Tribute to Judith and Eliott Cohen, pillars of Atlanta’s Jewish community

 I was heartbroken recently to learn of the death of my friends Judith and Elliott Cohen, long-time pillars of Atlanta’s Jewish community. I went to send Elliott birthday wishes when I learned that they had died from COVID in July.

While we had reconnected, been in touch, and even visited over the years, it would be a stretch to say that they were an active part of my day-to-day life. Nevertheless, their death leaves a huge gap because, as I told them many times, part of who I am today and things I was fortunate to achieve was because of them.
I remember vividly how we connected. It was in the late 1980s. I was reading an article in The Atlanta Jewish Times about Judith and Elliott and a recent trip they had made to the USSR. I sat in my room at Emory University and was so engrossed by their experiences that I wrote to them immediately. It was before the Internet, so I wrote them an actual letter, in longhand.
I started, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Cohen,” and went on for a few pages. I wrote about my own Soviet Jewry activities beginning in high school and which I imported to Emory. I shared how, as president of Hillel, following my visit to the USSR in 1985, I applied for admission to Emory on behalf of the woman I had adopted in Moscow, a student who was denied the opportunity to study in the USSR because she and her family were refuseniks, having applied to leave almost a decade earlier. Emory had never received an application like that before, and initially didn’t know what to do with it. Thankfully, she was accepted as a “student in special standing” which gave me extra ammunition to advocate to get her and her family out of the USSR.
But I also shared something with Judith and Elliott that I understood risked making them think I was a bit crazy (not in the good way they learned to appreciate), and which risked exposing my plan to which I was committed, but about which I was afraid to share widely. I wrote how I had adopted the Stein family and, while visiting them in 1985, I proposed marriage to their eldest daughter, Katya, the very one I had helped get accepted to Emory. No, it wasn’t love at first sight. I planned to marry Katya in order to get her US citizenship, and use that as a tactic to get her out of the USSR. In fact, minus the marriage part, that’s what I wrote my own essay about when I applied to Emory years earlier. Emory didn’t know it then, but by accepting me, they became an accomplice to my plan. I wrote to the Cohens seeking their help to make that a reality.
THE COHENS very well could have ignored my letter. I realized that in sending it, it could have been as effective as throwing a coin in a fountain and making a wish. Nevertheless, I tossed the letter in a mailbox and wished for a positive outcome.
A little over a week later, my prayer and letter were answered. Judith and Elliott wrote back, warmly and positively. We spoke, then met, and they agreed to help. They introduced me to a man who would become my travel partner, made arrangements for the Jewish Federation to be part of the funding, and connected me to Marilyn Tallman of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, who became a central part of my plan. Marilyn became a friend and confidant and, while the idea of marrying a Jewish refusneick to get them out of the USSR was not common by any means, she said that if anyone could pull it off, I could. 

With Judith and Elliott’s active help in every way, my 2.5-week trip to the USSR in October 1987, during which I intended to initiate a Soviet civil marriage, became a reality. 
But the Cohen’s help didn’t end there. After Katya got out and our story was featured on ABC News, I turned to Elliott after I was approached by a producer in Los Angeles to make a TV movie about our story. Recently, I came across letters Elliot exchanged with the producer on my behalf. As a lawyer, he wanted to make sure my rights were protected. He was also somewhat outraged that the producer was offering me one dollar as compensation for terms that were quite restrictive. Six months later, the producer called and told me because of the perceived changes of the Soviets’ glasnost and perestroika, they no longer wanted to make the movie because they were afraid it would be anti-Soviet.
I remember my response. “It’s not anti-Soviet, it’s pro-freedom. But even if Gorbachev is real and there will be changes, why are you afraid of making a movie that tells the story of the persecution of Soviet Jews, or being perceived as anti-Soviet. What are you afraid of?”
I also remember telling Elliott about the phone call and my response. He was proud of me. In 1988, there was still no imminent hope that the doors to the USSR would be opened and more than a million Jews would be able to leave. We resolved to continue the struggle.
After I left Atlanta, I lost touch with Judith and Elliott, but years later we reconnected. I always told them how important they were to me personally, by having confidence and investing in me, and in the successes I was able to achieve, personally and professionally. In every way they were, and remain, shareholders in my future, and that of the Jewish people. They were always good, thoughtful and caring friends – and great communal leaders and role models.
There’s something comforting in that they died within moments of one another, holding hands as they did together for nearly 60 years of marriage, according to an obituary published online. I’ll miss them terribly, as will all those whose lives they touched, and continue to carry on their legacy proudly. 
There are many people like the Cohens who made a huge commitment to the grassroots struggle for Soviet Jews and should be remembered.                                                                                               
Please feel free to share your stories at [email protected]


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