Yosef Mendelevich: from Prisoner to Hero of Zion

Pale and tired, but joyous over his freedom from Soviet bondage, Yosef Mendelevich addresses a news conference the day after his arrival in Israel in 1981.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Wherever Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich goes he seems to draw a lot of attention. Whether it’s to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, upon his release from prison in 1981, or to the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis, upon his arrival here to give a talk for the JCRC last week.

Mendelevich was one of the iconic Soviet Jewish “refuseniks,” Jews whose visa applications to immigrate to Israel were refused by Soviet authorities, and one of the most defiant and heroic of the “Prisoners of Zion.” He spent 11 years in a series of dank prisons for his role in a failed attempt in 1970 to hijack a plane in Leningrad.  On Dec. 30, 1970, the Supreme Court of the USSR reduced his initial 15-year sentence to a 12-year imprisonment in the high security camps of the Gulag.

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As detailed in his just-published memoir, “Unbroken Spirit,” (Gefen Publishing House, $25), Mendelevich became an observant Jew while in prison, hoarding breadcrumbs and raisins to use for the hamotzi and kiddush in secret and illegal Shabbat dinners and fashioning kippots out of scraps of cloth from prison clothing. He also bribed prison guards to smuggle in a Jewish prayer book, which he copied on scraps of paper and sneaked into the hands of other Jewish prisoners. Frequently, guards beat him savagely for his “anti-Soviet” activities.

As was the case with his fellow Prisoners of Zion like Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel, international pressure ultimately led to his release to Israel in 1981. Finally in the Jewish State of his dreams, he continued to advocate for Soviet Jewry, became an Orthodox rabbi and an acclaimed teacher of Torah in Israel.

So how does all this fit into a Cohnipedia column?  By happenstance, I was in the State of Israel with 16 other Jewish journalists on the very day that Mendelevich, then age 34, arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport after his release from prison. He looked pale and thin, and insisted he be taken immediately to offer a prayer of thanksgiving at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism.

Our bus driver and tour guide got word that Mendelevich was being taken from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as we were in the Holy City.  Understanding this was a big story, the driver snaked the bus through the connecting roads and narrow streets of Jerusalem to make sure we arrived at the exact time Mendelevich reached the Western Wall.  The young prisoner was clean-shaven then.  At his St. Louis visit last week, he sported a long white beard that reminded me of King Lear or the Ancient Mariner.

I also was reminded of the similarity in weather on both occasions. Last week, it rained very hard outside the Federation Kopolow Building while Mendelevich was speaking – it also had been raining hard the afternoon of his arrival at the Wall in Jerusalem.  I could recall my lead paragraph of my story on his arrival:  “The skies over Jerusalem wept for joy as an ecstatic crowd of as many as 5,000 persons sang, clapped and marched to accompany Yosef Mendelevich to the Western Wall.”

Mendelevich endured severe hardships for the right to live as a Jew in his native land—or to leave and live as a free and fully empowered Jew in the State of Israel.  Like the Yosef of the Bible, he endured prison, stood up to the powerful rulers of his land, and through both prayer and courageous action, was able to realize his dream.

Mendelevich stressed that despite being called a “hero” repeatedly by his admirers, he insists that the “true heroes are you, the American Jewish community in the Soviet Jewry movement who made this immigration of over 1 million Jews from the USSR to Israel possible.”