The Story of  Emory Hillel, Jonathan Feldstein, and Kate Shtein

Kara Kandel


The National Background

 Emory Hillel, Jonathan Feldstein, and Kate Shtein

Kate Arrives at Emory


The National Background

The national organization of Hillel was founded at the University of Illinois in 1923 and now appears on over 400 campuses worldwide. It serves as the largest Jewish campus organization in the world and works together with different affiliates in the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, Europe and South America. [1] The specific Hillel at Emory University is now a division of Atlanta YAD, although during the 1980's, when the problem with Soviet Jewry was occurring, it was an independent organization. Emory Hillel provides all different types of programs for Jewish students and the greater Atlanta community. These programs cover a variety of different interests, many of them having to do with social aspects, religion, athletics, outreach, Israeli culture and social action. Some examples of Hillel's activities include volunteering, co-ed intramural sports, High Holiday food drives, trips to sporting events and Shabbat services. [2] The Emory Hillel is affiliated with B'nai B'rith, the Atlanta Federation and Emory University. Any student at Emory University is permitted to be a member provided that they pay a fee. The objectives of this organization are to provide guidance and opportunities for Jewish involvement in the religious, cultural, educational and social aspects of the Jewish Emory community. [3]

During Atlanta's history, many organizations have taken political action on specific world events that were occurring at the time. Whether the outcome was negative or positive, these groups did their best to better current situations. In the past, many countries have persecuted those who were innocent and prosecuted them of crimes they didn't commit. It was up to certain organizations to shed light on these issues so others were aware of them. By doing this, they were able to take specific courses of action to try and eliminate these international tribulations. Emory Hillel did exactly this by taking the problem of Soviet Jewry and working to get many soviet refuseniks permission to leave Russia during a time when it was very hard to do so. A certain individual within the organization initiated this attempt and focused his efforts on one refusenik in particular. The impact that Emory Hillel and this one young man have had on this issue was very great, and many lives were changed because of it.

Hillel worked for many causes, but one in particular was given precedence in the 1980's. In the Soviet Union, many Jews were being denied visas to leave the country. This affected families tremendously because if one member left, it was not guaranteed that they would see each other again. Emigration virtually came to a halt beginning in 1982 and very few Jews were given permission to leave. For example, in the year 1984, only 896 Jews were granted freedom from the Soviet Union, whereas in 1979, 51,320 were. [4] In the Soviet Union, an application for an exit visa was treated as a crime. False allegations could get a student expelled from college and people fired from their jobs. Once an individual was in this position, they were prohibited to emigrate for two years while serving in the armed forces. However, after this term was completed, they were denied permission to leave for five more years since it was assumed that they acquired military secrets. The number of Jewish students at universities in Russia was continually declining due to a "Jewish quota." Two mathematicians were arrested and charged with "preparing and distributing anti-Soviet propaganda" because they conducted a statistical analysis of the amount of Jews excluded from the Mathematics Department of Moscow State University in 1979-1981. [5] Specific people in this situation were called refuseniks. The Soviet secret service, otherwise known as the KGB, worked very hard to stop the Jewish Nationality Movement. They would actually go to a person's school and job to ask neighbors, co-workers, and friends about the individual's actions. If someone spent too much time in a synagogue, they would be hassled by the KGB for being religious. Living in Russia during this time was very different than living in America. A former Soviet refusenik named Alexander Kushnir explained in a newspaper article the different perception of freedom that the Soviets had. "To be under power, to do what the government tells them-it seems to them (Soviet citizens) that they are free." To do something against the government is viewed as a criminal act instead of simply an act of freedom. [6]

With the help of a few individuals, Soviet Jewry became a main focus of Emory Hillel. Much was done on campus to expose students to the events occurring in Russia and the people that were being affected by it. One person in particular had the greatest effect on bringing the situation of a certain Soviet refusenik to Emory's attention. Jonathan Feldstein, four years before he entered Emory University as a double major in Judaic studies and political science, had adopted the Shtein family through his seventh and eighth grade youth association at the Jewish Center in Princeton, New Jersey. This was something he had wanted to do during the time of his Bar Mitzvah and it became a project that would affect him for years to come. He began to correspond with the Shtein family, which included Victor and Ludmila and their daughters Kate and Helen. Feldstein "could tell from their letters that (his) letters were the life support system for them...western contact is their life support system, whether it's through letters or phone calls or visits." [7]

At about the time when Jonathan entered Emory University as a freshman in 1983, a certain Soviet refusenik was given much attention around the world and was even labeled an unofficial spokesman for the Jewish emigration movement. His name was Anatoly Shcharansky and he was refused emigration to Israel since 1973. The day after he was married, his wife, Avital, was forced out of Russia and was not able to see him. Instead, she traveled around the world telling the story of his situation, trying to gain the support of other individuals. She even came to Emory University to give a presentation. In March of 1977, Sharansky was arrested after being accused of being a spy for the United States, and sentenced in 1978 to thirteen years of forced labor in camps and prisons. Sharansky began a hunger strike on Yom Kippur eve September 26, 1982, to protest against a ban on his letters and visits by his family. [8] The National Hillel organized a protest to his imprisonment that Emory participated in, along with many other universities Hillel was affiliated with around the United States. On January 20, 1984, which was Sharansky's thirty-sixth birthday, Hillel's across the country called various Soviet agencies in the United States. During these phone calls, some students shouted the phrase, "Let my people go," to get their message across the Soviet officials. Many also called Sharansky personally to let him know of their support in getting him released from prison. [9]

Emory Hillel, Jonathan Feldstein, and Kate Shtein

 return to head of document

Throughout all of this commotion, Emory University became part of a national network of campuses participating in a project of adopting a college-aged refusenik; exactly what Jonathan Feldstein had done years earlier. On January 28, 1983, the National Hillel Student Secretariat sent a letter to the Emory Soviet Jewry Committee, which Jonathan and a few colleagues had started, informing them of this undertaking and urged campus representatives to encourage students to participate. The object of this endeavor was to connect a young refusenik, in his/her college years, with a student of a similar age at an American University. These students would remain in contact until the release of the refusenik from Russia. Along with this correspondence, Emory was asked to submit press releases to campus and local newspapers, sharing the information of the adopted refuseniks. When Hillel held activities, they were instructed to give an honorable mention to the refuseniks who could not attend. The support and concern of other campus organizations was sought and the personalization of the refusenik's situation throughout the campus community was necessary in order to achieve this goal. [10] Another project that Hillel took part in during this time was the University Presidents Project. This required action through university administration by having Emory's president, or another high-ranking official, write to a Soviet university counterpart, urging them to condemn the persecution of Hebrew teachers in the Soviet Union. [11]

While Jonathan was participating in the projects that Emory Hillel, which he was president of, and the Soviet Jewry Committee were sponsoring, he still kept correspondence with Kate Shtein and her family. In 1985, during the summer of his sophomore and junior year, Jonathan took a trip to Moscow to meet the family of refuseniks that he had been keeping in touch with. Jonathan felt that he "gave Kate a breath of freedom just by being with her," when he visited that summer. Before Jonathan set off to Russia, he confronted a Professor in the Jewish Studies Department, named David Blumenthal, with an idea he had for bringing Kate to America. He intended to marry Kate; a concept that Dr. Blumenthal thought was, "a radical way to handle this...." He suggested that, "there might be other ways to do this." Dr. Blumenthal suggested that Jonathan get Kate admitted to Emory so she could come to America as a student. [12] For ten days Jonathan visited the Shteins and other Soviet refuseniks in the cities of Moscow and Leningrad. He brought gifts with him, such as clothes, sunglasses and kosher food to give to the refuseniks but feared for his security since the KGB was always on the watch for foreigners that were against the Soviet government. [13] The most important gift though that Jonathan brought with him was an application of admission to Emory University. This document would serve as the beginning of a long set of events that would eventually account for Kate and her family's release from Russia. While going for a walk with Kate in a park one day during his visit, Jonathan discussed his idea of marriage and basically proposed to her. They discussed the possible consequences, considering that in the United States it was illegal to marry someone to obtain American citizenship. In addition to this, they talked about her life and how she felt about her current situation. Kate told Jonathan that she wanted very much to leave Russia, and although she had no means at the time to leave, she didn't want to leave her family behind. She feared that if she left she would never be able to see them again. Kate had aspirations of going to medical school to study anesthesiology, but was denied this opportunity in Russia due to her status as a refusenik. [14]

When Jonathan returned to Atlanta, he brought with him Kate's filled out application and submitted it. Soon after, on April 1, 1986, Kate was sent a letter from Daniel C. Walls, a Dean in the Office of Admissions, stating that she was accepted to attend Emory University during the fall term of 1986, as a student in Special Standing. [15] Kate was unable to accept this offer due to her situation. Dean Walls replied back to Kate, regretting her inability to attend as a freshman in the upcoming semester, but offered her another opportunity to come to Emory for the fall term of 1987. In this letter, Dean Walls told Kate that he would be sending her, "...appropriate forms for seeking a visa to travel to the United States." Seeking one may be easy, but attaining it would be a different story. [16]

To gain students support, Jonathan began lobbying on Kate's behalf and tried his best to educate students on her situation. Emory Hillel, and the rest of the university that was involved, basically "adopted the Shtein's and treated them as their family in Russia." The Soviet Jewry Committee presented many activities and events in order to increase awareness of Soviet Jewry in general, and also for Kate's sake. The first event sponsored was a slide presentation on September 24, 1986 from Jonathan and another student who had recently been to the Soviet Union. The program was called, "A Liberating God in a Captive Land: Jews and Christians in the USSR" and was co-sponsored by Emory Hillel and the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity. This event was followed by a phone call to Kate that Sunday, September 28th, and subsequently phone calls to Kate became Hillel events. [17] They would prearrange times to call her and many students would get on the phone to simply talk about college life. One time, Hillel made a public phone call to Kate from the Dobbs University Center and broadcast her conversation on load-speakers so the Emory community could her it. These tapes made it easier to market her case because Hillel would tape-record them. Jonathan would then bring them to Washington DC with him to allow members of the Congress hear what she had to say. Jonathan wrote many articles about Kate's situation that were published in numerous publications such as The Voice , which was Emory's political newspaper at the time, The Emory Wheel and the Atlanta Jewish Times . He often wrote in pseudonyms, such as Yonatan Ben-Natan and Yoni Ben-Natan, to avoid being recognized by the KGB. He had a fear that if they figured out who he was and what he was trying to accomplish, it would diminish his chances of going back to the Soviet Union.

Every year, there was a Washington Lobby for Soviet Jewry sponsored by the Student Coalition for Soviet Jewry (SCSJ). This organization was founded on March 15, 1977 in protest to the arrest of Nathan B. Shavansky, a Soviet refusenik. Undergraduates from Brandeis University went to Washington DC to inform congressmen about the situation of Soviet Jews. This lobby became one of the many sponsored SCSJ events. A van-full of fourteen Emory students, including Jonathan, left in a van to attend this event on February 25, 1987. There, students spoke to senators, such as Wyche Fowler and Sam Nunn, and also to House Representatives about the number of Jews being denied permission to leave Russia. They also received lessons on lobbying and on the basic questions and answers most frequently asked about Soviet Jewry. The lobbyists would spend the night sleeping on the floor of a local synagogue. Emory students formed over half of the group representing Georgia and students also attended from Yeshiva University, Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania. [18]

To get students' attention and to publicize the issue of Soviet Jewry, Hillel would set up a table in the front of the Dobb's University Center with information about it. Instead of having students sign petitions, Jonathan formed another form of protest. He had anyone who approached the table sign a paper link with a personalized message. After many students had signed it, Jonathan and others on the committee connected the links to form a paper chain. The chain was extremely long due to the amount of students who participated in the signing. The members then took this chain with them to one of the student lobbies for Soviet Jewry, held in Washington DC, with hopes to show the link to members of the Soviet Embassy. When they were not permitted to do so, Jonathan and other members started to take the paper chain out of the bag it was in and attempted to hang it on the gates of the Soviet Embassy. This angered the police in the area and the students were told that if they didn't stop what they were doing that they would be arrested. Jonathan discontinued his actions because he realized that it was not worth getting arrested when he had to catch a plane within the next few hours. The attempt still had good intentions and the Emory students did not leave Washington D.C. without making at least a slight impression on Soviet Embassy leaders, not to mention others due to the television station that was there to catch a small bit on tape. [19]

On November 11, 1986, Hillel and the Asbury Social-Political Issues Residential Experience co-sponsored a program at the Asbury House on Emory University's campus. At this event, Alexander Kushnir, a former Soviet refusenik who was released in August of that year, spoke to students about the situation of Soviet Jews in Russia. He then told them, "Thank you for all you do for my friends, the Soviet Jews in Russia." [20] The next day, Emory Hillel participated in a demonstration at the Georgia Tech coliseum. In a peaceful protest, 250 members of the Jewish community, including students in Hillel, came together in a rally against the Soviet policies regarding Jews. Georgia Tech was playing the USSR basketball team so the rally served as a media event, not as a protest against the actual basketball game. Participants carried signs and chanted, many wearing fake prison uniforms to symbolize the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. Various newspapers were at the scene along with Channel 2 News, CNN, UPI, and Channel 5. [21]

During all of this protesting, Kate was regarded not just as one of the many refuseniks that Emory Hillel worked to help but also as someone special. Jonathan and many others developed bonding friendships with her. She and Jonathan would exchange birthday gifts throughout this period of time and for one of his birthdays, Kate sent Jonathan a set of Rachmaninoff CDs. [22] Teachers took her situation into their own hands and sent her books, materials and course syllabi that she would use if she were attending Emory University as a student. In addition to this, students and faculty also sent her letters of greeting. In these letters, students wrote about their class schedules, or simply described themselves. People wrote to Kate knowing that the letters could very well be intercepted by Soviet officials and would never reach her. [23]

During Jonathan's second trip in 1987, after his graduation, he had more intentions of initiating marriage. At Emory, he had even gone so far as to write a research paper on the concept of marriage in Judaism for one of his classes due to his interest in the subject. He wanted to know as much as possible about the certain principles that would be involved in his decision, and especially the consequences that would come along with his wanting to start his own family in the future. When Jonathan visited other universities during his senior year to give presentations on Kate's story, he would give speeches referring to her as his fiancé. The process of marrying Kate, however, would have taken another two to three trips to accomplish. [24]

Yet, Jonathan never had to marry Kate because she and her family were soon given permission to leave Russia in November of the year 1987. One day Jonathan went bursting into Dr. Blumenthal's office declaring that he had heard Kate was in Vienna. Soon after, she would up in Italy, taking the same path as many Soviet refuseniks. At the annual national rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington DC, which 250,000 people attended, Jonathan ran up to Dr. Blumenthal and said, "Professor Blumenthal, come quick, I want you to meet Kate!" The Shtein's had made it to Boston, Massachusetts and Kate and her father had come to Washington DC to march with the Boston delegation. So Dr. Blumenthal left the Atlanta delegation to join the Boston delegation so he could march with Kate and her father, an experience that proved to be very moving to him. [25] Jonathan had also flown up to Washington D.C. to attend the rally and to have a reunion with Kate, knowing that she would be there. This event was on one or two local news stations and written about in a few newspapers, which made Kate's case well known. Jonathan said, "There was nothing like being in the Mall with other people and with Kate." The next month, a travel agent donated a plane ticket to Kate, which entitled her to go to Atlanta in March of 1988. This was her ticket to Emory University and she began her freshman year there that fall. [26]

It isn't clear why the Shtein's got out of Russia when they did, but it had a lot to do with the work that Jonathan and Emory Hillel had done. Ted Koppel, an ABC news-reporter who covered Jonathan's story for the "Person of the Week" program, said, "It's hard to know why the Soviets do what they do." [27] During this time, Gorbachev had come into power and he had plans to open up the Soviet Union and to minimize the amount that the West ostracized them. Any individual or group that would prevent him from doing so by presenting the Soviet Union in a negative light were looked at as a threat, and Jonathan was one of these people. The Russian government wanted to get rid of the most disruptive cases, "whether it was for genuine reform" which Jonathan doubts, "or to warm up their perception in the West." All of the protesting that Emory Hillel did made Kate a well-known refusenik and attracted much attention. Many other prominent refuseniks had been released in the year 1987 as well. [28] Statistics show that in the year 1987, 8,155 Soviet Jews left Russia while in 1986, only 914 did so it may not have been by chance that the Shtein's were given permission to leave at that time. [29]

Kate Arrives at Emory

 return to head of document

In the third week of March, when Kate was departing to Atlanta, accompanied by Jonathan, an ABC news crew decided to follow them and do a few interviews. ABC news had chosen Jonathan for a program they had called "Person of the Week," and would be telling the story of Kate's situation and how he and Emory had been involved. When talking about his involvement with Kate he said, "It's probably the best thing I've done in my life. It is the best thing I've done in my life to be directly or indirectly responsible for helping a family achieve freedom." [30] For a brief moment, Kate's story had made national television and was, as Dr. Blumenthal put it, "a very powerful story...and the story of how Emory really responded, because Emory is a very serious and good institution." [31] He also went on to say, "It never occurred to me that we could take a student, adopt a student, admit her to Emory, and stick with her as our student in Russia. And that I learned from one of my students." [32]

The Monday after the program aired on national television, Jonathan received a phone call at his office from a television movie producer who wanted to make a TV movie about Kate's story. Together, they negotiated a contract but after six months into negotiation, the producer told Jonathan he didn't want to do it because it may be seen as "anti-Soviet." Jonathan's response to this was, "It's not anti-Soviet, it's pro-freedom." Since Jonathan felt that he needed another method to tell Kate's story, he began to write a book. He discontinued writing the book when the amount of Soviet Jews being let out of Russia gradually began to increase to high amounts, but some day he hopes to finish it. [33]

In the spring of Kate's freshman year, Hillel set up for her to go around to the student dormitories with Dr. Blumenthal, telling students of her experience. One question asked of Kate was, "what is the most impressive thing about America?" Kate replied with, "the supermarkets." She came from a country where people stood in lines just to buy a ration of bread or fish. The idea that an individual could buy whatever food item he/she desired at any season of the year was unfathomable. To encourage a further understanding of what Soviet Jews were going through, Dr. Blumenthal asked the students, "How many of you have passports?" After most of the students raised their hands, he proceeded to say, "Kate, tell them about your passport." She replied, "I don't have one. They took it from me when I left." Dr. Blumenthal then said, "What have you got?" She said, "I've got a piece of paper that says I can come into the United States." This stunned the students into realizing that Kate had come from another world, where freedom was not something that everyone had [34]. When Jonathan had visited, he even said he "saw how much we take freedom for granted." [35]

Five years after Kate began studying at Emory University, she graduated with an undergraduate degree. She decided, like many students do, after beginning her studies in pre-med, that she didn't want to go into that field. Rather, she had an interest in physical therapy, which is what she went on to do. Jonathan Feldstein continued working to keep the Jewish community together becoming the campaign director of the Rockland Jewish Federation. Dr. David Blumenthal still remains a prominent professor at Emory University teaching courses in the Jewish Studies Department. Emory Hillel continues to be a well-known Jewish organization on campus, sponsoring activities and programs for the Jewish population. Although it hasn't dealt with issues as large as Soviet Jewry, Emory Hillel still works to educate students on current world debates and strives to embrace the common bond of Judaism among its members.

The topic of Soviet Jewry is not a well-known one to many students at Emory University or colleges around the country. It is not an issue that is discussed frequently although it should be. It is important that Jewish students know what their people went through to attain freedom. We celebrate the holiday of Passover in honor of the Jewish slaves who fled from Egypt to gain their freedom. We learn of the Holocaust in our history classes to remind us of the horrors that our people endured during World War II. But we very rarely discuss the topic of Soviet Jewry, where many were persecuted for their religion in the same way as their ancestors. The only way to prevent history from repeating itself is to educate others on the past. Emory Hillel, along with other individuals, did a tremendous amount of work to help eliminate the problem with Soviet Jewry in Russia. It's up to the rest of us to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

 return to head of document

[1] "History and Mission.", 2000.

[2] "Campus Life: Emory.", 2000

[3] "Constitution of Emory Hillel." 10 March, 1982. Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[4] "Statistics." National Conference on Soviet Jewry., 2000.

[5] National Hillel Student Secretariat to Soviet Jewry Committee, 28 January, 1983, Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[6] Kevin Mencke, "Refusenik Makes Plea for Soviet Jews," The Emory Wheel , 25 November, 1986.

[7] Sally Glover, "Feldstein Visits Soviet Pen Pals," The Emory Wheel , 4 October, 1985.

[8] "Sharansky Alert," Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[9] "Emory Soviet Jewry Alert," Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[10]National Hillel Student Secretariat to Soviet Jewry Committee, 28 January, 1983. Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[11] National Hillel Student Secretariat to Emory University, 15 February, 1985. Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[12] Dr. David Blumenthal of Atlanta, interview by author, 2 May, 2000, tape recording, Emory University, Atlanta.

[13] Sally Glover, "Feldstein Visits Soviet Pen Pals," The Emory Wheel , 4 October, 1985.

[14] Jonathan Feldstein to Kara Kandel, letter, 5 May, 2000.

[15] Daniel C. Walls to Kate Shtein, 1 April, 1986, Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[16] Daniel C. Walls to Kate Shtein, no date, Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[17] Yonatan Ben-Natan, "Hillel and AEPi Join In Soviet Jewry Event," September, 1986, Hillel Collection, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[18] Wendy Eisner, "14 Emory Students Join National Lobby in Washington to Gain Release of Refuseniks," The Atlanta Jewish Times , 13 March, 1987.

[19] Jonathan Feldstein of New Jersey, interview by author, 3 March, 2000, phone call, Emory University, Atlanta.

[20] Kevin Mencke, "Refusenik Makes Plea for Soviet Jews," The Wheel , 25 November, 1986.

[21] Wendy Eisner, "Jews Stage Protest Against Soviet Policies," The Emory Wheel , 21 November, 1986.

[22] Jonathan Feinstein of New Jersey, interview by author, 3 March, 2000, phone call, Emory University, Atlanta.

[23] Diane Simons, letter. The Wheel (13 February, 1987) 3-4, Special Collections Department, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[24] Jonathan Feldstein of New Jersey, interview by author, 3 March, 2000, phone call, Emory University, Atlanta.

[25] Dr. David Blumenthal of Atlanta, interview by author, 2 May, 2000, tape recording, Emory University, Atlanta.

[26]Jonathan Feldstein of New Jersey, interview by author, 3 March, 2000, phone call, Emory University, Atlanta.

[27] Person of the Week , Ted Koppel, ABC News, March 1988.

[28] Jonathan Feldstein to Kara Kandel, letter, 5 May, 2000.

[29] "Statistics." National Conference on Soviet Jewry., 2000.

[30] Person of the Week , Ted Koppel, ABC News, March 1988.

[31]Dr. David Blumenthal of Atlanta, interview by author, 2 May, 2000, tape recording, Emory University, Atlanta.

[32] Person of the Week , Ted Koppel, ABC News, March 1988.

[33] Jonathan Feldstein of New Jersey, interview by author, 3 March, 2000, phone call, Emory University, Atlanta.

[34] Dr. David Blumenthal of Atlanta, interview by author, 2 May, 2000, tape recording, Emory University, Atlanta.

[35] Jonathan Feldstein of New Jersey, interview by author, 3 March, 2000, phone call, Emory University, Atlanta.

return to head of document

return to index of Student Work

David Blumenthal's HomePage