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Forty years is a significant period for the Jewish people, especially at this season related to the original Exodus.

It’s strange to me that I have memories that are 40 years old, much less of events that shaped my life.

This month is one 40th anniversary that was pivotal in my life personally and connected me deeply to the history and welfare of the Jewish people.

Forty years is a significant period for the Jewish people, especially at this season related to the original Exodus. 

Jonathan Feldstein
Jonathan Feldstein

My mother was not a particularly religious woman but being Jewish was very important to her. Israel was important to her. Raising her children in a Jewish environment and passing along traditions were important to her. There were many ways that this played out, most of them non-remarkable, not particularly noteworthy, and not things about which I have any particular memories, much less ones that impacted me. 

One night in April 1982 over dinner, something that was no less unremarkable became a catalyst for something in my life that she surely was not planning, about which she was certainly not advocating per se, and as a result of which she had good reason to think I was a bit crazy. I was 17, so the crazy part she could have written off as immature adolescence. 

We sat at the gray Formica table, each in our own spot with me to her left at the “head” of the round table. Often my mother would share news and other events. 

That evening, she took out the latest edition of Hadassah Magazine, the organization of which she was a Life Member, and read an article about the phenomena of Jews in the west “twinning” their bar and bat mitzvahs with Jewish peers in the Soviet Union who were unable to celebrate the milestone because of wide persecution of Jews and attempts to erase Jewish tradition. 

My mother was informing, but also advocating as my brother was to become a bar mitzvah in June. She thought he ought to “adopt” a Jewish boy in the USSR with whom to share the milestone. In the end he did, and he (and/or my mother) wrote to Mikhail in some distant Soviet province. Nobody ever heard back from Mikhail, but plans on our end in New Jersey went uninterrupted, just without the “benefit” of Mikhail necessarily knowing that a Jewish boy in New Jersey had “twinned” his bar mitzvah, or what that even meant. 

I had a different takeaway. My bar mitzvah had been four years earlier. I never heard of the “adopt a Jewish refusenik” idea then. A refusenik was a Jewish person who formally applied through the tightly controlled Soviet bureaucracy (which just happened to be antisemitic) to leave the USSR and was refused. With refusal came a series of discriminatory and even legal threats, leaving Jews who stepped forward wishing to leave marked as traitors or worse.

Because in 1979 there had been a relatively large number of Jews given permission to leave (yes, they couldn’t just buy a ticket and go, they actually needed permission from the state), a larger number of Jews applied to leave, hopeful that they’d also be given permission. But when the doors were shut again, that just left that many more Soviet Jews in the crosshairs of Soviet society, stuck and branded as refuseniks. 

The idea was that by “adopting” the Soviet Jewish teens, we were showing solidarity, we were calling the Soviet authorities to task, and we were keeping the families in the public eye so nothing bad would happen to them. 

So why was this Hadassah Magazine article so impactful to me? I honestly felt cheated, that nobody had given me the opportunity four years earlier to twin my bar mitzvah, much less really even know about the persecution of Soviet Jews. Not to be left out, I adopted a family of my own. Not to share or twin anything, just to help them, help raise awareness and be part of a movement that I understood then was important and historic. 

My Soviet ‘Family’

My commitment to work to get my adopted family out spared no efforts. Though most were confiscated by the KGB, I wrote monthly letters and received a few replies. My college essay was about my commitment, basically enlisting any university that would accept me to be partners in that. I attended countless Solidarity Sunday and other demonstrations. 

I went to college, bringing with me my adopted family, and got Emory to admit the oldest daughter, Katya, as a student in special standing. I made phone calls to them (not an easy thing at all considering they didn’t have a phone and the KGB monitored all the phone lines) that were broadcast publicly, making her the most famous overseas student at Emory. I engaged many others in this cause so that it was not just me, but a team. Numerous students and faculty became involved.

We launched the most unique petition with each signature on a single link of what became a huge paper chain that I delivered to the Soviet embassy. 

I launched my first fundraising campaign ever, $2,000, to join an official Soviet tour in July 1985. I was 20, went to the USSR on my own with no cell phone (but the computer I brought was another story). I taught myself to read Russian so I could get by on my own, as unnoticed as an American student could be. Without the benefit of cell phones, Google maps or any other such modern device, I was able to meet Katya at a metro station before going to her home where I gave her an application to Emory, which she filled out and brought to me the next day. Oh, and I proposed marriage within an hour of meeting her and her father, with the scheme (illegal as it is) to get her U.S. citizenship, use that to get her out of the USSR, and use that to get her family out. I already said crazy, right? 

Who knew that two years later, when I planned my trip to begin a Soviet civil marriage process, that because of my activism, they would already be out of the USSR, four out of fewer than 900 Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1987. The story attracted attention from several local and national media. 

None of this is to do anything other than illustrate how deeply I got involved, and how that one article was so transformative, not just then but still two generations later. It’s been a significant two generations because, in that time, all the Jews of the former Soviet Union who have wanted to leave have done so: another Exodus of no less significant proportions for the Jewish people. Also, it’s rare in this generation that people not alive then have any understanding of the significance of the persecution of Soviet Jews, the broad-based global movement to free them, and how successful we were. It’s critical that this history not be forgotten. 

Who knows, maybe some parent will read this article to his or her child and it will be so impactful that it will transform that person to take on a commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, when the threat’s different but no less real. I look forward to reading that person’s story 40 years from now. 

Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. Throughout his life and career, he has worked to build bridges and relationships with Christian supporters of Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, writing for many Christian websites, and as the host of the Inspiration from Zion podcast. He can be reached at firstpersonisrael@gmail.com.

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