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Another Voice: Slepian's death leaves us lessons on civility

By Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein

There is a hole in the heart of my synagogue community. It has been there for quite a while. Long before I arrived here in the fall of 2008. Long before I even knew much about the city at all, beyond that it snowed a lot, I knew about this.

I knew that on Friday, Oct. 23, 1998, a medical doctor, who also happened to occasionally administer abortions, was gunned down in his home in front of his family right after attending his synagogue’s services. The murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian was a painful reminder to us all to tone down our rhetoric, to put people’s lives ahead of issues they stand for.

What I didn’t know is that a decade after his murder I would be serving the community Dr. Slepian and his family were members of. What I didn’t know is how I would get to know in a deep and meaningful way the family that was so affected by this tragic event.

Life, in such cases, does not just go on. For Lynne and her four boys, aged 7 to 15 at the time of the murder, for their extended family and friends, that day will be forever imprinted in their hearts.

Dr. Slepian was not simply a medical doctor; he was, by all estimations, what our community would call a mensch. This Yiddish word that has made its way into the English language means “human being.” It comes from a saying in the Talmud, an ancient Jewish book of law and wisdom, which reminds us to be a human being, a mensch, even in a place where there are no human beings.

The grandson of a Russian refugee, Dr. Slepian was a latecomer to the medical field. Rejected several times by medical schools in the United States, his journey to become a doctor was not an easy one. But he would not be denied, eventually settling in Buffalo, where he married Lynne and scraped together money to buy an obstetrics practice.

This was his passion, and by all accounts, he was a superb doctor who cared deeply about the people he treated and the fellow health care professionals he worked with. He was also someone who stood up for what he believed in; even as protesters chanted “murderer” outside of his office he would not be cowed.

Unfortunately, in many ways the world has not changed that much since 1998. The politics of hatred on both sides of the aisle has only increased. The conditions that led to Dr. Slepian’s murder are still present.

This year, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Dr. Slepian’s death, I invite you to be a little kinder to one another, to conduct conversations with respect and civility, in short, to be a little more like Dr. Barnett Slepian himself.

Alex Lazarus-Klein is the rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom in Amherst.

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