Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch
Rabbi Yosef MendelevitchRoman Yanoshevsky, Courtesy of Limmud FSU

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, a former Prisoner of Zion, returned to St. Petersburg for the first time since his release from a Soviet jail in the 1970s to join 400 Jews from across Russia in the 4th Annual Limmud FSU three-day Jewish learning festival over the weekend.

"I spent a lot of time in this city, but only as a prisoner, so I don’t know it at all," Rabbi Mendelevitch said of the city that boasts the second largest Jewish community in Russia, with roughly 100,000 Jewish residents.

The rabbi added "I’m certainly not nostalgic. The Land of Israel is the only place to which I have an emotional attachment."

Rabbi Mendelevitch was thrown into a Soviet prison for being part of the 1970 "Operation Wedding," a Soviet Jewish mission of 16 refuseniks who intended to steal a civilian plane from the Leningrad (Soviet name for St. Petersburg) airport and fly it to Israel.

Members of the group behind the operation - which was meant to protest the crackdown by which Jews were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union or practice Judaism - were accused of treason and handed death sentences, which were commuted to lengthy prison terms due to international outcry.

Rabbi Mendelevitch was given a 15 year sentence that was later reduced to 12 years in a closed camp in the Ural Mountains, of which he actively was incarcerated for 11 years.

For three of those years he was jailed under harsh conditions because he observed the Jewish commandments.

After being freed, Rabbi Mendelevitch was able to get out of Russia and make aliyah (immigration) to Israel. He has written two books on his life, "Operation Wedding" and "Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival" , which was translated into English. 

Sarah Leah Lawent contributed to this report.