Had a special moment in my home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when my family and I were blessed with a visit by Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, a true Jewish hero, following his presentation at the Russian-American Jewish Experience (RAJE).
I remember standing as a youngster protesting at the Soviet Union embassy yelling “Let My People Go” and among those whose freedom we shouted for was this man, who helped found the modern Zionist underground in the Soviet Union and was sentenced to long years in the Gulag of prisons and labor camps.
My wife, Zhanna immigrated to this country at the age of 16 from Kharkiv, Ukraine where she was a raised as a Jew – in a time one could not practice Judaism. Like countless other Russian Jews, she came to this country as a refugee with her mom and a few suitcases. When we met and started to raise children, we vowed our children would be educated in Jewish day schools (yeshiva) – and to meet a Jewish hero like Mendelevitch is inspiring.
After 11 years in jail, worldwide pressure forced the Kremlin to liberate him – and from Israel he continued to vigorously advocate for the freedom of Russian Jews. Today, as he told me he educates Jews worldwide on yiddishkeit even if it doesn’t involve the story of dissidents (as he joked, people come because he headlines his speeches promising to explain how he tried to hijack a plane… and then he discusses the importance of Judaism.)
The amazingly strong man is amazingly brave, and has such tremendous faith and devotion to the Jewish people. He spoke practically – and with such an impact on real-life issues. On the importance of being there for your children and setting examples in a real way. Of how Jews worldwide need to stand up for Israel.
The man’s message of doing the right thing is one the whole world should hear. He explained how he was never afraid of death or jail – because he believes in a higher power and knew he was doing the right thing. An amazing message in today’s world of instant gratification and convenience.Mendelevitch is truly a hero of the Jewish people and of freedom-loving people all over the world. His spirit and resilience was inspiring even behind the Iron Curtain.
As a longtime follower of Ze’ev Jabotinsky I was never before aware of the impact Jabotinsky followers had upon Mendelevitch’s formative years as he shared.
This man is truly proof that one man can change the world – and he remains committed to making the world a better place. His message is one which anyone concerned with Jewish values should read, share and spread. It’s inspiring and invigorating.
Yosef Mendelevich’s journey to freedom and unbreakable spirit is one for the history books. His autobiography, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival”, should be in all Jewish homes.