Robert Meeropol was 6 when his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed in 1953 by the U.S. government as spies for the Soviet Union. On Aug. 2 at age 71, he took part in an ancient Jewish ritual when he put on tefillin for the first time—something Jewish boys usually do when they turn 13.

The celebratory ritual—followed by singing and dancing with Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and more than 1,000 participants—took place at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s (JLI) annual retreat in Providence, R.I., where Meeropol spoke about growing up as the “Cold War’s most famous orphan” and his crusade to clear his mother’s name.

Mintz dances with Meeropol and celebrants at the JLI annual retreat in Providence, R.I. Credit: Photo by Mendy Moskowitz/JLI.

He told attendees that he believes he’s uncovered evidence showing that his mother, Ethel Rosenberg, was not involved in espionage, and unfairly convicted and executed. He also discussed the role of anti-Semitism in his parents’ conviction and sentencing, as well as the campaign to have his mother pardoned by President Barack Obama.

Afterwards, Rabbi Efraim Mintz, director of JLI, asked Meeropol if he had ever worn tefillin. When he said he hadn’t, the rabbi brought out a set and helped affix them to his head and arm.

“It was a very emotional moment,” said Mintz. “It was extraordinary seeing someone who’s been through such a difficult childhood experience being finally able to perform this important mitzvah.”

Meeropol was one of a number of speakers at the retreat. Eve Weiner and Hans Fisher related being passengers on the MS St Louis, a ship of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. The ship was denied entry by the United States and Cuba, and sent back to Europe, where one-quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust.

Refusenik Yosef Mendelevich told the crowd about his attempt to hijack a Soviet plane in 1970 to escape to the West and then being imprisoned for years in the Soviet Union, and Yair Rosenberg spoke about trolling neo-Nazis on the Internet, giving tips for battling anti-Semitism online.