulag, or that I’d open the first Soviet chapter of my
fraternity, in Siberia. There, the
law was a moving target and I was advised to be careful not even to cross a
street without the right of way, or else that could have me deported, or
worse. I was nervous.
But I spent
much more time in the months leading up to my trip worried about breaking the
law from another perspective, breaking US law. Even before Kate wrote and suggested that I come visit, the
idea had been in the back of my mind.
But as interesting as the USSR might be, the point was not just to visit
as a tourist. Even though I was
told that just by visiting the refusenicks I would bring them great hope, that
was not enough. I was looking at
the bottom line. I wanted to get
the Shteins out. If not on a plane
with me, then in short order following my visit. Naēve, or stupid, or both, nevertheless that was my
earlier I read Abbie Hoffman’s autobiography, “Soon to be a Major Motion
Picture.” He chronicled his life as a leader of
the Yippes, an ardent anti-Vietnam war activist, and his many other escapades. Many of these involved his breaking the
law, getting arrested and ultimately going into hiding to escape a long prison
sentence. While not a role model
in many other ways, Abbie Hoffman taught me about “Guerilla Theater,” civil
disobedience and the idea of following one’s conscience, and even be prepared
to accept the consequences. I
applied that to my Soviet Jewry activities in many ways, but the most
significant had yet to come.
my strategy, I also took a page out of my own family history where relatives
would leave Eastern Europe through the “legal” means of a fictitious
marriage. I understood this was
common and even my grandmother and two of her siblings owed saving their lives
from Hitler’s inferno to such marriages.
If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me. I planned to marry Kate in a legal
Soviet ceremony, and then do whatever necessary to get “my wife” free from the
USSR, taking her case to the highest legal, diplomatic and political spheres
marrying someone for the sole purpose of getting them US citizenship is illegal
and the fine and potential jail time were not insignificant. Not only did I evaluate how it might
impact my social life to be married, albeit fictitiously, to a women in the
USSR, I wondered if I’d end up shooting myself in the foot and not only not get
her out, but get myself thrown into prison as well. Yet it was a risk I ultimately decided I had to take.
1985 – Arriving on the Other Side of the World
trip became a reality. I was in
the air. On the way to Helsinki
for a stop over, I wrote post cards to friends, taking a plain white index card
and drawing a window with bars in one corner. The caption was “the view from my room.” This killed time and gave a vehicle to
calm my nerves.
In Moscow, I
met up with a diverse group of Americans on my tour. A woman with her two teenage children; Charlie, a judge from
Lake Charles, LA who would be my roommate; two Jewish couples from NY (in whom
I would ultimately confide the purpose of my trip); and several others.
the wicked Intourist guide who used her every influence to keep us in line, for
our safety and pleasure, and who was particularly annoyed and concerned by my
leaving the group to travel on my own most of the time. I was sure that she knew what I was
doing, and sure that she knew I knew that she knew. Nevertheless, I did what I needed to do, missing general
touring that highlighted Soviet history while I ran around leaving my mark on
the pages of Jewish history. In
hindsight, it was amazing chutzpah and no less luck that I was able to get around Moscow and
Leningrad on my own, and not end up in jail.
I bought a
new address book that I filled in with real and fictitious names. I devised a code so I would know who I
needed to see, where they were and how to reach them. Since I was traveling
alone, I was given names of relatively safe people who were not suspected of
either being watched too heavily or being informers either. I followed all the rules carefully in
order to contact these people safely and discreetly, to get to them while not
attracting attention to myself, and trying to assess if I was being
main purpose of my trip was to visit the Shteins, to begin the process of
getting Kate out in one way or another.
The rest was gravy.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of hotel rooms in Moscow because of the
Youth Festival, my groups’ stay there was reduced by one day. I had only two nights and three days to
get everything I needed to do done.
I wasted no time.
On my first
night in Moscow I contacted Kate and made plans to meet her the next day. Making some excuse to Natasha, I left
the group the following morning and I took one subway line way out to its’ very
last stop in northern Moscow. I
made my way without having to ask directions, having taught myself basic
Russian so I could read phonetically and get around. I had no way of knowing how long a train ride it would be,
but did know that I was running very late. Nevertheless, I got out of the train and Kate was still
there, waiting for me. We
recognized one another immediately, embraced, and then went to her family’s
was quiet, so as not to attract attention to ourselves by speaking in
English. Victor waited for us at their
apartment and we visited there a bit.
Conversation was light, not forced, but not particularly
substantial. More getting to know
you than anything else. Though I
had felt close to them for some time, and they to me, we really did not know one
Most of the
things I had brought with me, other than my clothes and some snacks, were for
the Shteins; women’s clothes and shoes, photographic equipment, books, jewelry,
and many other things that could have gotten me arrested had I been caught at
customs. I shared my gifts, some
purchased, and others donated. Things they could use personally, or sell on the
black market for cash. Victor was
so taken by the things I brought he called me Santa Claus.
Then, as we
were having tea and talking, I let the shoe drop. Victor was sitting across the table from me, and Kate was to
my left. Out of the blue, I
blurted out my idea about getting married, and making the case why it was such
a good idea. I never told them
about my problems in doing so; they had enough to worry about. Neither responded verbally, but shortly
after this came up, Kate and I went out for a walk in a nearby park.
confided in me that she was so unhappy with her life there and desperately
wanted to leave, but at the same time she was close to her family and could not
imagine having to leave without them, possibly to never see them again. The idea of being alone on the outside
terrified her. But the idea
of never getting out made her miserable. We agreed we’d look into it and see if
we could make it happen, if it were necessary.
left I gave Kate a large envelope.
In it was an application to Emory University, where I was going into my
junior year. I explained that if
she filled it out and brought it to me the next day, I would bring it back with
me and try to get her accepted to Emory.
As much as American high school kids procrastinate in doing their
college applications, Kate arrived the next morning with everything in order.
wrote the essay to go with my own application to college, it was about the
Shteins and Soviet Jewry. My
feeling was that Emory accepted me on these terms, so it was my turn to make
the University an active partner in the process of getting Kate out.
the day together, visiting other refusenicks, bringing legal documents I
retrieved from the Dutch embassy to others to help facilitate their application
to leave the USSR, shopping for anti Semitic propaganda, and getting to know
one another better. Kate escorted
me to the train station where I was to meet my group for the overnight train. We parted, not knowing when we’d see
each other again, or where, if at all.
returning home, I increased my activities on behalf of the Shteins in particular,
and Soviet Jewry in general. I
developed a reputation on campus as the campaign to get Kate accepted to Emory
and secure her freedom became public and more and more visible. Adding to the regular letters, I
initiated and publicized several public phone calls made to Kate with other
students to try to garner support and increase awareness. This was no easy thing as making a call
to the USSR required a reservation, days in advance, and was always at the
discretion of the Soviet operator.
When it was placed, all calls were under the listening ears of the
inexpensive electronics, many of these calls were broadcast at public events
with dozens of people present.
Through the Emory newspaper, Kate became known, and I developed a
nickname, “Soviet Jon.” Eventually,
Emory accepted Kate as a “student in special standing.”
pages out of Abbie Hoffman’s play book, I initiated and participated in several
unique public protests as well.
Once, I was almost arrested leading a protest at the Soviet Embassy in
Washington, but backed down because I was concerned that it would be
inconvenient to miss my ride back to Atlanta. This is a decision I always regretted. I used it in my
making the case for Soviet Jews by explaining that whether I made a good choice
or a bad choice, I lived in a country bound by the law and I was able to choose
not to be arrested. Whereas Jews
in the USSR did not have that choice as arrest was used as a means of
intimidation and punishment.
a following and there was an increased demand for my presence and consultation
among various Jewish civic groups and on university campuses. I would travel to speak, motivate and inspire
people to the plight of Soviet Jews so that they would leave and do something. Many did.
presentations were simple. I would
show slides of all the people I had visited and tell stories of their personal
struggles. I wanted to make each
case personal, unique and on a level with which anyone could sympathize. I would end my presentations talking
about Kate and her family, telling about our plans to get married, hoping
desperately that some would join me in my efforts, at least a little.
time I wrote articles, letters, and letters to the editor regularly, often
under a pseudonym because even in a day before the internet, I did not want the
Soviets knowing that I was the instigator of everything I was doing so that it
not prevent me from going back to the USSR as needed. I attended an annual student Lobby in Washington on behalf
of Soviet Jews and met with many Congressional leaders personally, my having
been to the USSR carrying meaningful weight and generating sincere interest.
maintained a personal list of the phone numbers of most of the Soviet embassies
around the world. As a student,
studying all hours of the day and night, my theory was that there was always a
Soviet embassy open somewhere no matter what day of the week or time it was
where I was. So as a ritual that
became a hobby, I would call the Embassies collect, using the name of a major Soviet
Jewish prisoner, (Anatoly Sharansky, Yosef Begun, Ida Nudel, Yuli Edelstein and others). Usually they would not accept the call and they would hang
up, but the point was made.
Sometimes, I would yell out with the operator on the line, “Let my
People Go,” in Russian. This also
made the point.
a few occasions the unknowing embassy clerk would accept the call and I would
ask to get to the highest ranking diplomat present. Upon being connected I would either politely ask when they
were going to let one of the Jewish prisoners go (as they had no idea at this
point they were paying for the call so I was in no rush to get off the phone),
or I’d just yell out “Let My People Go” in Russian and hang up.
pinnacle of all these calls took place during the Reykjavik (Iceland) summit
between the US and USSR. Some time
in the middle of the night there I called the Soviet embassy collect and the
person who answered the call accepted the charges. Figuring that all the major Soviet leaders were there, I
asked to speak to Anatoly Dobrynin, then Soviet Ambassador to Washington. The polite clerk told me he was at the
hotel. I asked which hotel, and
for the phone number. I called
collect again. The hotel put me
through to the Ambassador’s room, and a groggy, clearly sleeping Ambassador
Dobrynin answered the phone.
Before letting him go back to sleep, I let him have a “Let My People Go”
in my finest Russian.
Second Trip – Back to the USSR, Again
college graduation neared, and Kate and her family’s freedom was nowhere in
sight, I decided it was time to go back to the USSR again and make the marriage
idea a reality. By that time I had
been well enough connected that it was much easier to get support. Whereas once people may have thought I
was just a radical activist, by this point many saw what I was doing and
genuinely believed that if anyone could pull off the marriage plan, and make it
work, I could.
time, the Cohens, an Atlanta couple I had not known, had come back from their
own trip to the USSR and wrote about it in the local Jewish weekly. I was so interested in their story,
that I wrote them a long letter, telling them about myself, about what I had
been doing, and asking their help for me to go back to the USSR to make the
marriage happen. The Cohens
contacted me, we met, and they offered their full support. They not only participated
significantly financially on their own, but they were able to help put pieces
in place that made the trip possible, and the success that it was.
By the time
the planning of my second trip was well under way, things had changed in the
USSR with glasnost
offering a ray of hope to Jews and others. To that extent, it was easier to travel on your own, without
a group, and making your own itinerary.
Through the Cohens, I met up with a man my age and we planned a trip
of who we visited and what we did will have to be left for another article, at
another time. Or, perhaps, one day,
a book. But in many ways we
witnessed the beginning of the freeing of Soviet Jewry first hand. We were in Moscow for Yom Kippur, Sukkot
and Simchat Torah, making new friends and renewing old friendships. We participated in a meeting with the
then NY State Attorney General, met with a virtual refuesnick hall of
fame. We also met Ida Nudel a mere
hour after she had received her permission to emigrate – the first
foreigners to hear the news.
Following a visit that was interrupted with several calls from Jewish
leaders around the world, and eventually a tearful call with her sister in
Israel, we shared a taxi together to the main Moscow synagogue for the
beginning of Yom Kippur. These were the general highlights but there were many,
many other wonderful and uplifting experiences, both for us and the people with
whom we met on our 17 day journey.
goal of my trip was to have been my marriage, or at least the initiating of
that process, to Kate. That never
happened. While I was planning the
trip, Kate sent me a letter telling me that they thought they might be able to
leave soon. That July, in 1987, my
parents received a call from Kate, in Italy, free at last. When I found out, though I had
envisioned this happening many times, I could not believe it. I was literally speechless. It was like a dream and I was afraid
that I would wake up to find out it was not real.
Shteins waited in Italy to be processed for entry to the US as refugees, I made
my second trip to the USSR in October.
In November, the week of Thanksgiving, my parents received another call
from Kate, this time in Boston.
I was still in Atlanta. We
spoke as soon as we could, and eagerly began to plan our next visit
together. While we were old
friends by that point, it was strange that this would only be our second
coincidence, or poetic design, just weeks after the Shteins arrived in the US, Soviet
President Gorbachev was planning another summit with President Reagan, this
time in Washington. The entire US
Jewish community was galvanized and organized a rally of some 250,000 with
people participating from all over the US, Israel and throughout the
Kate and I
decided that this would be the point for our reunion.
to drive to Washington from Boston with a family friend and her father. I was flying up from Atlanta. We arranged a meeting point and
somehow, without the aid of cell phones, actually found one another among the
masses. Kate and Victor became
celebrities among the Atlanta delegation, most of whom had known of her and my
activities over the years and were thrilled to see her, to meet her in person,
and to have the opportunity to do so not only in Washington, but so shortly after
they arrived in the US.
walking down the aisle together, we joined arms and marched together on behalf
of Soviet Jews who were not yet free.
Kate was no longer a Soviet Jew.
She was free, and there was no more fitting time and place for our
reunion. I cannot imagine what was
going through her mind. This had
been a huge portion of my life and she was only on the receiving end, from
afar. Understanding American
society, the American Jewish community and other factors of living in the US now
would be a transition enough. But
emerging to freedom in the US and actively taking part in raising a voice for
others still left behind must have been exhilarating, yet at the same time
strange, and even overwhelming and frightening.
said good by it was not with the same worry of our first meeting two and a half
years earlier, concerned about if and when we would see each other again. We would. The phone was free to us and no reservations were required.
coming months we would speak often.
Now that they were free, it was time to help get them settled. From 1000 plus miles, there was a
limited amount I could do, but there was one thing only I could do. That was to follow up on Kate’s
acceptance to Emory and make it a reality so she could begin her studies that
fall. I got Kate a plane ticket
donated, and at the end March 1988, she was off to Atlanta, on her own, for
meetings, interviews and her first chance to see Emory in person.
Kate was a
celebrity. Clever marketing by the
Emory PR department members ensured that there was a non stop press entourage
around us for the duration of her visit.
Local TV and newspapers were in and out, each doing their stories and
each looking for a different angle.
Yet for three days we were followed by a three person crew from ABC
national news. Something was
brewing and by the end of the week they gave it away; if there was nothing else
that came up that bumped it, our story would be featured that Friday night in
the ABC News “Person of the Week” segment.
delight it was, yet to my surprise, they picked me, not Kate, as “Person of the
Week.” That night, my answering
machine was flooded with calls from people all over the US who had seen me on
TV. The next week, I received a
call from a TV producer wanting to negotiate a made for TV movie. The three person news crew from ABC
with whom I became friendly during the preceding week urged me to write a book. I vowed that I would continue to use my
quasi-celebrity status to increase the ability for me to motivate others.
the Shteins were free, four of fewer than 900 Jews allowed to leave the USSR in
1987, there were still millions of others who were not, many of whom were my
friends. ABC News gave me a unique
platform from which to continue my efforts.
does not end there, and there are many details that have been left out. Kate and I did keep in touch over the
years but as life happened - we each got married, started working and began to
raise our families - our contact became less and less. I have a spot in my heart for Kate and
her family as if they are really my own family. Fortunately, they are all really wonderfully kind and
thoughtful people so liking them was never a challenge.
September 11, 2001, this chapter in my life has come to mind more and more as
it demonstrates the importance of freedom, and what one will do, and has
to do, to help someone achieve that goal, or preserve it for those who have it. I was especially moved when I heard that Kate’s husband, also
a Soviet émigré, even served among US forces in Iraq.
especially the case among Jews who are responsible not just to take care of one
another in our extended community, particularly those less fortunate, but are, in
fact, Biblically commanded to free captives among us. Given that there are those who would strive to take away our
freedom, all freedoms we cherish, even the freedom to lose touch and get on
with one’s life, the risk posed by this based on my personal experiences from
more than 20 years ago, is unimaginable and unconscionable. Yet it is also all the more relevant.
11 reminded me of my Soviet Jewry activities and this chapter of Jewish
history. Because, as much as I and
countless others worked day and night to fight for the freedom of Soviet Jewry,
and eventually won, with the hijacking of four planes and the death of some
3000 victims in one day, it was more evident than ever that freedom is
something not to be taken for granted.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there is a cost to preserve
freedom. Would that we all were to
live to see that not be the case.
But today it is. And,
albeit several years later, the horrors of September 11, 2001 reminded me of
the old days of my struggle, and how they are relevant even today.