Obituary of Terence Flynn by David Waksburg
Someone who contributed greatly to our movement died this in these past few weeks. He was well known to activists here in Bay Area, less so elsewhere. It so happens I was asked to give a dvar Torah at a meeting on Friday, July 12 (parashat Chukat) and as Terence was on my mind, I dedicated the teaching to him. It is a bit long, but it was the best way I could describe Terence and honor his memory. I would be grateful for you to share this with whoever might be interested:
I dedicate this teaching to an old friend, a true tzaddik, who died this week:
When Natan Sharansky was in prison, awaiting trial, he was given the opportunity to review the case against him and among the files were film clips of demonstrations on his behalf in the West. Watching these demonstrations was a great joy for him in the midst of what was otherwise a most un-joyful time.
Seeing this, a KGB Colonel laughed at him – “it’s just students and housewives.” He meant by this that Sharansky was pinning his hopes on people with no power. For this KGB Colonel, it was power and power alone that mattered – power that is observable and measurable. These students and housewives had none of it; hence, their activity did not matter.
Not long after that I was meeting with a Federation leader, of national prominence. I was trying to persuade him to support our cause. “What you are trying to do,” he lectured me, “can only be addressed at the highest geo-political levels. You are wasting your time.”
Like the KGB Colonel, this Jewish leader saw the world in the context of power dynamics. We had little that was easily observable or measurable in his terms. Thus, we “students and housewives” would have no impact.
Among the events that occur in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, was the death of Miriam. The report of her death is terse: “Miriam died there [in Kadesh] and was buried there.”
When someone dies, it is customary to reflect on the totality of their life. Miriam’s greatest impact was achieved when she was a young child, growing up in the midst of a Pharaonic genocide against male Hebrew babies. The midrash suggests it was Miriam who rebuked her father for withdrawing from sexual relations with his wife, due to his despair over the Pharaoh’s decree. Later, watching her baby brother float down the Nile in a basket she ensured that Pharaoh’s daughter would take good care of him.
In other words, we are taught that if not for Miriam, Moses would not have been born, would not have been in the position to lead the people out of slavery.
Miriam had no observable or measurable power with regard to Pharaoh and his decree. She was a little girl. Nor could she anticipate the eventual consequence of her actions. I don’t think she thought – “I need to intercede because my baby brother will become our redeemer.” Rather, she was moved by caring, by compassion. She did not know the consequence of her actions. What was easier to imagine was the consequence of no action.
Many years ago, to help Jews in the USSR, we started “twinning” Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids with similar age refusenik kids in the Soviet Union. We really had no idea if this might help. But we were trying to humanize these people and engage our community so…why not?
One family here at Beth Am was willing to do this and we twinned the girl with a refusenik girl in Leningrad. So, they put some information about the Heifetz family in the invitation. This was in the mid-eighties, the height of the cold war.
Among the invitees to the Bat Mitzvah was an old friend of the Bat Mitzvah’s dad. His name was Terence Flynn. As his name suggests, Terence was Irish Catholic. Terence was a curious fellow and upon seeing this invitation he called the girl’s dad to learn more about this Bat Mitzvah twinning thing, and about this refusenik family. The dad eventually had Terence contact me. Terence let me know that he had a business trip planned to Helsinki. Well, Helsinki is not that far from Leningrad. Perhaps he could pop over to Leningrad and meet this family, show them the Bat Mitzvah invitation, take a few photos, and make the whole thing that much more meaningful.
Well, ok, why not, and while he’s there, maybe he could visit these other refusenik families…
So Terence traveled to Leningrad, and met these refusenik families. And he went back. And back. And back again. Terence traveled to the USSR every year for the next several years, met many refuseniks in Leningrad and Moscow. He brought in medicine and various other kinds of aid to people in need. He helped people in ways way beyond anything I ever asked of him. Eventually, when people began receiving exit visas, he sponsored several of them who resettled here in the U.S., and he helped others who went to Israel. He joined the Board and Executive Committee of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews and became our best fundraiser.
Terence became deeply involved in the movement and shared in our overall success. Moreover, he had direct and palpable impact on the lives of dozens of Soviet Jews, whom he helped through his visits to them in the USSR, and by assisting their resettlement here in the U.S. and in Israel.
He joined our Board and Executive Committee and became Fundraising Chair. He was our most effective fundraiser – in part because he had such a way with people, everyone loved Terence; and in part because good luck to any Jewish donor saying no to a phone call from Terence Flynn asking them to support freedom for Soviet Jews!
I’d be hard-pressed to name anyone here in Northern California who had a greater positive impact than Terence.
Like Miriam, Terence did not act on behalf of refuseniks based on any grand strategy. He acted out of empathy, caring, compassion. Like all of us, he could not predict the consequence of his actions, but he could intuit where inaction would lead.
In the end, Sharansky spoke often about those “students and housewives,” and how their activism led to his release and to the liberation of Soviet Jews. They as well acted less based on strategic design and more inspired by their empathy, caring, and compassion. As it turned out, they were able to harness great power, even if it was not observable or measurable in the eyes either of that KGB Colonel or that Jewish leader. Terence was among them.
Danny called me on Wednesday to tell me that Terence died this week.
His death was not a tragedy – he lived a good life and a long life.
His name won’t be found in the history books about the Soviet Jewry movement. He certainly never sought any recognition. In many ways, he was one-of-a-kind, he was a lamed-vavnik in my view. But in other ways, there were a thousand people like Terence, people who were inspired to do what they could do back in those days. Their names won’t be on plaques or in the history books. They were essential to our success.
I learned a lot from Terence – about a life well-lived, and about how to be in the world. The many refuseniks whom he met and helped – they were blessed with the good fortune of knowing him.
As was I.