The death notice in the Buffalo News for Dr. Barnett Slepian last week advised that his funeral service would be limited to immediate family and friends.
Nearly 1,000 mourners came to the service in a Jewish chapel in a Buffalo suburb.
“It was packed,” says Rabbi Robert Eisen, in whose synagogue Slepian, 52, an obstetrician-gynecologist who performed abortions, worshiped last Friday night. The doctor was fatally shot in his home shortly after returning with his wife from services.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” says Rabbi Eisen, who delivered the eulogy at the doctor’s funeral. “If you met him, you counted him as a friend.
“There were people who brought children he had delivered to the funeral,” the rabbi says. “He was always delivering babies — in the general community he was not seen as this ‘abortion doctor.’ That was just a small part of who he was and what he did.”
Slepian’s murder — the perpetrator is thought to be an avid opponent of abortion, though no one has claimed credit for the shooting — has shocked the city’s Jewish and general communities, and “brought the [abortion] issue back to the surface,” Rabbi Eisen says.
Buffalo was the site of highly publicized demonstrations by abortion opponents in 1992. “This was a wakeup call that the issue was still there,” Rabbi Eisen says.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the killer, and statements of outrage over the shooting came from government officials at all levels, including President Bill Clinton. Gov. George Pataki called Slepian’s murder a “cold-blooded assassination” and vowed to seek the death penalty.
“This act was an act not against a Jew, but against humanity,” says Irving Shuman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. “He happened to be Jewish, but they have attacked doctors who perform abortions in the United States and Canada who are not Jewish.”
“This act violates the sanctity of life professed by those supporting this heinous deed,” the Jewish Federation said in a formal statement. “We are proud that Buffalo is united in revulsion against this crime.”
The city’s Jewish leaders voiced gratitude that the broader community, including the local Catholic bishop, had spoken out against the killing.
Privately, however, some local Jews said the killing had sharpened their sense of a cultural and political division between Jews and fundamentalist Christians.
“In a lot of ways the abortion issue is a surrogate for the broader cultural clash,” said one community activist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The murder of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian is an attack on all of us — pro-choice, anti-abortion and every man and woman who believes in a civilized society where differences are decided by discussion in the light of day, not ambush in the dead of night,” the Buffalo News stated in an editorial with the headline “An Attack On The Community.”
“This is a nightmare,” says Rabbi Eisen. The Slepians “are very much a part of the community.”
Many people expressed the feeling that “this doesn’t happen here — this doesn’t happen to someone like him,” he says.
“This is basically the first and only thing on people’s mind,” says Rabbi Michael Feshbach, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am, who led the funeral service for Slepian.
“I didn’t notice if the Bills won or lost till Monday night, which is quite unusual for me,” says Rabbi Feshbach of the football game on Sunday, which the Buffalo Bills won. The Temple Beth Am religious school held special assemblies over the weekend for its students, many of whom know Slepian’s children.
Slepian is the third physician who performs abortions to have been killed in the U.S. in the past five years. In addition, four other people have been killed in anti-abortion violence, including two clinic receptionists and two security guards.
He had recently moved to a new home in an affluent suburb to escape anti-abortion demonstrators who had harassed him and his family periodically over the last decade.
The shooting came just days after federal authorities issued warnings of expected violence to doctors and clinics in Buffalo and neighboring parts of Canada. Four area doctors have been shot since 1994 on or around Nov. 11, a date that marks the end of World War I and has been adopted by Canadian anti-abortion activists as a remembrance day for the unborn.
Slepian was aware of the latest warnings, but did not appear nervous Friday night in synagogue, Rabbi Eisen says. “He talked about it. This was something he lived with.”
In a local television interview in 1994, Slepian acknowledged that he could be in danger from anti-abortion radicals. “They are setting up the soldiers to perform the violence,” he said, adding: “I am not afraid of them. I am not afraid of the violence. I fear for my family, my children.”
His first clash with anti-abortion protesters, in 1988, came when Christian militants organized a rally at his home during Chanukah. Goaded by taunts, he was later convicted of damaging a protester’s car with a baseball bat and fined $400.
Rabbi Eisen calls Slepian “a warm Jew, a very concerned Jew,” who often performed circumcisions. He was a member of Temple Beth Am, a Reform congregation, but came to the Conservative Temple Beth El, his parents’ synagogue, to observe his father’s first yahrzeit last week.
The rabbi and the doctor appeared together on several panel discussions on abortion. “Did he like doing abortions? “No,” says Rabbi Eisen. “But as long as it was a legal right for women, it was something he felt he needed to do — it was the right thing to do.” Columnist J.J. Goldberg contributed to this report.