On the day Operation Protective Edge began, Avraham Yitzhak Rahamim Mendelevich was preparing to leave the IDF and return to yeshiva.
Instead, he was sent from his position on the Golan Heights, where he had been serving for almost two years, to fight in the Gaza Strip. His battalion was stationed on the outskirts of the Zeitoun neighborhood, not far from the settlement of Netzarim.
The young soldier very much regretted that he would not be able to go to the grave of his grandfather, Moshe Mendelevich, an aliya activist in Riga, Latvia – which was under Soviet control in the 1970s – on his yahrzeit, 16 Tamuz, the eve of the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha Be’av.
Also on that day, Mendelevich’s father, Yosef, wished to be in contact with his son, to give him tefillin with a special story.
BY 1980, Yosef had already been imprisoned in Leningrad for 10 years, for attempting to hijack a Soviet plane and flee to Israel. At the same time, a special envoy of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson arrived in the Soviet Union to show solidarity with the Prisoners of Zion.
The envoy was impressed with the extreme devotion of the younger generation, and told Rabbi Yitzhak Kogan, a Chabad underground activist, that he would report back to the Rebbe what he had witnessed and ask him to specially bless Kogan.
But Kogan surprised the envoy, and instead insisted the Rebbe bless Yosef Mendelevich.
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“He has been on a hunger strike for 55 days, demanding they give him back the Humash and Siddur they confiscated from him,” said Kogan. “His physical condition is very bad. The Rebbe must pray for his immediate release from the prison.”
The Rebbe’s prayer was in fact answered, and within a few months Yosef was flown straight from the prison to Israel. On a stopover in Vienna, the redeemed prisoner was brought to the Israeli Embassy in Austria.
“What is your first request?” the ambassador asked him.
“I need a set of tefillin to put on before sunset.”
The ambassador looked at his embassy staff members – which of them would still have tefillin? Suddenly, there stepped forward Rabbi Israel Singer, then director of the World Jewish Congress.
“IT WAS very interesting,” recalls Singer. “After hearing about the release of Mendelevich, I was supposed to fly out to welcome him.
“Before that, I contacted the Rebbe and asked him, ‘What I should take for the freed Yosef?’ “‘Take him tefillin,’ the Rebbe answered.
“‘And here are the tefillin I have brought you on the orders of the Rebbe,’” Singer told Yosef that day in Vienna.
And so, for the first time in his life, Yosef put on tefillin.
AFTER HE arrived in Israel, the tefillin disappeared.
Yosef was heartbroken.
But on the day his son was being sent to the Gaza Strip, the tefillin were suddenly found with a nephew, Ronen Lisitzin.
The moment Yosef got the tefillin back, he began to think about how to get them to Mendelevich, to grant him special protection.
It turned out it was not possible to send tefillin to the battle area, but as is known, God turns good intentions into deeds – and Yosef hoped that thanks to all that, the tefillin would begin to perform their mission.
Contact with Mendelevich was very difficult.
With entry into the battle zone, cellphones were taken from the combatants.
In brief sallies to the rear for equipping the tank with ammunition and for repairs, Mendelevich would contact his parents on the unit commander’s phone.
Every such conversation was a gift from Heaven, and caused great excitement in the family. His mother asked her son to observe all safety regulations, and his father asked him to read from the Book of Psalms (Tehillim) every day.
In the neighborhood where Battalion No. 7 was located, fierce battles were taking place. The terrorists were using anti- tank missiles as well as snipers, attacking from the tunnels.
On Rosh Hodesh Av, there was a powerful flash of light in the tank, followed by the sound of a huge explosion. The tank filled with smoke. Over the intercom it was announced, “Tank No. 3 has been destroyed.”
Mendelevich said later that he was deafened by the explosion. He didn’t know whether he had been wounded and what had happened to his companions.
A minute later he heard the commander shouting: “Are you all alive?” They were all alive.
At that moment, they received the order to return fire, scoring a direct hit on the terrorist who had fired the missile.
WHAT HAPPENED next was nothing short of a miracle, in Mendelevich’s telling.
“There was a cease-fire, and we retreated to a safe position to rest. The commander gave us permission to leave the tank. We had spent 48 hours inside the tank; it was very hot and we were exhausted.
“But I decided to remain in the tank.
I had promised my father I would read Psalms every day. And I had to read the psalm for Monday, Psalm 30: ‘1. A Psalm; a song at the dedication of the house of David.
2. I will extol Thee, O Lord, for Thou hast raised me up, and hast not suffered mine enemies to rejoice over me.’ “And because I didn’t go out, my fellow crew members also remained with me inside the tank.
“Even though we were hidden inside an olive grove, the Hamas lookouts spotted us. They shot at us, apparently with a Sagger guided anti-tank missile.
In reality, there was no chance of escaping from this missile. But the Hamas operative and the missile struck exactly the rear of the tank. So, at first, they thought that we had been hit.”
When the crew emerged from the tank, Mendelevich looked at the place in the tank turret where he was supposed to have stood during the rest period. All the equipment was burnt; the missile had passed within one meter.
Returning from war, at a welcome-home meal in his parents’ Jerusalem home, Mendelevich told of the miracle he had experienced thanks to the Guardian of Israel, and to the Psalms of King David.
His father, Yosef, then stood up and told everyone about the tefillin which the Rebbe had sent him 33 years before, which had turned up just when it was needed – during Operation Protective Edge. ■ Translated by David Herman.
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