MONTREAL — Rabbi Martin Penn, whose eloquent advocacy for Soviet Jewish emigration inspired many Montrealers to work for the cause in the 1970s and ’80s, is remembered for his courage and perseverance.
He died on Jan. 21, his 63rd birthday, after a long illness.
Rabbi Penn’s exceptional oratorical skills and dynamic activism were cut short in 1994 after he suffered a devastating stroke at age 44. Initially, he was unable to speak, walk or even read.
Over the years, he battled to regain some of his abilities.
Despite his diminished speech and mobility, Rabbi Penn continued the rabbinical career he embarked upon at the relatively late age of 40. At his death, he was co-rabbi of Congregation Shomrim Laboker in Montreal, where he had served since 1991.
He had previously been the director of Canadian Jewish Congress’s Canadian committee for Soviet Jewry and head of its international affairs department.
At the standing-room only funeral, Rabbi Mordecai Zeitz recalled how his charismatic friend of more than 35 years passionately spoke out for the freedom of Soviet Jewry in front of the Soviet consulate on du Musée Avenue time and time again, leading throngs of demonstrators.
“The slogan ‘Let my people go’ is synonymous with Marty Penn,” Rabbi Zeitz said.
Rabbi Penn’s activism went back to the earliest days of the movement – “when this issue was not on the establishment’s agenda” – as a leader of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. After studying at McGill University, he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in 20th-century European Jewry.
Rabbi Penn visited the Soviet Union several times in the 1970s and ’80s, and was one of the first foreigners to meet Jews in its central Asian region, Rabbi Zeitz said. On one trip to Russia, he was assaulted on the street and returned home visibly injured.
He was also a founder of the Canadian Parliamentary Group for Soviet Jewry, to which the majority of members of Parliament belonged in the ’80s.
Rabbi Zeitz noted that his friend later turned his attention to helping Ethiopian Jews emigrate to Israel, the welfare of Jews in eastern Europe and the fight for justice for Jews from Arab lands.
He placed Rabbi Penn among the “giants” of those who worked doggedly for the good of “the forgotten Jews” of the world. In 2000, Rabbi Penn received the inaugural Alan Rose Human Rights Award from CJC.
Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, knew Rabbi Penn, who was older, all his life and worked with him at CJC for some years.
Fogel said the leadership role Canada played internationally in the Soviet Jewry movement can be attributed in large part to Rabbi Penn’s efforts.
“Marty was an icon… He is the one figure who was ever-present and had a huge influence on the direction the huge influence on the direction the movement took.”
Rabbi Zeitz lauded Rabbi Penn’s stoicism over the last 18 years of his life as he dealt with disability and chronic illness. In 2010, Rabbi Penn began treatment for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure.
“He would say, ‘Why, why, why?’ and then, ‘What can you do?’ He meant why was I prevented from fulfilling my mission?” Rabbi Zeitz recalled.
Despite his limited speech, Rabbi Penn continued to be a gifted communicator and educator, both at his shul and to medical students, whom he taught about his condition, relying on his hands and facial expressions to fill the verbal gaps.
Shomrim Laboker’s other co-rabbi, Yonah Rosner, who was in Israel, sent the message that his colleague was “a doer, a man of action and conviction.”
He called Rabbi Penn “a profile in courage” for his determination to return to the shul after the stroke and participate to the fullest extent possible.
“The balabotim [regular worshippers] would help him put on his tallit and open his siddur for him,” he said, illustrating the respect that was accorded Rabbi Penn.
Shomrim Laboker’s associate rabbi Mendel Marasow remembered Rabbi Penn’s “perseverance, will, resilience, his determination to come to all shul functions.”
Among Rabbi Penn’s volunteer work was helping establish in 1992 a local support group for Migdal Ohr, a charitable organization that helps underprivileged children and immigrants in Israel.
Rabbi Zeitz also remembered his friend’s private side – his sense of humour, his antics and practical jokes before his illness. He loved all kinds of music and was present at John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous “bed-in” at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969.
Fogel said that on his frequent trips to Israel, he still hears from former Refuseniks like Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein how central a figure Rabbi Penn was in their lives, and how much they attribute their liberation and success in Israeli public life to him.
“Marty was able to capture people’s imaginations and motivate them. That is quite a legacy,” Fogel said.
Rabbi Penn is survived by his son Jeremy, his parents Leon and Florence Penn, his siblings Roslyn and Harold, and their families.