Living his dream

Talmud teacher Joesph Mendelevich has become an icon of the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Yosef Mendelevich (photo credit: courtesy gefen publishing)
Yosef Mendelevich
(photo credit: courtesy gefen publishing)
Icon for the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the first refusenik, a Gulag prisoner for 11 years, Yosef Mendelevich, now 64 and smiling through his flowing white board, cannot believe his luck. “It is truly a miracle,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “that I am teaching Talmud to Russian immigrant Jewish converts in a Jerusalem yeshiva. I am not even that great a Talmud teacher. But, here I am, living my dream.”
As he speaks he is practically dancing with joy.
The dream began for him in 1968, when as a young Jewish activist in Soviet Russia, he read American author Leon Uris’s 1958 book Exodus, on the founding of Israel, a decade after it was published in the United States. He and fellow activists also smuggled Russian-language materials about Israel from the Israel Embassy in Moscow. In addition, Mendelevich secretly listened to Kol Yisrael (The Voice of Israel) radio in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish.
From then on Mendelevich, born in Riga, Latvia, thought only of reaching the Jewish state and of helping hundreds of thousands of other Soviet Jews who had been disaffected by the Soviet regime. He took the then unprecedented step of applying for an exit visa but the authorities, viewing him as a traitor, denied his request, forcing him to abandon his university studies and making him the first official refusenik.
Searching for a way to put the plight of Soviet Jews on the international map, the then 22-year-old Mendelevich and 10 other Jewish activists (dubbed “the Leningrad 11”) concocted a wild scheme, originally the idea of a Soviet Jewish pilot – to hijack a 12-seat Russian plane and fly it to Sweden from where they would make their way to Israel.
The hijacking was planned for June 15, 1970, but the KGB aborted the scheme on the tarmac near the plane, arrested the plotters, tried them for high treason, and jailed them. Mendelevich, at first sentenced to 15 years, which was later reduced to 12 years, spent most of his incarceration in the Ural Mountains in western Russia.
While in jail he COMMUNIcated secretly, never for more than five minutes, with Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, who is now head of the Jewish Agency. The hijacking and the Soviet overreaction to it “opened the first significant rip in the Iron Curtain” (as The New York Times put it), after which 163,000 Russian Jews reached Israel over the next decade. The number climbed to one million (most arriving in the 1990s), nearly 20 percent of Israeli Jews.
One day in February 1981, thanks to the intervention of Edgar Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress, Mendelevich walked out of the Soviet prison, boarded a plane, and arrived in Israel later that same day. To this day Mendelevich has no idea what Bronfman promised the Russians, if anything, to achieve his release.
During the plane ride, at the El Al pilot’s invitation, the first refusenik got his first view of Israel. “I felt profound pain, like a long-starved man who is suddenly given a feast, but is unable to eat,” he wrote in his third and latest book. “The Soviet regime had robbed me of the ability to feel, to enjoy this great moment of homecoming and give it its due.”
Too exhausted, mentally and physically, to ponder what lay in store for him, he felt that, as he put it in our interview, “I had finished my life. I achieved what I had fought for and dreamt. It was enough.
I knew that now I would have to make another effort to begin the second part of my life.”
Upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, he was greeted by Immigrant Absorption Minister David Levy, who handed him an immigration certificate.
The then 33-year-old Mendelevich says he felt like a soldier returning in triumph from a combat mission.
Mendelevich integrated into his new country briskly (aided by a good command of Hebrew). A relative drove him from the airport directly to Alon Shvut, a West Bank Jewish settlement southwest of Jerusalem, where he joined his sister Rivka.
Almost as quickly he began studying at the settlement’s yeshiva. Starting in 1989, he served as head of the Russian Immigrant Department at Touro College in Jerusalem, helping immigrant history Then in 1996, he began teaching Talmud part-time at Machon Meir, a Jerusalem yeshiva, and four years later was teaching full-time.
In a cramped classroom where religious books rest on a table and an incongruous refrigerator stands toward the back, Mendelevich, a black yarmulke on his head, teaches 10 Russian-speaking immigrants, some converts to Judaism, five days a week. The irony has not been lost on him that, when he lived in Soviet Russia, the government barred him and all other Jews from teaching Talmud.
How satisfied is Mendelevich with the State of Israel? Is he living the dream that he imagined or is he suffering from disillusionment? Upon arriving in the country, he preferred to withhold judgment on his new country. “As we used to say in Riga, it would take many years to decide if Israel was good or not.” Expecting to find a nation both variegated and chaotic, he has been largely delighted with a country that is brimming over with freely practiced politics and religion as well as freedom of expression.
Thrilled that he had come upon a democratic State of Israel, Mendelevich wanted to use his new nation’s democratic impulses to help Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel in the same way that he had aided in Russia.
Assuming naively that things would go more smoothly in Israel than in the Soviet Union, he soon learned that navigating Israeli bureaucracy required time, patience, and the right contacts. Nation building, he suggests astringently, is not easy. “When you build a building, there is a lot of noise,” he asserts.
As one of the first heroes of the Soviet Jewry struggle, Mendelevich acquired a high-level contact soon after arriving in Israel. Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised he would personally look after his integration. Begin lived up to his commitment, arranging for the bachelor immigrant to obtain an apartment normally given only to married couples.
The advantage Mendelevich had in owning an apartment twice as large as he needed lasted only six months for it was then that he married French-born Kati Seroussi, after meeting her at Machon Meir. They have had seven children and “many” grandchildren. Mendelevich does not mention how many grandchildren he and his wife have out of concern that such mention will bring bad luck.
Asked to evaluate his 31 years in Israel, Mendelevich replies with a list of his accomplishments: his children, grandchildren, the apartment that he owns, his rabbinical degree, his efforts to bring Jews from the former USSR to Israel and to help them integrate in the Jewish State, and the three books he has written.
The latest is Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Study of Faith, Courage and Survival, published in Hebrew in 1985 and in English for the first time this spring (see review in The Jerusalem Report, August 13). It recounts Mendelevich’s arduous struggle in Russia, his arrest, and life in the Gulag.
“The main message of my new book,” says Mendelevich proudly, defiantly, “is how I kept Jewish tradition in the Gulag.”
Pressed for a more candid evaluation of his new country, his voice turning acerbic, Mendelevich expresses a wish that Israel was a more moral place and that its politicians were more forthright. “I would like to have politicians who would talk straight about their intentions so that we could know and decide.” A prime example, says the Talmud teacher, was the abortive Likud-Kadima merger in May that led to the formation of a short-lived national unity government. “Two enemies meet, they had certain interests that they never disclosed to anybody, and we didn’t know what they were aiming for. It’s bewildering.”
While ecstatic that so many Russian-speaking Jews have arrived in Israel, Mendelevich is dismayed that the government has not done enough, in his view, to help them find suitable employment. In the early years of immigration from the USSR to Israel, many of them left, leaving him perplexed.
“We Russian Jews had no real teeth and the government was not smart enough to develop the tools that would have given the Russians the proper skills. Too many Russian Jews are performing only basic jobs in Israeli society.”
Mendelevich was tired of hearing government officials tell Russian Jews, including engineers, musicians, physicians, and academics, “Your profession is not needed in Israel. Go get a job cleaning outside.” In the 1990s, Mendelevich won the then Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert’s agreement to canvas Russian Jews, learn what skills they possessed, retrain them, and then send them into the work force.
From 1995 to 2000, Mendelevich’s employment project went well, finding 5,000 suitable jobs for Russian Jews but money for the project dried up. The Talmud teacher was dazed, frustrated that he could not do more. “It was a small achievement but in terms of my capacities as a human being, it did very little good.”
Why did the government display so little sympathy for Mendelevich’s employment project? He blamed his “independent” personality in part: in dire need of support from political parties, he found that political parties shunned celebrities like him, who sought to run projects on their own.
Regrettably for Mendelevich, gaining close connections with party leaders was the only way to obtain needed cash for projects. “This is the kind of corruption I dislike,” he says discontentedly. This neglect of Soviet Jews led him to accuse officials of discriminating against the very people they had taken into their embrace years earlier. “We are still considered strangers.”
Many Jews wishing to immigrate to Israel might feel a tad guilty comparing the ease of their aliya with that of Mendelevich’s.
After all, a Jew from the United States, Britain, Australia, or other Western countries, upon deciding to make Israel home, simply makes the decision, and then goes through the paperwork. Mendelevich went to jail. He does not permit himself to feel any envy toward those who had an “easy” aliya.
Indeed, he feels a special kinship especially with American Jews for the battle they waged on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Suggesting that the American Jew should feel pride and not guilt for the opportunity to make an “easy” aliya, Mendelevich notes that “we – Russian Jews and American Jews – won this struggle together for Russian Jewry. It’s a big, big victory.”
For his fellow Russian Jews Mendelevich shows unquenchable energy, traveling to his birthplace (Riga) in May 2012 to recruit new students for his yeshiva. While on that visit, he came upon Russian movie producers who said they would like to make a film based on Unbroken Spirits.
Speaking of the possibility of the film, Mendelevich spoke with great satisfaction and joy that he was worthy of going Hollywood.
As he departs his tiny classroom, Joseph Mendelevich is again smiling through that white beard. The almost-hijacker, the Gulag prisoner, the somewhat disillusioned Israeli still spends every waking moment figuratively pinching himself. Is he still living his dream? All it takes to assure him that he is doing just that is for someone to approach him on a Jerusalem street, as people sometimes do, and declare, “When I see you, I believe that a miracle can come true.”