Decades before many in his audience at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School were even born, Yosef Mendelevich helped stage an aborted hijacking that electrified the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
Now 66, Mendelevich spoke to 100 students May 20 at the Livingston school, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, not only as a human rights pioneer, but as the embodiment of what the students study as Jewish history.
The former Prisoner of Zion spoke of his 11 years in Soviet prisons, the 1970 plot to pilot a hijacked Russian plane to Sweden, and the punishments he and other refuseniks endured for asserting their right to practice Judaism.
Mendelevich, who lives in Israel, visited the Orthodox day school as part of a week-long tour in New York and New Jersey in support of translation into English of his 2012 memoir, Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival.
“I started as an atheist, simply a Russian guy. There was no expectation of freedom,” Mendelevich said of his youth in Riga, Latvia.
Swept up as a teen in a wave of grassroots activism led by the city’s young Jews, Mendelevich became a passionate Zionist. He was in his early 20s when he and 11 other Jews were captured by the KBG for their role in the hijacking plot, and placed in a Ural Mountains prison.
“It was part of the struggle to remain Jewish,” he said of his incarceration and interrogation. “But it was not enough for me just to say, ‘I am Jewish.’ I had to do something.”
He began putting together “small pieces of knowledge of how a Jew would behave in a situation like mine.”
He made friends with a fellow Jew he called “Shimon,” a man “who was even more ignorant than me. I told him we have to try to keep Shabbos and eat kosher food and cover our heads with a yarmulke. Shimon told me, ‘Nothing like that is possible. We are slaves. If we refuse to work on the Sabbath we will be punished.’”
Nonetheless, Mendelevich and his friend contrived ways to subvert the camp’s strict rules to practice Judaism in secret.
“I cut pieces from my pants to make him and myself kipot,” he said.
“But when I told an officer, ‘Every Jew is required to cover his head,’ he told me, ‘I understand you are religious. You can be religious inside. But outside, having a kipa is a religious demonstration. It is forbidden.’”
His disobedience came with a heavy price when his father arrived at the prison for the one visit a year he was allowed.
“When I went to see my father I was stopped by an officer who said, ‘You are covering your head. If you do not remove your kipa we will cancel your meeting with your father.’ I refused, and it was canceled.
“Maybe it is not the biggest mitzva to have the kipa on my head,” he told the students. “But when our enemies believe it is important for you, like a religious concept, you have to die for that, even if it is a small thing. If you are weak, if you retreat, they will crush you altogether. So I had to be strong.
“But I felt very bad about that. My father passed away and I never saw him again.”
Was it worth the price of defying the officer?
“I felt I was struggling for my nation, and when you are a soldier, you are not permitted to think about your family,” he told NJ Jewish News in an interview following his speech.
To avoid eating non-kosher food, the two men began eating herbs and plants from a forest attached to the camp. They bribed guards to smuggle in a Bible and a prayer book.
He copied the forbidden texts onto small pieces of paper and stashed them away in matchboxes, all the while retaining the words “in my heart and my head” for the times when he was placed in punishment rooms without any possessions.
With tacit approval from a guard, the two men arranged to observe Shabbat clandestinely behind prison walls. One day the head of the prison confronted him, saying, “Mendelevich, why are you not working?”
“I told him, ‘We Jews do not work on Sabbath.’ He got very angry.”
Mendelevich was transferred to a more restrictive prison where there were no work details. Guards told him, “There is no work for you. This prison is for very dangerous criminals. You do not leave your cells. You stay like dangerous animals.”
His reaction: “I was very proud. I was given a privilege for the Shabbos, so I enjoyed it.”
He was released in 1981 and immediately deported to Israel.
“They just put me in a car, brought me to the airport, bought me a ticket, and put me on the way to Israel. There was another life there. The day after my arrival I started studying in a yeshiva,” he told NJJN after his address.
Mendelevich lives in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish philosophy. He has seven children and 10 grandchildren.
After his talk, Mendelevich talked to NJJN about the 1970 aborted hijacking.
“We wanted to bring freedom to Soviet Jewry and to other people,” he said. Their plan was to hijack a Russian plane, aided by a Jewish pilot who was willing to fly it to Sweden. There, they planned to hold a press conference and, they hoped, attract world attention.
Although they were armed, their intention was “not to harm anyone,” he said. “We figured to return the airplane and even pay for gas, and we figured we may be in a Swedish prison for a time before going to Israel. But it turned out that the KGB found out and decided to arrest us on the spot before we got on the plane.”
As he tours the United States promoting his book, Mendelevich said he views the assimilation of many American Jews into mainstream society as “a real danger.”
“In my time, American Jewry tried to save Russian Jewry,” he said. “Now we try to save American Jewry.”