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My Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and Kate Shtein

The epic story of how one American Jew became ‘twinned’ with a coreligionist in Soviet Russia he eventually helped bring to freedom—and why it taught him so much about true resistance and activism

Jonathan Feldstein
May 01, 2017
Photos courtesy the author
Photos courtesy the author
Photos courtesy the author
Photos courtesy the author

The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was born in 1964. Two years later, Elie Wiesel published The Jews of Silence, giving voice to the story and situation of Jews behind the Iron Curtain who longed to connect to the Jewish people. These catalysts 50 years ago gave momentum to a cause that became unstoppable. In 1967, the Six-Day War stirred a sense of pride among Soviet Jews, one mixed with religious and national awareness that would lead to public trials and consequent imprisoning of emerging leaders among Soviet Jews themselves, which in turn awakened Jewish pride and responsibility among diaspora Jews and others who were aware that, just three decades earlier, far too little was done to save European Jews.

2017 also marks the 30th anniversary of another milestone of the Soviet Jewry movement that had a meaningful impact on the outcome of this struggle. December 1987 saw the largest demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jewry in Washington D.C., with more than 250,000 Jews and Christians raising their voices to pray, and appeal to the USSR for the freedom of Soviet Jews. Sadly, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it’s hard to find someone under 30, or even 40, who knows much if anything about this significant chapter in Jewish history. For me, these events and others leading up to them are both historically significant and deeply personal.

While far from an expert or a major player in the movement, from a young age it was a central part of my identity. While others spent early adult years focusing their spare time on far more mundane things, my life revolved more and more around freeing Soviet Jews. I read Exodus around the time of my becoming a bar mitzvah, and it moved and inspired me. But preparing for my bar mitzvah, and reading from the Torah about the Exodus of our people from Egypt stirred something deeper in me. As I got to know more about the plight of Soviet Jews, all these came together as a roadmap for my own activism in a movement that was both grassroots, and by that time, very much connected to the organized Jewish community. Its players were rabbis and pastors, students, housewives, and retirees. It involved loud street protests, and (behind the scenes) quiet diplomacy. I was drawn to it to right a wrong, to be part of liberating my people, but also by the vivid imagination of leaders who looked to me as if they were grasping the world by the shoulders, shaking it until change took place.

In an era that seems so distant, my mother usually prepared dinner and we ate together as a family most evenings. These dinners were not particularly remarkable back then. 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 that would change the rest of my life. One of the highlights of the article was the concept of “twinning.” Families and their children who participated undertook many different ways to share their bar/bat mitzvah celebration with a Soviet teen who was not given the opportunity to celebrate his or her own. I was riveted by the notion of being another person’s pen pal, reaching out over miles, across borders, beyond political ideologies, and deep into Jewish history. The activist inside me was turned on, and I wanted in.

Twinning served two purposes. First, to raise awareness about the plight of Soviet Jews; to make their situation not just public, but something which we adopted as a personal responsibility to help advocate for their freedom, family to family and child to child. Second, to the extent that it was possible and Soviet censors did not prevent it, corresponding with the Soviet Jewish teens (and their families) with whom Americans twinned their bar/bat mitzvah served 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 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 Soviets was their inconsistency. One never knew what motivated the Soviets to relent, or pushed them into greater intransigence.

My brother twinned his bar mitzvah with a boy, Mikhail, who lived in a distant nonwestern Soviet republic. He wrote letters. My mother wrote letters. Mikhail was mentioned 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 me 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 was a translator. They had two daughters, Katya and Yelena.

Inspired by the relatively large exodus of Soviet Jews in 1979, and 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. Instead, they were fired from their positions and branded in every aspect of Soviet society as traitors they joined the fast-growing world of “refuseniks,” Soviet Jews who 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, two years younger than I, was a good student with very good English. Yelena was young and did not know about her family’s status as refuseniks. 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.


I began a monthly ritual of writing letters to the Shteins initially, and eventually to Katya. Compared to an age when one can “friend” someone on the other side of the world instantly, and translate text from one language to another on the spot, communication then was difficult. 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. I encouraged others to write to the Shteins as well. Some did. Sometimes. But nobody took on the diligence and commitment I had. I felt a unique obligation and sense that everything I did might make a difference whether naïve or stupid or both.

One day in the spring of 1982, a letter arrived from Moscow. Katya wrote on her family’s behalf, that because we were close in age we could become friends. “I was very glad to get the letter from you. I am 15 years old. In June I will have to pass my exams in Russian literature, algebra, geometry. I study English at school and at the English courses. In the USSR most Jews do not celebrate Passover and we have only the New Year holiday. … On May 9 we are celebrating the Victory Day (37 years ago the USSR defeated fascist Germany) and on May 8 I had my birthday. Please, in your next letter can you write me what kind of information do you want to learn about the USSR, the Russian culture and so on.” It was also a good way to practice her English. She signed her letter, “Yours truly, 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. I took my responsibility seriously and wrote in a “code” that I assumed they would understand, although we didn’t ever discuss it. In the end, even if they took what I wrote as completely inane and missed my underlying messages, the simple act of writing to them was an obligation I embraced. Receiving letters in return motivated me to continue. My letters were also sent via registered mail, with a 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 about 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. The hope of helping them somehow charged me, like seeing a mirage of an oasis in the desert. I didn’t know what really helped, but it motivated my interest and intensity all the same.

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.

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 to me 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 and concern of others not to do so. People said I was foolish, that what I was thinking of was impossible. Some said I’d even endanger my own life.

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. And 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 I had a mission to undertake and was not going to be stopped.

My main obstacle was financial. The 10-day trip to the USSR cost $2,000. I had no savings. As a poor student, $2,000 might as well have been $1 million. Though I did not know what I was doing, I decided I’d raise the money somehow—$50 here and $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 Jewish community—as an activist. Slowly and steadily, I got around to people and groups, one by one, and the money started to come in.

In raising money for the trip to the USSR, I thought it made the most sense to turn to those who knew me best. My friends and peers were as poor as I was, but I took my case back to my hometown, where 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 of my asking his friends for money. So we struck a deal. He’d 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.


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 at the risk of being deported, or worse. To say I was nervous would be an understatement.

I spent much more time in the months leading up to my trip worried about breaking U.S. law. Even before Kate wrote and suggested that I 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. 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 had read Abbie Hoffman’s autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture. He chronicled his life as a leader of the Yippies, 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. Hoffman taught me about “Guerrilla Theater,” civil disobedience, and the idea of following one’s conscience and being prepared to accept the consequence.

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—my grandmother and two of her siblings owed their escape 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 Soviet civil ceremony, and then do whatever necessary to free “my wife” from the USSR, taking her case to the highest legal, diplomatic, and political spheres possible.

I learned that the penalty for marrying someone for the sole purpose of getting them U.S. citizenship is significant, including a hefty fine and potential jail time. Not only did I evaluate how it might impact my social life to be married, albeit fictitiously, to a woman in the USSR, I wondered if I’d fail to free Kate and get myself thrown into prison as well. Yet it was a risk I ultimately decided I had to take.

My parents drove me to JFK airport, and I boarded a Finnair flight to Helsinki for my connection to Moscow. I can only imagine what was going through their minds as they saw me off to a place that was dangerous, on the other side of the world, and where I would be incommunicado. On the way to Helsinki, I wrote postcards to friends, taking a plain white index card and drawing a window with bars in the upper corner. I captioned these “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, Louisiana, who would be my roommate; two Jewish couples from New York (in whom I would ultimately confide the purpose of my trip); and several others.

Natasha, our Intourist guide, used her every influence to keep us in line, for our “safety and pleasure.” She was particularly annoyed 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 days of 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, not get lost, and not end up in jail.

I bought a new address book that I filled with real and fictitious names. I devised a code so I would know who I needed to see, where they lived, and how to reach them. Because I was traveling alone, I was given names of relatively safe people to visit 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. To make phone calls from public—and hopefully, unmonitored—phones, I was told to bring a supply of U.S. coins that were the same size as the Soviet kopek coins, which were used in the phones but hard to get hold of. Actively seeking out the Soviet kopek coins would risk putting myself on the radar of people I didn’t want to mess with. I used the metro as much as possible. To blend in, I wore drab clothes. But while I was careful to look to see if I was being followed, I also knew that if the KGB wanted me followed without my knowledge, I would be followed.

But the main purpose of my trip was to visit the Shteins. 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 done everything I needed to do. 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 tried not to spend too much time looking at some of the beauty of the older metro stations in central Moscow so as not to stand out. The trains were old and not noteworthy, and it seemed that not a single person smiled or expressed any emotion. I tried to blend in and avoid eye contact. I’d been on many subways but this one seemed to be a particularly bumpy ride. The rattling and bumping of the train ride persisted until I noted that the shaking of my body didn’t end when the train stopped at each station. After a few instances, I realized that it wasn’t the train that was shaking my body, but my heart beating at a rate I’d never experienced before. Nevertheless, I made it to the last stop, long after the time I was supposed to meet Kate.

Miraculously, 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. Though I had felt close to them for some time, and they to me, we really did not know one another at all.

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, of 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, 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 an American college. Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov had been recognized with an honorary Ph.D. in their absence, but no Soviet Jewish refusenik had been admitted to a U.S. university, at least that I knew of. 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. As much as American high school kids procrastinate in doing their college applications, Kate met me near Red Square the next morning with everything in order. We parted without too much emotion so as not to stand out, not knowing when we’d see each other again, or where, if at all.


Upon returning home, I increased my activities on behalf of the Shteins in particular and Soviet Jewry in general. As my campaign to get Kate accepted to Emory and secure her freedom became public and more and more visible, I developed a reputation on campus. I initiated and publicized several public phone calls made to Kate along 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 including media. Through the Emory newspaper, Kate became known, and through my activities, I acquired a nickname, “Soviet Jon.” Eventually, Emory accepted Kate as a “student in special standing.” This gave me a new platform from which to increase my activities.

Taking pages out of Abbie Hoffman’s playbook, I initiated and participated in public protests. I would travel to speak nationally, motivate and inspire people to the plight of Soviet Jews so that they would take action. Many did. Before Amazon, I was able to collect a cache of Elie Wiesel’s Jews of Silence, which I would give as gifts to the event organizers. Hillel and others recognized my activism with awards and more speaking engagements. My presentations were simple. I would show slides of all the people I had visited and tell stories of their personal struggles. 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.

During this time I wrote articles, letters, and letters to the editor regularly, often under a pseudonym. 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 did not prevent me from going back to the USSR as needed. I also maintained a unique 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 United States and USSR. Some time in the middle of the night there I called the Soviet embassy collect and the person who answered 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 unsuspecting 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 gave him a “Let my people go!” in my finest Russian.


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 and finances. Whereas once people may have thought I was just a naïve 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 didn’t know, had come back from their own trip to the USSR and written about it in the Atlanta Jewish Times. 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 were able to help put pieces in place that made the trip possible.

By the time the planning of my second trip was well underway, things had changed in the USSR with glasnost and perestroika offering a ray of hope to Jews and others—and it was possible to travel alone, without a group or a guide. 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. 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 New York state attorney general, met with a virtual refusenik 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 to the main Moscow synagogue for the beginning of Yom Kippur.

But the main goal of this 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. One day in July 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. I got choked up and my eyes welled with tears. As much as so much of what I had been doing seemed impossible, yet 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 U.S. as refugees, I made my second trip to the USSR that October. In November, the week of Thanksgiving, my parents received another call from Kate, this time in Boston. 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 in-person meeting. The anticipation of seeing Kate again, finally free, occupied almost as much thought than my plans over the previous years to help free them.

By good coincidence or poetic design, just weeks after the Shteins arrived in the United States, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was planning another summit with President Ronald Reagan, this time in Washington. The entire U.S. Jewish community was galvanized and organized a rally of some 250,000 with people participating from all over the country, 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 her father and a family friend. I was flying from Atlanta. We arranged a meeting point and somehow, without the aid of cellphones, actually found one another among the crowd. 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 meet her in person. 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 United States now would be hard enough. But emerging to freedom in the United States 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 frightening. From the dark shadows of the Kremlin, we stood together in the sunny cold and chanted to free other Soviet Jews, taking our place on the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, and our place in Jewish history. Then we said goodbye. There were no more censors. No KGB.

In the coming months, we would speak often. From 1,000-plus miles away, there was a limited amount I could do to help the Shteins, but there was one thing only I could do: 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 of March 1988, she was off to Atlanta, on her own, for meetings, interviews, and her first chance to see Emory in person. Clever marketing by the Emory PR department ensured that there was a nonstop 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. For three days we were followed by a three-person crew from ABC News; if there was nothing else that came up that bumped it, our story would be featured that Friday night in the “Person of the Week” segment. Thanks to a slow news week, that’s what happened. I vowed that I would continue to use my quasi-celebrity status to increase my ability to motivate others. I accomplished the goal of getting one family free, but there was much more to be done. 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, some of whom were my friends.

Kate and I did keep in touch over the years but as life happened—we each got married (to other people), started working and began to raise our families—our contact lessened. I have a huge 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 and feeling connected to them was never a challenge.

I was especially moved when I heard that Kate’s husband, also a Soviet émigré, served among U.S. forces in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there is a cost to preserve freedom. Today, far too many people just don’t know about this chapter in our history, and many others have forgotten it. Abbie Hoffman used to say never trust anyone over 40, which was not a point to which I subscribed. But today’s corollary is that it’s hard to find someone under 40 who knows what happened then, why it was and is important, how millions galvanized untold resources, and Jews and Christians partnered together against a historical injustice and to realize a modern Exodus. Let 2017 become a milestone in which we tell this story as an essential chapter of our history, and preserve the awareness and lessons we learned for generations to come.


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Jonathan Feldstein is a veteran Jewish communal professional living in Israel, married and the father of six.

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