Yuri Shtern was not one of the refuseniks I met on several trips to the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Yuri, a courageous young Hebrew teacher in Moscow, managed to make aliya in 1981. It was during the years following his aliya when Yuri would not forget the millions of Soviet Jews left behind, that I met him when he came to the US to meet American Soviet Jewry activists.
Yuri's intellectual brilliance, breadth of vision, linguistic skills and fantastic sense of humor endeared him to us in those years. Yuri, who had earned a Ph.D. in economics from Moscow University was the furthest thing from a dry academic character. He was passionate about so many things--aliya, Zionism and Jewish education. Most of all he was dedicated to his family, and in recent years Yuri somehow found time for genealogical research that resulted in the discovery of many new relatives all over the world.
In his first years after making aliya, Yuri was one of the founders of the community of El David that became known as Nokdim. In his first foray into public activity in Israel, Yuri founded and became spokesperson for the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center, the Council of Immigrants Association, and the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum.
Between 1989-1996 Yuri used his economics background to serve the Jewish state. From 1990-1995 he was director of the Department of Absorption and Entrepreneurship of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce. He also chaired the Forum for Trade and Industrial Relations with the C.I.S. and represented the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce in the USSR.
In 1996 he was first elected to the Knesset together with Natan Sharansky on the Yisrael Be'aliyah ticket, and in 1999 he ran and was elected as a member of the Yisrael Beiteynu faction.
The breadth of his activity was breathtaking. He was Chairman of the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Labor and Welfare, State Control, Economics and Knesset Committees.
During Arik Sharon's administration, Yuri was a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. At the same time, he co-founded the influential Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, which succeeded in establishing ties with pro-Israel Christian communities all over the world. In the height of the intifada, Yuri was one of the few Knesset members who could be seen at funerals of terror victims.
Despite his workload, Yuri always had time to greet an old aquaintance. Whenever I ran into him in the Knesset or at a meeting, he would stop to reminisce about the time he stayed at my home in Seattle, or kibitz about some current political development. Yuri would always try to obligingly fulfill some request or other--just a couple of months ago he wrote a blurb for my new book.
Obviously, I was not alone in feeling that Yuri had touched my life in a significant way. People from all spheres of Yuri's life came out in the thousands to his funeral today in Jerusalem. Despite the cool day, the air conditioning was turned on to prevent people from fainting in the Beit Hesped that was packed to capacity at the Givat Shaul cemetery as the subdued crowd strained to hear the eulogies.
A police honor guard stood around Yuri's body as many members of Knesset and cabinet ministers joined Yuri's public in accompanying him on his last journey. But there was nothing to comfort Yuri's wife of 36 years who wailed inconsolably during the brief service, the depth of her grief piercing the hearts of everyone present.
Both Yuri's grown children spoke of their profound love for their father and their pride in his accomplishments. Yisrael Beiteynu leader Avigdor Lieberman eulogized Yuri as a friend and as one of the best of Israel's parliamentarians. Sasha Shipov, a fellow activist from their Moscow days, spoke movingly of Yuri's unique character and told mourners that during his final days, Yuri had expressed concern that he had not done enough for those evicted from their homes in Gush Katif.
Yuri Shtern was laid to rest in the Mem Zayin section of the Givat Shaul cemetery overlooking the hills surrounding Jerusalem in the presence of thousands who mourned his passing but also celebrated his life.