A Faithful Son Makes It Home

by | in People

In 1970, a group of Jewish activists, desperate to escape Soviet Russia, devised a plan. They would fill up a small plane to a local city under the pretense of attending a wedding, and then hijack the plane to Sweden. Once there, they planned to announce their intention to immigrate to Israel.

The plane never made it off the ground.

As they were about to board, the Soviet secret police surrounded the cadre and brutally beat and arrested everyone in the group. Yosef Mendelevich, then twenty-two, the youngest in the group, was sentenced to twelve years in Soviet prison.

More than four decades later, he still considers the mission a success.

Rabbi Mendelevich’s courageous sacrifices paved the way for hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave the Soviet Union. Today, a proud grandfather and revered yeshivah rebbe in Yerushalayim, Rabbi Mendelevich is busy helping young Russian olim reclaim a once-forbidden heritage.

Born in 1947 in Riga, Latvia, Rabbi Mendelevich grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home. Although his parents were staunch adherents of the Communist/atheist ideology, they would never fail to mention when it was Chanukah or Pesach. His maternal grandfather and namesake, Reb Yosef, served as the shamash of the venerated Rogatchover Gaon in Dvinsk.

When he was just eleven, the Soviets arrested his father on trumped-up charges. Before the sentencing, Rabbi Mendelevich found himself pleading to the God he was told didn’t exist to save his father. Although sentenced to five years in prison, his father returned home after two years of hard labor. Shortly after, Rabbi Mendelevich’s mother fell ill and died.

The imprisonment took a significant toll on his father’s health, compelling young Yosef, while in his teens, to find a job to support the family. He worked in a factory during the day and attended high school at night. There he met a group of Jewishly identified students, who involved him in cleaning up the mass graves of Jews massacred by the Nazis in a forest near Riga. The experience sparked a nascent pride in and attachment to his people.

Demonstration in support of Natan Sharansky’s release.

Demonstration in support of Natan Sharansky’s release.

Around this time, Rabbi Mendelevich’s cousin, a physician and underground aliyah activist, came to live with the family. He gave Rabbi Mendelevich a Hebrew primer. Eager to learn the language, he memorized every word and, despite the risk of being arrested, taught Hebrew and Chumash to a group of friends at the Riga synagogue.

He also launched an underground organization to motivate Jews to immigrate to Israel. After applying for an exit visa and getting refused, he dropped his engineering studies and devoted himself to the clandestine Jewish movement, becoming editor of the underground newspaper Ha-Iton, a serious “crime” in Communist Russia.

No longer a student, he was called up to serve in the Russian army. The night before his enlistment interview, again he found himself turning to God. He promised Hashem that if He saved him from having to serve in the military, he would begin observing mitzvot.

The next day, when the officer asked Rabbi Mendelevich why he decided to end his studies, he didn’t know how to reply without incriminating himself. He glanced out the window and noticed a small bird perched on a tree. He said, “You see that bird? He is free; here today, somewhere else tomorrow. But I am not free. I long to be free, like that bird.” The officer sent him for a psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist asked him if he thought people were following him. Without hesitation, he answered, “Yes” (since the KGB was constantly on his tail). Ultimately he was deemed unfit to serve.

Keeping his end of the bargain with God, Rabbi Mendelevich went straight from the psychiatric hospital to the synagogue. He approached the worshippers and announced that he wanted to learn how to properly observe the commandments. Fearing he was a police informant, all but one man denied his request. His new mentor opened a siddur and began explaining the prayers.

As Rabbi Mendelevich learned more about Yiddishkeit, he grew increasingly concerned about having to spend the rest of his life in Russia. When he heard through the underground of a Jewish pilot’s plan to escape the USSR, he jumped at the chance.

Although the “Operation Wedding” flight never took off, Rabbi Mendelevich’s emunah soared. Throughout his eleven years of grueling imprisonment, interrogations, solitary confinement and hard labor, he saw how Hashem sustained him. After one of his prison transfers, he met a young man eager to learn about Judaism; he became a treasured chavruta. He also met fellow famed refusenik Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky; the two cultivated their friendship exchanging guarded whispers through the toilet bowl pipe and furtive notes thrown over the “exercise yard” walls.

When Sharansky was moved to a cell across the hall from his, they would sing Hebrew messages to each other. In Rabbi Mendelevich’s moving memoir, Unbroken Spirit, he recalls singing “Shabbat Shalom” to his friend. “Avi met,” came Sharansky’s somber response, having been informed of his father’s death earlier that day. During the half-hour exercise break, Rabbi Mendelevich threw a note with the words of Kaddish to his friend on the other side of the prison yard wall.

Rabbi Mendelevich’s determination to keep mitzvot cost him dearly. The prison authorities forbade him from wearing his (homemade) kippah, threatening to deprive him of his already rare visiting privileges with his father. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t budge. Rabbi Mendelevich never saw his father again.

Unhappy with Rabbi Mendelevich’s Jewish influence on his incarcerated landsmen, the KGB confiscated his smuggled-in siddur and Chumash. He went on a hunger strike for fifty-six days, ingesting nothing but water, until they were returned. Throughout the fast, the authorities placed him in solitary confinement, but Rabbi Mendelevich remained undeterred; he gave Hebrew lessons to an inmate in the next cell.

On Purim Katan 1981, the Soviets succumbed to mounting pressure from the West to free the imprisoned Soviet refuseniks and allow them to emigrate to Israel. Rabbi Mendelevich was informed that since he was “unworthy of being a Soviet citizen” he was being “expelled” from the Soviet Union. At last, he was coming home.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2013.

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