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Abortion Activists Mobilize After Jewish Doctor’s Murder

October 28, 1998
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Dr. Barnett Slepian and his wife, Lynn, had just gotten home from synagogue where he marked the yahrzeit of his father’s death.

A single rifle shot blasted through the kitchen window, pierced his back, penetrated his lungs, exited his body and left him to die on the floor.

Last Friday night’s murder of Slepian, an obstetrician-gynecologist who also performed abortions, has mobilized the reproductive rights community, including some Jewish groups that have long supported a woman’s legal right to obtain an abortion.

Slepian was the seventh abortion provider to be murdered in the last five years, according to Nan Rich, national president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

On Monday, the rabbi who had sat with him chatting in synagogue minutes before the murder, spoke to the hundreds who had gathered at his funeral about the man who everyone called Bart and was widely liked in his community.

“Forget the politics and ideological statements. This was a man who loved his wife, was devoted to his kids and if you met him on the street you’d think he was just a lovely guy,” Rabbi Robert Eisen said in an interview with JTA.

Slepian, who personally performed the brit milah, or ritual circumcision, on each of his four sons “with a smile on his lips and a tear in his eye,” Eisen said, “never saw what he did [in his work] as being special, but he knew he had to do what was right.”

Eisen is rabbi of Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Tonawanda, N.Y.

“This has touched a powerful chord in our community because this doctor was Jewish and a member of a Reform congregation,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“It’s a feeling of sadness, compassion for his family and a feeling of anger directed at those who would resort to such brutally violent tactics, especially and audaciously in the name of preserving life.”

The Reform movement is planning to send out a packet of information – – including sermon materials for rabbis and suggestions for congregational activity — to the denomination’s 870 temples.

NCJW, working with the White House, is organizing a national vigil to remember the doctor and the cause he supported as a legal right. It was scheduled to take place in Washington on Wednesday. The Jewish women’s group is also helping to organize vigils in other communities across the country.

The NCJW has long been at the forefront of lobbying to protect the legal right of women to obtain an abortion, filing amicus curiae briefs in every case which has come before the Supreme Court since the landmark 1973 ruling known as Roe v. Wade, said Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations for the NCJW.

“I know people will use and abuse this event politically, but we’re just trying to focus on what’s really important, which is getting them through the next days and weeks,” said Eisen.

“They were lovely, vibrant people. They were human, they were a family, with all the quirks and idiosyncracies that go along with that. Hopefully some of that will be retained as life goes on.”

The Slepians and their four sons, ages 7 to 15, had recently joined a local Reform congregation, Temple Beth Am, in nearby Williamsville, N.Y. They had previously been members of Temple Beth El, which they still attended occasionally as they did on the night of the murder.

The rabbis of both congregations officiated at Slepian’s funeral, at the Amherst Memorial Home, which was filled with about 600 distraught family members and friends along with clients whose babies he had delivered.

People crowded in to the chapel, which seats about 250 people, in the hallways and in other parts of the funeral home.

The mood there was “numb and number,” Eisen said.

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