Slava Korabelnikov and Lena Bulych looked like storybook newlyweds sitting in the Penn Valley home of Shelley and Mark Verlin earlier this month. It was the day after the wedding reception the Verlins had held in the couple's honor. The two sat pressed shoulder to shoulder, holding hands, each stealing glances at Bulych's new ring.
As idyllic as the scene was, the road to this moment was long and strenuous for Korabelnikov. It was a journey that required iron will on his family's part, the ongoing support of Jewish community members on three continents, and even the intervention of dissident-turned Israeli official Natan Sharansky.
The saga began in 1999 in an apartment in Kiev, Ukraine, when five members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Zachor mission met with Korabelnikov's mother, Ludmilla, and sister, Irena.
Slava Korabelnikov, then 16, was participating in the Jewish Agency for Israel's Na'aleh high school program, which offers ninth- and 10th-grade students a fully subsidized, three-year high school program in Israel.
Shelley Verlin recalled that Ludmilla, a pediatrician, and Irena missed Slava terribly and wanted to join him in Israel, but were unable to secure the paperwork necessary to make aliyah.
"That visit moved all of us," said Verlin. "Many of us have roots in Eastern Europe. If our families hadn't immigrated, it could have been us. We promised we would help."
The next day, the group — which also included Scott Isdaner, Marina Furman, Carol Parlin Prushan and David Contorer — flew to Israel, where they met the young man in a restaurant.
"Everyone gave me a microwave, which I still have," said Korabelnikov.
That wasn't the only lasting gift the group would give the young man. While in Israel, the group met with Sharansky, then a member of the Knesset, and told him about the family's plight; soon after, the wheels began to turn to enable his mother and sister to make aliyah.
His father, who was divorced from his mother, remained behind.
"We were able to gain his support for this case through the Smukler family of Philadelphia," Furman said of Sharansky. She noted that Cindy Smukler Dorani was on the Zachor trip, and her parents, Connie and Joe, are very close friends with Sharansky, having been instrumental in securing his release from prison and the Soviet Union.
Furman said that it was particularly moving for her to meet Korabelnikov and his family, having left with her own young family as refuseniks "whose lives were saved by American Jews involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. To now have an opportunity to help Luda and Irena to leave Kiev, my hometown, was very gratifying."
"Once I got my family with me in Israel, it felt like home," declared Korabelnikov. "We just couldn't believe we were together again."
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After high school, Korabelnikov spent three years in the Israel Defense Force as a combat medic. He then earned a nursing degree at Hebrew University and worked as an operating-room nurse at Hadassah Hospital, and then in Shimon Peres' security unit.
Contorer said that Zachor members have stayed connected to the family online, and through ongoing visits in Israel and the Philadelphia area.
As much as they "have benefited from our intervention 11 years ago," Isdaner said, echoing the views of others in the group, "I have been enriched by their being part of my life."
Two years ago, while on Facebook, Korabelnikov met Lena Bulych, who happens to be from the same neighborhood in Kiev, where her family still lives.
Their courtship was also a journey, with "dates" taking place in Israel and the United States, where Lena — a translator fluent in Russian, Ukrainian and English — studied for six months, and in Canada, where she is currently studying.
On April 24 of this year, Korabelnikov and Bulych were married in a civil ceremony in Canada, and afterward, they flew to Philadelphia.
Fifteen people joined in the Penn Valley festivities, enjoying the tiered wedding cake, champagne toasts and chocolate-covered strawberries.
"There's no proper word to say how we felt," said Korabelnikov, now 27. "It feels like home here, too. We don't want to leave."
"It was wonderful to see Slava so happy," said Furman. "He has grown tremendously as a person. He had to overcome a lot, and it is nice to witness a Hollywood happy ending in real life."
The newlyweds plan to live in Canada for a few years so that Korabelnikov can expand his nursing knowledge and Bulych can finish her studies, but both noted that they want their children to serve in the Israeli army.
Before they settle into their new life, the couple plans to celebrate their marriage in Israel in early June and, at the end of the month, Korabelnikov, his mother and his sister will return to Kiev for the first time since leaving, to celebrate with Bulych and her family.
Said Korabelnikov: "We started from the Ukraine. Now, it's a terrific life. You never know where you'll end up."