My family and I weren't in Philadelphia when Joe Smukler died last month. We were in Russia. To be more exact, we were at the cemetery in St. Petersburg at the grave of my mother-in-law where my husband, Lev, had the chance to say Kaddish where his mother is buried for the first time in 11 years.
We saw many graves in the Jewish sections of the South cemetery in St. Petersburg abandoned, covered by tall grass, obviously not visited for years. People buried at the cemetery died dreaming about a different life for their kids -- and their dreams came true. Now their children, grandchildren and other family members can no longer visit the graves of loved ones because they left in search of freedom and better lives.
There's an irony that we were there when Joe Smukler died. He and Connie Smukler made those dreams happen, including for my own family.
As an activist and prominent underground Hebrew teacher in Leningrad, my husband met Connie and Joe in Leningrad and enjoyed their unwavering support throughout his 14 years as a refusenik, who was trying to immigrate to Israel. When the KGB threatened to kill me and our unborn child in retaliation for our Jewish activism, the Smuklers lobbied on our behalf. My family and I were finally allowed to make aliyah in 1988. When we moved to Philadelphia a decade later, the bond between our families grew even stronger.
Joe and Connie didn't act alone, but with the help of thousands of other activists whom they managed to turn into relentless advocates for Soviet Jewry. Every day during our recent Russian visit, we witnessed the triumph of Joe and Connie's work: thriving synagogues, thousands of Jews participating in Torah classes and an opportunity for everyone to emigrate.
Ever since we arrived back from Russia, I've thought about Joe. Each day, I feel more and more blessed that Lev and I and our two girls were so fortunate not only to be saved by Joe and Connie but also to live in the same community and truly share our lives with them.
Many have said eloquent and heartfelt words about Joe. Yes, he was a giant, a leader, a brilliant lawyer, an intellectual, a one-of-a-kind human being.
To me, Joe was all of that but, more than anything else, he was the kindest person I knew. Joe was a Jew from Shepetovka who understood in his bones what hardship was, a man who eventually created an incredible success and who, most important of all, made sure that everyone got a chance to escape their own Shepetovkas. He held the hands of all those who needed a hand at one moment or another -- which means he held the hands of millions of Russian Jews on their way to better lives.
I once said that every refusenik in Russia wanted to be on Smukler's list because they knew that meant they'd never be forgotten. Joe Smukler's list was very, very long, which means that he will never be forgotten and will always be loved, not only by his family and friends, but by the thousands of others whose lives he so profoundly changed.
Marina Furman is Eastern Pennsylvania regional director of the Jewish National Fund.