From Moscow to Washington
By Jonathan Feldstein
Reflecting on my role in an historical movement that helped change the future
In 2007, 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.
Many have 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.
In the generation that has passed, more than one million Soviet Jews have immigrated to Israel and hundreds of thousands more to other countries.
While the 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.
While far 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.
When Leon 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.
Over the 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.
Parallel to 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.
In this 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.
It is 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.
Over the 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.
My 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.
Years 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.
The 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.
Keeping a 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.
My brother 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.
While I 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 nationally.
Hadassah 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.
They joined 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.
Victor was 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.
Katya was 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.
Pen Pals and More
In short 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 family.
Our initial 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.
My letters 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.
As time 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.
Back in the USSR
After more 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.
There were 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.
The third 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 naïve. The money did start to come in. This was my first fund raising campaign. Ultimately it would become a career.
In raising 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.
Breaking the Law- An Advanced Lesson in Civil Disobedience
I was 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. Naïve, or stupid, or both, nevertheless that was my goal.
Some months 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.
In planning 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 possible.
Of course, 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.
July 1985 – Arriving on the Other Side of the World
Finally my 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.
Natasha was 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 followed.
But the 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 home.
The walk 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 another.
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.
She 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.
Before I 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.
When I 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.
We spent 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.
Increasing My Activism
Upon 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 Soviet censors.
Using some 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.”
Taking 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.
I developed 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.
My 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.
During this 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.
I also 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.
On 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.
The 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.
My Second Trip – Back to the USSR, Again
As my 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.
Around that 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 and perestroika 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 together.
The details 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.
The main 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.
As the 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 meeting.
By good 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 world.
Kate and I decided that this would be the point for our reunion.
She planned 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.
Rather than 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.
When we 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.
In the 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.
To my 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.
Although 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.
The story 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.
Since 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.
This is 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.
September 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.