Robert Meeropol was only six years old when, in 1953, his parents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by the US government as spies for the Soviet Union. Yesterday at age 71, he took part in an ancient Jewish ritual when he put on Tefillin for the first time, something that Jewish boys usually do when they turn 13 at their bar mitzvah.
The celebratory ritual, which was was followed by singing and dancing with Chabad Rabbis and over 1,200 fellow Jews, took place at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) annual retreat in Providence, Rhode Island, where Mr. Meeropol was speaking about his experiences growing up as the “Cold War’s most famous orphans” and his crusade to clear his mother’s name.
Robert told retreat attendees that he believes he’s uncovered strong evidence showing that his mother, Ethel Rosenberg, was not involved in espionage at all and was unfairly convicted and executed. He also discussed the role of antisemitism in his parents’ conviction and sentencing, and the campaign to have his mother pardoned by President Obama.
After his presentation, Rabbi Efraim Mintz, director of JLI, asked Robert if he had ever worn Tefillin. When he said he hadn’t, the Rabbi brought out a set of Tefillin and helped him affix them to his head and arm. “It was a very emotional moment for both Robert and myself,” said Rabbi Mintz “it was extraordinary seeing someone who’s been through such a difficult childhood experience being finally able to perform this important mitzvah.”
Robert Meeropol was one of the fascinating speakers at the JLI retreat. Others included Eve Weiner and Hans Fisher, two passengers on the MS St Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939.
The ship was denied entry by the US and Cuba and sent back to Europe. A quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust. Eve and Hans spoke about the lessons that both the US Government and Jewish organizations should learn from the tragedy. A State Department representative read an apology on behalf of the US Government.
Refusenik Yosef Mendelevich also told the crowd about his attempt to hijack a Soviet plan to escape to the West, and Yair Rosenberg spoke about trolling Neo-Nazis on the Internet and gave tips for fighting antisemitism online.
These sessions were only a few of 150 at the JLI retreat from July 31 – August 5. The packed program features tens of speakers and covers a wide array of topics including in-depth Jewish medical ethics, history, philosophy and identity.
JLI, Chabad’s adult education arm, is the largest adult Jewish education network in the world with 300,000 students taking courses at JLI’s 1,000 locations over the past 19 years. Its annual retreat regularly attracts over 1,200 participants, including many adults who have taken part in weekly classes. The retreat is also open to Jewish university students who are members of the Sinai Scholars Society, a campus-based educational program run by JLI and Chabad on Campus international.