Jerome “Jerry” Stern, a Portland businessman who used his wealth and influence to help relocate hundreds of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, died Dec. 20 at his home in Portland.

He was born in 1926 to Sarah and Tom Stern. His parents had met in Russia but immigrated to the United States, Tom following his future bride. They married in St. Paul, Minnesota, and eventually settled in Portland.

Tom made the journey alone and against his parents’ wishes, but for a time exchanged letters, photos and gifts with his family in Russia. The rise of the Soviet Union complicated even that limited communication, and he would never see his parents again.

Jerome Stern, meanwhile, attended Lincoln High School. He dropped out of Reed College after a year and a half to enlist in the U.S. Army, then took leave to care for his parents, both of whom had health problems and died when Stern was in his 20s.

He inherited his father’s desire to see his family again, but set it aside as he built a family and a career.

He met his wife, Helen, at a dance in Medford and followed her California, where she had enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. There he persuaded her to marry him.

After leaving the Army, Stern found work at a plumbing supply firm. He eventually founded Familian Northwest, his own plumbing supply company, in 1969, and grew the six-man operation to more than 2,500 employees. He sold the company in 1988 to the British building materials firm Wolseley, which renamed it Ferguson Enterprises.

As he prepared to retire, he turned his attention to the family members his father had dreamed to bringing from the Soviet Union to the United States.

Much of the family had resettled in Saratov, a Russian city the size of Portland that was closed to foreigners because it was a military manufacturing center.  

Jerome and Helen Stern traveled to Saratov in 1990 on a business visa, ostensibly to visit military factories to see if they could be converted to produce plumbing products for the global marketplace. Jerome and Helen Stern became the first westerners to visit the city since World War II.

“It was the perfect coincidence of timing that he was retiring just as the Soviet Union was opening up,” said Jonathan Singer, his grandson.

In Saratov, the were reunited with his father’s cousins. By the mid-1990s, more than two dozen immigrated to the United States — many to Portland. 

Stern used his connections to secure visas and foot the bill for their travel, housing and living expenses. Along the way, they had to prove they faced religious discrimination in the Soviet Union to qualify for refugee status.

His work didn’t end there. Stern helped the refugee families get settled, ­­paying for their housing and using his business connections to help them find work.

“We kind of have two lives now: our lives there and our lives here,” said Jane Yablonsky, one of the cousins from Saratov who arrived in Portland in 1991. “It was a huge, huge deal for us, and Jerry was the one who made it happen.”

Later, Stern would pay $250,000 to charter a plane to carry Soviet Jewish refugees to Israel, challenging Portland’s Jewish community to raise money to send a second plane. The 737 chartered by Stern carried 250 Soviet Jews to Tel Aviv in 1992, and a second funded by the community followed.

As a retiree, Stern maintained his interest in supporting first-generation immigrants, leaning on his professional networks to find jobs and opportunities for those he encountered in Portland and living part-time in California.

A philanthropist, Stern supported the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Portland Center Stage, Reed College and many Jewish organizations and synagogues. He was also known to friends and family as personally generous, both with his time and wealth.

Years after their arrival in the United States, Yablonsky’s husband, Ilya, asked how they could thank Stern.

“He said, ‘Don’t ever thank me by saying that,'” Yablonsky recalled. “‘Do good things for other people. That would be the thing to thank me.'”

— Elliot Njus

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503-294-5034
@enjus

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