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Wedding Guest

Yael Ehrenpreis Meyer

“My life has been one extended miracle,” writes former refusenik Rav Yosef Mendelevich, whose book Unbroken Spirit was recently released in English. From that day in 1970 when he and his refusenik friends tried to hijack a plane out of Russia, through eleven years in Soviet prisons and finally to the tranquility of raising a Torah family in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich recently spoke to Mishpacha about that day in June that shook the entire Jewish world.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

rabbi yosef MendelovitchOn June 15, 1970, a group of 16 refuseniks entered Smolnoye (later Rzhevka) Airport nearLeningrad. Each one was holding a ticket for a local flight to Priozersk — ostensibly to attend a wedding. In reality, they planned to hijack the plane and fly it toSweden. But as they entered the airfield for boarding, they were arrested and taken into custody by the Soviet secret police.

One of those 16 refuseniks was a 22-year-old Latvianborn Jew named Yosef Mendelevich. Today, he is Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, father and grandfather of a blessedly large family, Torah scholar, and director of the Russian-speaking programs ofJerusalem’s Machon Meir yeshivah. For four decades his face and name represented a cause uniting chassidim, Litvaks, and Mizrachim, organizations from Agudah to the World Jewish Congress, individuals from Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to the Belzer Rebbe’s granddaughter.

Now, with his just-released book, Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage,and Survival (Gefen Publishing House), and a perspective that comes with new years of quiet, he can tell the story behind the story.


Cloak and Dagger in Riga

Yosef Mendelevich was born in 1947, in Riga, the capital of Latvia, a Baltic nation that became part of the Soviet Unionafter World War II. Both of Yosef’s parents stemmed from Dvinsk, where his maternal grandfather, Reb Yosef, had been the shamesh of the Rogatchover Gaon.

Yosef’s father rechanneled his principles to become a Communist idealist, a true believer in justice and equality who hoped that Communism would be the answer to the injustices of modern life. Very soon he became disillusioned by the vast discrepancy between his ideals and the actual Communism he saw applied in theSoviet Union.

“My parents continued to read, sing, and speak to one another in Yiddish, maintaining the atmosphere of a Jewish home,” Yosef explains. “They would always mention when it was Chanukah or Pesach. Later on, when as a teenager I had committed myself to a Jewish life, I saw the pasuk of ‘v’heishiv lev avos al banim fulfilled as my father began not only to talk about but also ‘do’ the holidays — to hold a Pesach Seder, light Chanukah candles, prepare mishloach manos on Purim.”

When Yosef was ten years old, his father was arrested on trumped-up charges, essentially for the “crime” of being a Jew. For the first time in his life, young Yosef turned his heart towards the Creator he had been taught did not exist. For the next few years, until his father’s release, Yosef remained virtually an orphan (his mother died during his father’s incarceration), who was searching deeply for the legacy of his grandparents. At the age of 16, he went to work at a factory to help support his father, who had returned home from prison in a weakened state. Every evening he attended a high school for working youth.

“Three-quarters of the student body and faculty was Jewish. This was the first time I had met so many Jews together. So it was these adverse circumstances that gave me the zchus to make my first Jewish friends.”

Within this new social milieu, Yosef began to both learn about and live his heritage, joining his new chevrah in attending shul and celebrating Jewish holidays. He also participated in his first-ever “Jewish group activity,” the weekly clean-up of Rumbuli, the cemetery just outside of Riga containing the graves of 25,000 Jews who had been massacred by the Nazis, an act that both strengthened the group’s sense of fraternity and aroused their nationalist feelings.



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