All Lives Matter – From Nepal to Slepak

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Last Shabbat morning, before Mourners’ Kaddish, I spoke of the 1400 dead in Nepal. As I write these words, the number has risen to 4000 and may continue to rise much higher as the rural victims are counted.

The United States, Israel and many European and Asian countries are sending funds, food, equipment and personnel to aid in this tragedy. If you would like to help, please donate online to American Jewish World Service.

From the death of thousands to the death of one, the Jewish world and the human rights world are also mourning the death of Vladimir Slepak, who was buried in Jerusalem yesterday. For those of us who knew Volodya, it’s a terribly sad loss. He was one of the most courageous people whom I’ve ever met. When I travelled to the former Soviet Union in July 1975, he was the most important refusenik in the country. Everyone who was part of the movement to free Soviet Jewry (and I’m proud to have been part of that movement for two decades), everyone who visited Moscow, smuggling in jeans and digital watches for the fired refuseniks to sell on the black market and smuggling out the names, addresses and information on those refused an exit visa, everyone who worked from afar on behalf of Soviet Jewry here in America, Israel and around the world knew Volodya’s name. One of our University Synagogue members, Irene Lewis, was part of the Moscow refusenik community and several of our members travelled to the former Soviet Union to perform the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim/rescuing captives. Many others marched in Washington D.C. and Southern California, as well.

For them, I’m sure, as for me, I was never prouder to be part of a cause (even though or maybe because I was arrested and jailed for chaining myself to the Soviet Embassy in 1970), never more committed in terms of time and passion to our people. Visiting the FSU twice was one of those life-changing experiences that forever transformed my commitment to Tikkun Olam/repairing the world.

Why did American Jewry change the course of history for our brothers and sisters in the FSU? Because of the courage of men and women like Volodya. “The Beard,” as he was known, became the face of Soviet Jewry and 15 Gorky Street, where he lived, its iconic address. If you visited Moscow, you had to make a pilgrimage to that home, surrounded by KGB agents and constantly wiretapped.

Soviet Jews not only met with Americans and others in that apartment, they joined in singing a song that Volodya wrote, “Otpusti Narod Moy/Let My People Go;” they studied Judaism, discussed Israel, strategized politically how to create change in the USSR and widespread ethnic, religious and professional support for the cause in the world at large.

For 17 years, Vladimir Slepak struggled to leave the USSR and, even though frustrated by his government’s refusal, he rejoiced when others were allowed to leave.

In Jewish tradition, a full life is 70 years. Each year that we are given beyond 70 is considered a blessing. Vladimir Slepak lived for 87 years and blessed an entire movement, the Jewish people and the world with his courage, tenacity, humor and vision. May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration to the world.

Come to services this Friday night as we say Kaddish for Vladimir Slepak and the thousands of victims in Nepal.


Rabbi Arnie Rachlis

May 1st 2015 |