By Larry Gordon
Yosef Mendelevich is a living, breathing piece of modern Jewish history. Today he is 67 years old, a father and grandfather who lives with his family in Jerusalem. To many—especially today’s younger generation—he is unknown. Who is this unassuming, seemingly simple Jew who today teaches Torah to young recent immigrants to Israel at a Jerusalem yeshiva? It would be safe to conclude that Mendelevich is an important treasure who in his person and through his experiences defines every aspect of what it meant to be a Jew battling to retain his identity in the then-Soviet Union.
He endured great suffering at the hands of brutal Soviet oppressors who worked for decades to extinguish any vestiges of religion under Communism, with special and direct attention focused on Jews and those who desired to live as Jews in Israel.
It’s history now, but not so long ago, in the post-World War II era when many of us believed we were living in advanced, modern times, there were those holding forcefully on to those old, backward ways of controlling entire populations by choking off their freedoms—in particular their religious liberties. That type of oppression is on the wane but still does exist in some countries today.
Mendelevich endured 11 years of imprisonment in the Soviet gulag. His crime was his desire to leave the Soviet Union and go to live free and as a Jew in Israel. That was a crime back then under the old Soviet system, punishable by either internal exile deep in the sub-zero, frozen Siberian region or being tucked away out of sight in the maze of Soviet prisons sentenced to hard labor and frequently solitary confinement.
The odd thing is that Mendelevich was raised in a typical, loyal communist family with little interest in anything Jewish. The Soviets’ brutal reaction to suppress his curiosity about Jewish life and the existence of the State of Israel is what, more than anything else, spurred on his interest and activism and ignited that Jewish spark that would change his life and so many around him.
This past Shabbos, Yosef Mendelevich visited the Five Towns where he spoke at two shuls to jam-packed crowds. He did a book signing for the release in English of his, Unbreakable Spirit, and the lines were almost immediately out the door, and shortly thereafter, they were sold out.
Our colleague, David Seidemann, related to me on Saturday night that when signing one of the books, Mendelevich cut his finger on one of the pages he was turning and some blood ran onto one of the pages. He offered to exchange the book for the young lady who had purchased it and was waiting for him to inscribe the volume. No, she insisted, she wanted the book with the blood on it. Mendelevich shrugged and looked at her, puzzled. He took his pen and circled the blood, and wrote on top of the page in Hebrew, “Am Yisrael Chai.”
I sat near Rabbi Mendelevich on Shabbos at a luncheon and had an opportunity to just talk casually outside of the limelight about some of the pressing issues of the day. Mendelevich is interestingly very upfront and honest about who he proudly is today and what he represents. On the surface he is a man with a chareidi look, featuring a long gray beard and long payos that are wrapped behind his ear and spill down below his neck. On the other hand he does not hesitate to describe himself as first and foremost an ardent Zionist. Those two aspects are only contradictions on the politically nuanced surface, and Mendelevich, at the core of who he is, represents that reality. His sons serve or have served in the IDF, and he has a son-in-law who is an Air Force pilot.
In his book he describes himself as a man who initially did what he calls, “A Zionist teshuvah.” He explains that his love and desire for the land of Israel and his personal need to be liberated from the spiritual confinement and oppressiveness of the Soviet Union is what led him to ultimately become a more conventional baal teshuvah who immerses himself in Torah study today in Jerusalem.
As a man who works closely with young people who have emigrated from Russia—some very recently—Mendelevich says that he recognizes that the issue of their halachic Jewishness is problematic and something that he deals with every day. We talked about the movement and the idea being floated to loosen the parameters of who is considered a Jew by birth with some allowance being made by some rabbis for those who were born to Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers.
“We are very strict about that and do not consider anyone Jewish who does not have a Jewish mother,” he says. He explains that in the past he had discussed this pressing issue with Rav Elyashiv and that the posek instructed him on the differences on these parental issues. Mendelevich said that Rav Elyashiv told him that while someone without either parent being halachically Jewish needs to be dissuaded from embarking on the rigorous conversion process, if one has a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother and wants to convert to Judaism, in that situation we do not have to attempt to convince him or her not to convert.
Yosef Mendelevich is good friends with fellow refusniks that he spent some time in Soviet prisons with. One is the well-known Natan Sharansky, a former member of the Knesset and today the head of the Jewish Agency. Another is Yuli Edelstein, a member of the ruling Likud Party and today the Speaker of the Knesset. Still another former refusnik that we here in the U.S. protested for is Ida Nudel who today resides in Rehovot.
I was surprised to learn that the dynamic and the interaction between these personalities is not always sanguine or peaceful. Mendelevich, who is an educator and who possesses important lessons to impart about recent history that can be shared with young people throughout Israel has not been successful in having any of his programs funded by the government despite his close contacts with Sharansky and Edelstein and their ability to dispense millions of dollars for education programs.
Mendelevich says that he visits Sharansky in his Jerusalem office and is always warmly received. Sharansky spent nine years in prison in the Soviet Union. He is believed to be the refusnik that was imprisoned the longest except for Yosef Mendelvich, who was imprisoned for 11 years. “When I am in Natan’s office he introduces me to everyone as the man who was held in prison by the Soviets longer than he was himself,” Mendelevich says.
And there were other struggles and even lawsuits between some of these parties. For example, when Sharansky was in the Knesset and was a virtual king of the Russian population in Israel, Ida Nudel managed to secure a significant sum of money to form a Scandinavian Christian organization to assist Russian youth in Israel. Apparently Sharansky did not approve and made his opinion known to Nudel and her supporters. This basically started a war between Sharansky and Nudel with her people supporting allegations in a book that suggested that despite his nine years in Soviet jails, that Sharansky was a KGB spy. Sharansky sued Nudel and her group for libel and won an award of 1 million Shekel. I asked Mendelevich if he knows whether or not Sharansky ever received the money, and he said that he did not know.
And then there was the euphoric time at his release from prison in 1981under blistering pressure from the U.S. government. He describes being released with barely the clothes on his back and being whisked to the airport and flown to Vienna. At the time there were no direct flights between the USSR and Israel, necessitating a stopover in Europe.
In Vienna he was taken to the U.S. embassy to await his long-embraced dream—his flight to Israel. At the embassy he was asked what if anything the consular staff could get him, considering that he had absolutely no possessions. Mendelevich says that he told the officer that if possible he would like to have two things. The first was an Israeli uniform and the second request was for his own pair of tefillin.
The consular office told Mendelevich that he really could not oblige either of his requests. He then told the former prisoner that shortly after he arrives in Israel he can certainly join the IDF at which point he would receive a uniform. As for the tefillin, the official explained, well there just wasn’t anything like that available to them in Vienna.
A short time later, he was visited by Israel Singer who was then the director of the World Jewish Congress. Singer, who from time to time consulted with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, related to the Rebbe that he was going to Vienna to welcome Yosef Mendelevich to freedom. Dr. Singer asked the Rebbe what if anything should he bring with him to give Mendelevich. The Rebbe told Singer, Mendelevich told me to bring him a pair of tefillin.
Last Sunday, Yosef Mendelevich marched up Fifth Avenue in the Israel Day Parade. On Tuesday he spoke in a half dozen Five Towns and Far Rockaway yeshivas. On Tuesday evening he spoke at a parlor meeting for Yeshiva Be’er HaGolah. Yosef Mendelevich still has that fiery and determined look in his eyes. You can see in those eyes where his drive and energy comes from. His dream of a life in Eretz Yisrael came to fruition over 30 years ago. While that may be a rather long time, he will be the first to tell you that his dream is renewed every day when he opens his eyes and realizes that the vision and fantasy he once could only reflect upon in the Soviet Gulag is alive, growing, and today dreaming its own new dreams. v
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