I, like so many of you, was so saddened to learn that our hero and dear friend, Volodya Slepak had died in New York City on April 23 after a life fully lived. Literally 1000s of American Jews, and, certainly, all who visited Moscow while the Iron Curtain was sealed shut met Volodya and Masha and, after meeting, however short it may have been, realized we had been in the presence of a man, a couple, of historical importance.
For the Slepaks could have been our parents, our aunts or uncles but for an accident of history that cast them in the roles of Refuseniks, of Prisoners of Zion. We first met Voldoya outside our Hotel in Moscow, where he met us on a cold mid-October night in 1986 while the Iron Curtain was still sealed shut. He was unmistakable with full beard and a glint in his eyes and a warm embrace as he walked us back to the Slepak flat just off Tverskaya Street in Central Moscow, then up the stairs to meet his wonderful courageous wife, Masha, and Akhmad ("our dog has been in refusal longer than any other dog") where I, my wife, Bobbi, Steve Nasatir, and Rabbi Willie Frankel, z'l, sat and chatted long into the night over tea, and more tea. He showed us the mettle of a true leader in his strength and determination, the quiet strength of a great leader. For behind the great humor, and the self-effacement was the strength of an unbreakable will. He and Masha spoke of their son, who was able to make aliyah, and whom they were so desperate to join that, in 1978, they placed a huge hand-drawn sign over their apartment balcony crying out "Let Us Go To Our Son in Israel" for which Volodya was sentenced for "malicious Hooliganism" to five years in exile in Siberia. He returned to Moscow unbowed, indefatigable in his efforts for freedom for all Jews.
When we visited the Slepaks they had been in refusal for 16 years, and when we asked them what we could do for them on our return, their answer was probably the same as the 1000s of Americans who had visited them over the years: "Visa, demand visas for us and for every Soviet Jew, and never forget us and the millions like us." We did not forget; no one who ever met the Slepaks was not inspired by them as were we.
Almost one year to the day later, in the era of Glastnost, the Slepaks were given permission to emigrate to Israel. It was a day, and, later, a time of incredible joy, of North American Jewry reaching heights not achieved since. The Slepaks were released; they traveled to Washington for the great Rally for Soviet Jewry, we reunited with them in Chicago -- they inspired North American Jewry wherever they went.
And, then, another incredible meeting. Out of the blue, in the late 90's, Arlene Kaufman, the wonderful and incredibly generous Palm Beach philanthropist who would later serve as the Palm Beach Jewish Federation Chair and, for many years as International Chair of MASA, among so many roles vital to community and People, approached what is now the NCESJ expressing her desire to fund an oral history of the Refusenik Movement. Serendipitously, I was in Jerusalem when the time came to film the Slepaks. I remember those moments as if they were yesterday: Mark Levin, the brilliant, long-serving CEO of the NCESJ, the videographer and I were off to the Slepaks modest home in West Jerusalem. It was such a wonderful couple of hours. As we sat with Volodya and Masha, (with Akhmad, also free, running around the house), with the sounds of Jerusalem, of freedom, all around us, we remembered the past but also heard the appreciation of freedom and some of the quiet fears of being forgotten -- something that never happened. I had the sense of my philanthropy having come full circle -- from Moscow to Jerusalem, with the help of, the strength of North American Jewry buttressing their own.
And, then, three years ago, on a small celebratory NCESJ Leadership Mission to Moscow, as we traveled up the now busy Ulitsa Tverskaya thoroughfare in a changed, now-modern Moscow, we passed the very apartment where that banner flew almost 4 decades earlier and I was again reminded of the Slepaks, of the Refuseniks as a Movement's, courage, of their Jewish souls.
Bobbi and I, and Steve Nasatir and Rabbi Willie Frankel were so blessed to have touched history in this incredible chapter of modern Jewish History. I will never forget Volodya, the Slepaks, none of us will. Memory can be and is a blessing at this time. Vladimir Slepak continues to inspire with a message that resonates within me: "never, never give up." Our hearts go out to the Slepak family.