Against all odds

A Zionist activist in Soviet Russia, rabbi, teacher here, Yosef Mendelevich has devoted his life to bringing Jews back to traditions.

Yosef Mendelevich (photo credit: courtesy gefen publishing)
Yosef Mendelevich
(photo credit: courtesy gefen publishing)
Mankind should remember these few brave individuals who by their faith and personal example changed not only Israel’s, but the world’s history. They all stood fast against their oppressors, and they succeeded in exposing that terrible lie whose name was the Soviet Union.
Yosef Mendelevich wasn’t born a hero.
Nobody is. Life had taught him how to fight for his rights and how to serve his people. He was 10 years old when his father was arrested on trumped-up charges and sentenced to five years in prison, leaving his mother alone with three children. Sent to a summer camp, Mendelevich found, for the first time, a “pure” Soviet reality: kicks, insults, abuse, curses and all kinds of vulgarity.
He ran away and found a Jewish home and an illegal Zionist company, an island of intellectual challenge and deep faith, greatly different from the alien world outside.
Young Jews took care of the destroyed and abandoned Jewish graveyards at Riga’s Rumboli cemetery and this became their university. The sacred ground of Rumboli, where Amalek sought to wipe Jews out, aroused their nationalist feelings. They worked feverishly to build memorials to the dead, and prepared themselves for the sacred tasks to come. They differed from others who protested against the Soviet regime, for they considered themselves to be Jews who wished to return to their native country, Israel.
The Six Day War imbued them with a new spirit, and they feared no more.
They knew that once they applied for a permit to emigrate to Israel, they would be considered traitors, the sworn enemies of the regime. They would be fired from their jobs and lose their homes, and be exposed to scorn and abuse.
Zionism was a dirty word in the Soviet vocabulary.
But once Mendelevich’s official application for immigration to Israel was rejected, nothing could stop him and his friends any more. On June 15, 1970, they attempted to hijack a Soviet plane and escape to Sweden on their way to Israel. But too many men learned about their planned operation, and the Soviet secret police jumped at the opportunity.
Arrested at the airport and sentenced to 15 years of Gulag, Mendelevich never gave up his struggle and continued his Zionist and Jewish work without interruption.
This was a long odyssey through the most notorious Soviet prisons, mental hospitals and the dreaded “re-educational work camps” from Latvia to the Ural Mountains. Nothing could stop him, not a 56-day hunger strike fought for permission to keep his Jewish books, nor facing additional trials for observing the Jewish commandments, including Shabbat, in a strictly anti-religious Soviet prison.
The story of Mendelevich’s difficult, almost impossible struggle against the Soviet establishment, smuggled abroad by a few kind hearts, had attracted wideworld attention. World Jewish leaders and US Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson finally won Mendelevich his freedom.
He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1981, and arrived in Israel.
Here he served in the IDF, and earned his rabbinic ordination, as well as a master’s degree in Jewish history. He currently teaches at the Nachshon Meir Yeshiva, and is married with seven children and many grandchildren.
THIS ENGLISH edition of Unbroken Spirit, which was originally published in Russian and subsequently in Hebrew as “Operation Wedding,” was Mendelevich’s dream since the fall of the Soviet Union. There was not a day in his life that he did not seek to bring Jews not only to Israel, but back to their sacred traditions. He certainly considers this book as a statement, a window to the torn-by-assimilation-and-intermarriage Jewish English-speaking world. No doubt he became a true rabbi, an educator, long before his official ordination.
All his activities in prison demonstrated a tremendous faith that was stronger than the ridicule and cruelty of the authorities. All his religious activities, from proper Passover observance to abstaining from work on Shabbat, were cruelly punished. But the truth, he believed, demanded sacrifices.
The refuseniks – Jews who were refused permission to emigrate – were determined to live as free men under the totalitarian regime, and they won.
While they prayed for Israel, their activities encouraged other persecuted nationalities of the Soviet Union to claim their rights, contributing to its ultimate collapse.
Mendelevich’s unpretentious, easy style, his memory and keen observations won my deep admiration. As a former Soviet prisoner I can testify that all his experiences reflect the bare truth of the Soviet regime.