When Rabbi Sheldon Lewis was getting arrested frequently in protests during the 1980s on behalf of Soviet Jewish refuseniks, he could not have known that the people he was fighting for included his future machatonim (in-laws).
A few months ago, the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto presided over the wedding of his son Avinoam to Masha Nepomniashchy, whose parents emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1979.
Nepomniashchy, 29, grew up in Houston. An appraiser at PWC, she moved to San Francisco in 2008.
Lewis, 31, grew up in Palo Alto. The owner of a children’s fitness center in San Carlos, My Gym, he was living in Mountain View at the time but thinking of moving to San Francisco.
The couple met at a Shabbat dinner in the spring of 2011. Nepomniashchy thought Lewis was “nice and smiley, but he had something in his teeth and I didn’t tell him.”
“I don’t think either of us was like, ‘That’s my future husband or wife,’ ” said Lewis, who was newly out of a relationship. “I was there to meet people and make friends. I thought Masha was also super smiley, bubbly and fun.”
They became friends, seeing each other in groups on the occasions when Lewis came to the city. When he finally moved to San Francisco in the fall, ready to begin looking for a wife, he got a visit from Nepomniashchy and a few friends on the first night in his new apartment. They went as a group to a housewarming party.
A few weeks later, Lewis held his own housewarming party. Nepomniashchy said she could sense the moment when he decided that he liked her. Mid-conversation, “I saw something change in his eyes,” she said. “It was like the light bulb went off.”
She said yes when he asked her out, but she wasn’t yet sure how she felt about him, as she was dating a lot at the time and saw him as “just another nice Jewish guy.”
Then, on their third date, she asked him to do something on short notice. Not only did he say yes without hesitation, but he also called when he said he would.
They quickly became a couple. Nepomniashchy was traveling frequently for work, and their dates often consisted of him driving her to and from the airport.
In March 2012, Nepomniashchy had to go to San Diego for work. She invited Lewis along for the weekend, using miles for his ticket. Over a mimosa brunch, he let the line slip, “If we have kids someday,” to which Nepomniashchy responded, “Not if, when.”
The marriage proposal required a bit of secrecy on Lewis’ part. He planned a trip to Minneapolis, presumably to visit his brother but really so he could take Nepomniashchy to see the tour from the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.” The couple had caught the tour in the Bay Area several times, but they had missed that season’s due to a work conflict.
Lewis told Nepomniashchy to keep the first weekend of November free. He had a limo pick them up to take them to the airport, and he proposed as soon as she got in the car. They celebrated with Champagne before arriving at the airport.
While she made calls to tell elated family and friends the news, she almost didn’t get on the flight. When booking the tickets, Lewis had succeeded in spelling her last name correctly, but not her first: He didn’t know that Masha is a diminutive for Maria, which is how it appears on her driver’s license. The airline finally let her on the flight — and after they married she legally changed her last name to Lewis and her first to Masha.
They married Dec. 29 at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Fran-cisco, with the groom’s father officiating.
“It’s a great extra blessing to now have as family émigrés from the former Soviet Union,” the rabbi said during the ceremony. “One of the key periods in our lives was the struggle of and on behalf of Soviet Jews. The liberation movement meant so much to us. To have Russian-speaking in-laws and a Russian-speaking daughter-in-law is a treasured new dimension, even if Masha freely loses a few syllables of her last name in marriage.”
Outside of Bimbo’s, the club’s marquee read: “The Premiere of Masha Lewis: An Avinoam Production.”
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