Eighteen years ago Côte Saint-Luc resident Rabbi Martin Penn was at the top of the world. At the age of 45, he was already considered a legendary Canadian human rights activist, having played a critical role in the movement to free Jews from the former Soviet Union. He was thriving as the spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrim Laboker in Côte des Neiges, a profession he had chosen late in life for most people who have followed this route. But perhaps his proudest moment was fatherhood and following years of efforts he and his wife adopted a baby boy from Eastern Europe. Life couldn’t be better.
One day Marty began complaining about headaches. Soon after he had difficulty even buttoning his shirt. These signs, sadly, were the precursors of a debilitating stroke which would rob this brilliant orator of his ability to speak and to even walk properly. In Judaism, 18 is the number that represents luck. In the case of Rabbi Penn’s last 18 years on this earth, luck was certainly not on his side. Several other illnesses followed.
Last week he could fight no longer and he passed away. Marty was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in June 2010. For 52 weeks every Monday he underwent chemotherapy. The fighter always, he battled his cancer week after week with the tremendous courage and strength he had shown his entire life. He lost his battle to bone marrow cancer on his 63rd birthday. It was not surprising to see a standing room only crowd at the Paperman and Sons Funeral home. Rabbi Mordechai Zeitz of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Dollard des Ormeaux, a long-time friend of Marty’s, recited the eulogy. “While I might have been a few years his senior, he taught me so much,” said the rabbi, alluding to activism, perseverance and how to meet a challenge.
I first got to know Marty when I joined the Canadian Jewish Congress as national director of communications in 1987. Marty had served as the director of the Canadian Committee for Soviet Jewry for many years, but had shifted to a volunteer role while he studied to become a rabbi.
There was a time when the large Jewish community in the former Soviet Union simply could not leave the country. They were called refuseniks (Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate) Marty worked tirelessly for this cause and there was a happy ending. Jews were granted permission to leave if they so wished and did so in droves. Marty achieved his dream of becoming a rabbi and he took to the pulpit like a natural.
Marty’s ex-wife Eileen Ornstein reflected on their life together. “When I met Marty in 1984, I was impressed with his strength of character, sense of humour, devotion to causes that mattered to him, and love of Judaism,” Eileen stated. “When he became ill in 1994, he became a different kind of inspiration to many. He dealt with health challenges with fierce determination. That strength carried him through the next 18 years. In those difficult years, he learned to accept many things about himself as well as others. The irony of his lack of speech was not lost on anyone who had ever heard Marty’s eloquent sermons, Soviet Jewry harangues, or just personal anecdotes. Now it was Marty’s turn to listen. And even without very many words, he always managed to convey his feelings and opinions.”
Over the years Marty’s family and friends stood by him, especially his sister Roslyn, a resident of Côte Saint-Luc District 2, who devoted hours not only to his care and personal well being, but researched innovative techniques to find anything that might help in his recovery.
Among his friends, there was Shelly Hershon, a saint of a human being. “I visited Marty once a week for the entire 18 years and I really looked forward to our get togethers,” Hershon told me.
Wendy Litwack Eisen, one of the leaders of the Group of 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, had this to say: “I remember fondly, a couple of years ago, when Marty was honoured and I came to Montreal for that important occasion. I sat beside him during dinner and reminisced about our years of planning Soviet Jewry demonstrations and some of the memorable moments we had shared. The stories brought a smile to his face and sometimes, tears to his eyes. Although Marty didn't qualify by gender, in his soul he was a ‘35er.’ As mentor to the "Group of 35s' Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry," Marty helped to create slogans, paint signs and banners, initiate and even participate in many of our zany demonstrations that were all geared to draw public attention to the plight of our fellow Jews languishing behind the Iron Curtain. If not with the 35s in the front lines, Marty was behind the scenes, planning and helping to execute one demonstration after another — outside the Soviet Consulate in Montreal or the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. He travelled with us to International meetings in Washington, New York, Brussels, Israel. Marty's ideas and wise counsel played a significant role in both our success and on the international Soviet Jewry advocacy stage. It was Marty's intelligence, his warmth, his humour and his modesty that set him apart from his peers. Whether speaking at a large Soviet Jewry rally, or from the pulpit as a Rabbi, Martin Penn was a brilliant orator, who spoke from his heart, without notes. It is tragic that this bright light was dimmed during his last challenging years. The love and devotion of Marty's dear family and dedicated friends were what sustained him — and how difficult it was for all of you. I will remember the young, handsome, vibrant, witty Martin Penn. He was the man whose contribution to the survival of our people will remain in the memory of all who were privileged to know, to work with, and to love him."
Anna Fishman Gonshor, a professor of Yiddish language and culture at McGill, noted “it is difficult to imagine a world without Marty. He was one of those people who left his mark on everyone who met him, worked with him, played with him, heard him speak. He was bright, could be hysterically funny and seriously sober and sobering. He did so much for us, personally and collectively. He was a teacher, a leader and an incredible friend. His oratory inspired this community time and time again to fight for freedom, to fight for what is right. We have lost a unique human being.”
Jack Silverstone was the executive director of Canadian Jewish Congress during Penn’s watch. “I knew Marty for many years and then worked with him at CJC,” he said. “He was a leader in an historical movement, the struggle to free the Jews of the Soviet Union. He was tirelessly committed to the cause, even when things looked very bleak and he inspired others with his eloquence and passion. Rest in peace Marty, you earned it.”
Marty’s fight to free Soviet Jews even took him behind closed doors at the Kremlin. As Rabbi Zeitz explained, “he was even assaulted in Russia; beaten up on the streets. He came back bloody and injured.”
It was interesting that Marty was able to push out a few words. “Why, why, why?” he would often state. That would be combined with the statement, “What can you do?”
Rabbi Zeitz interpreted the “Why, why why?” as “Why have I been prevented from fulfilling my mission?” The rabbi added: “Without a voice and without mobility he showed us.”
Marty’s son Jeremy told Rabbi Zeitz how he never really got to see his dynamic father in action. But in the same breath he remarked “he was my role model.”
I took the time to visit with Marty a number of times as he battled his illness. Two years ago, in my capacity as a Côte Saint-Luc city councillor, I spearheaded an initiative for us to honour the champions of oppressed Jewry in our Human Rights Walkway. Marty was front and centre on that list and while he was not well enough to attend the ceremony, there were many people in the audience who showed up to celebrate his greatness in particular.
I am certain that very soon we will learn of somebody creating a Rabbi Martin Penn Award. Rest in peace Marty.