Refusenik rabbi to share his story on STL visit

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Nearly 43 years ago, at the beginning of the resistance movement of Soviet Jews, Josef Mendelevich was facing 15 years in prison for attempting hijacking of a plane to fly himself and other refuseniks to Sweden and to freedom.

He was 22 and in the early stage of his long spiritual journey to discover and deepen his understanding of Judaism despite the overwhelming power and force of the Soviet state.

A year later, Mendelevich’s sentence was reduced to 12 years. In 1981, after years in the Soviet gulag in western Siberia, thanks to the intense campaign to free Soviet Jews in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, Mendelevich made it to Israel.

There he served in the Israeli Defense Forces, was ordained a rabbi and now lives and speaks about his life journey. He has seven children and many grandchildren.

On Tuesday, April 23, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., Mendelevich will be featured at the Kopolow Jewish Federation Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, to tell his story. Much of it is chronicled in his book, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival,” which will be available at his talk.

 “We do not want to present him as a hero but more as an experienced teacher,” said Earl Newman, a developer who lives in University City. “This is for those who don’t know much about Soviet Jews. We hope people can understand the movement to free Soviet Jews as an example” of seeking and securing freedom.

Sponsors of Mendelevich’s visit include the Jewish Community Center, the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The Jewish Community Relations Council is coordinating his visit.

In an interview from his home in Jerusalem, Mendelevich said that early in his life he took deliberate steps to discover his religious and cultural heritage, even though he knew the cost of opposing the Soviet state could be very high.

“I had a good position,” he said. “I could continue on that pathway. I could become assimilated. We were surrounded by non-Jewish people. But something happened in my life, and I chose to be different.  I am a Jew, specifically a Jew. I can remain myself. It is a real joy to be Jewish.”

Newman said that bringing Mendelevich to St. Louis is, in part, an attempt to make younger Jews aware of the movement of many Jews from the former Soviet Union and how they are transforming Israel today.

“The development and support of Israel, through the immigration of the Russians, has enabled Israel to blossom,” he said. “This particular rabbi has really been an example of someone who had been persecuted, ridiculed, faced opposition and loneliness, and yet he did not become discouraged. He maintained his Jewishness and inspired others.”

In his book, which he wrote in Russian and was translated first into Hebrew and recently into English, Mendelevich recounted that one of his cellmates was a former Nazi collaborator. He believed the Soviet authorities placed him with the man deliberately to taunt him.

His cellmate was Ivan Vasilevich Morozov, who was charged with murdering hundreds of Jews.

Mendelevich writes: “He swears to me that he did not take part in massacring Jews. The amazing thing is that in all my years in the gulag I meet many former Nazi guards, not a single one of whom admits to killing Jews. One wonders where all the murderers went.”

In the interview, Mendelevich said he sees his own life as a series of decisions about how he should live.

“I lead the audience from point to point – one choice, then another choice,” he said. “It’s step-by-step development. This is about the quest for freedom. I have to sacrifice for it. This is important. You have to pay for freedom.”

Since his book became available in English, Mendelevich has spoken to groups in the New York area, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Philadelphia, among others.

Mendelevich was in vanguard of the first wave of Jews who arrived in Israel in the 1970s. Since the Soviet Union disintegrated more than 20 years ago, about 1 million men, woman and children of various degrees of Jewish background have emigrated to Israel. 

This influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union has changed the demographics of Israel — boosting the number of Israeli Jews vis-à-vis Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

Today, about every sixth Jew living in Israel can trace his or her roots back to the late Soviet Union.

Within Israeli politics, many Russian Jews tend to have found a home of the right side of the spectrum. Lily Galili and Roman Bronfman, in their book, “The Million that Changed the Middle East,” tell how more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, following in the footsteps of Mendelevich and other early refuseniks, are remaking Israel yet again.

In addition to his appearance at the Kopolow building, Mendelvich has several speaking engagements in the St. Louis area Tuesday. For more information, contact [email protected] or 314-442-3871.