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Yosef Mendelevich Didn't Wait for Nefesh B'Nefesh

By Tzvi Fishman
1/13/2011, 12:00 AM

Since lots of Jews spend lots of time thinking about food, here’s what I’m eating right now to get ready for tomorrow’s Shovavim fast. A bowl of organic branflakes, organic granola, organic raisins, organic pumpkin seeds, and goat yogurt.

I bet you had me pegged as a beer and hot dogs man! That just goes to show you how little you really know about Tzvi Fishman.

Talking about fast days. My fasts are nothing. Tomorrow evening, I begin my all-night learning with a real Jewish hero, my esteemed friend, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, who sat in a Soviet prison for almost 12 years for wanting to make aliyah to Israel. When the Russians took away the few Torah books that he had, he fasted for 56 days, drinking water alone, until the authorities surrendered. What an honor just to sit across the table from this inspiring man and soak in his courage and wisdom.

After his release, his activism continued on behalf of Natan Sharansky and all Soviet Jewry. Pictured with US President Reagan, Avital Sharansky, and VP George Bush.

Some 40 years ago, when he and a group of friends were denied permission to emigrate to Israel, they planned to hijack a small airplane and fly it to Sweden. Rabbi Yosef figured that the KGB would stop them, but he was willing to take the chance, hoping it would draw the world’s attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Sure enough, when they headed onto the runway, shots rang out, a comrade fell fatally wounded, and Yosef and the others were whisked off to prison. Their daring action marked the first rip in the Iron Curtain.

Here’s something that Rabbi Yosef wrote that was translated into English by our good friend Moshe Kempinski:

WHEN I WAS 11 years old the Soviet police came looking for "gold" in our house in Latvia. Even though they did not find anything they took my father in for interrogation. On the day of the trial I prayed "Please, free my father".

That was my first prayer. Faith burst forth in a time of distress in spite of my being so distant from Jewish learning. After he was released my father suffered a heart attack and my mother passed away. Essentially we remained as orphans. My disappointment with communism changed me at the age of 14 into a Zionist. I became excited and impassioned with every mention of Israel. When I was studying engineering in the University, I established, along with some of my friends, an underground cell. We wrote printed and distributed Zionist material. We arrived at the synagogues to try to persuade other young people to embrace the ideals of Zionism and I slowly began to truly understand that Israel was my home and would be my place of refuge.

I also understood that if I was to become an engineer I would not be given permission to make aliyah so I stopped my studies and I immediately was drafted into the army. I decided to present myself as being insane in order to get an army deferment. The officer sent me for tests in the Hospital for the Insane. After a week it was decided that I was not stable and they released me. I thereupon returned to my activities and I gave in a request to be allowed to make aliyah to Israel. I was given a rejection slip and was immediately fired from my job. It was then that I learned about a group from Leningrad who were planning an escape to Israel and I decided to join them. Its leader was Mark Dymshitz, a combat pilot who planned on commandeering a plane. We planned to take over a plane at the airport at the Russian border and fly it to Sweden. I packed a knitted kippa, my Tanach, and studied a little about the Jewish festivals, just in case I was arrested for a long time.

Everything seemed to be going well but at our rendezvous spot we realized they had caught on to us. We decided to march on towards the plane anyway, when suddenly we heard a shot and Mark was on the ground laying in his own blood ... in front of his wife and daughters. The dream had disintegrated into splinters.

I accepted it all in silence. A police detective approached me later in the jail and said, "Yosef, what happened to you? You are a Soviet like me. Act nicely and we will help you." Instead of reaching out to that lifeline that they had offered me, I set out to show that in fact I was not like him, a Soviet ... that I was a Jew. I felt that in the heavens loftier demands were being placed upon me. It was then I decided to begin to observe the Shabbat. I demanded the jailer give me a mop and water in order to wash the filthy floor. I washed my t-shirt and wore it in honor of Shabbat. I had been saving some bread for this day and I covered my head with some handkerchief as a kippa.

The investigator became angry with me, "This is not a cultured way to behave."

"This is Jewish culture," I answered.

The investigators and the prosecutor concluded that I was just a fanatic. Yet I proved to them something else ... that I was a free man, even in the prison cell. All this because of the commandments I was observing. I did not consider those commandments an extra burden but rather they became my tools of salvation. If I observe them then I will remain who I am. If I stop then I will fall. As I turned more to G-d I immediately began to see His helping hand appear in every instance of my life.

It was then that they found me praying Shabbat prayers in the dressing rooms rather than working. They threw me into solitary confinement. I was proud that I was being punished for the sake of the Shabbat. After a month I was tried and sentenced to another three years in a more strict prison.

After 11 years in prison I broke. I had lost any joy in life. I had obtained some torah study books and my jailers found them and had confiscated them. I decided to begin a hunger strike until they would be returned. Suddenly, with that decision, I was refilled with joy. I felt like Moses who fasted 40 days before receiving the Torah. The fast taught me to look inward and be cleaved unto the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

After 56 days of the hunger fast the warden said, "Here are your books just stop the hunger strike."

I sensed that because of my struggle my release was imminent. After a month I was transferred to the central KGB prison in Moscow. After two weeks I was informed that I was being expelled from the Soviet Union because "I had damaged my character as a Soviet citizen."

I burst out with a "Baruch Hashem."

"Why are you so happy we are expelling you from your motherland."

"You are expelling me into my motherland," I told them.


That’s just a tiny piece of his story. Amazing, isn’t it, what some Jews are willing to do in order to come to Israel?

Oops – it’s midnight again! Time for Tikun Hatzot. I’ve got to go!