Prisoner of Zion: Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch

Returned To His Roots

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch was a Jew in Soviet Russia who accomplished the seemingly impossible: he practiced his religion despite intense persecution, and inspired those around him – even in prison – with Jewish teachings and practice.

Born in Riga in 1947, Yosef was raised with only scraps of knowledge about the Jewish tradition because the Soviets destroyed all organized religion, holy books, and ritual objects. His family had a Passover seder, but didn’t have Haggadahs, so his father told the story from memory. The harsh conditions and persecution of Jews led Yosef to apply for an exit visa to go to Israel. He didn’t know much about Judaism or Israel. He later said, “I was not being honest with myself. I thought, ‘Yosef, you are struggling to go to Israel, but for what reason? You claim that you would like to go back to your roots, to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, but they were religious. If you know that is the truth, why aren’t you keeping mitzvot (Jewish law)?”

Yosef started becoming religious, and he joined the Jewish underground movement in the 1960’s. He was able to get some prayer books and a Chumash (Five Books of Moses) in a Russian translation. He started a Bible study group and became editor of an underground newsletter on Jewish issues. For his religious activities, Yosef was sent to prison for eleven years. He was brutally beaten for refusing to remove his kippa (yarmulke). Yosef served with famous Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky. The men were kept in solitary confinement and communicated through toilet bowls and radiators.

Separated from his family, Yosef created familial relationships with his fellow prisoners. He became the unofficial rabbi of the group. Every week, he would save bread for Friday night, when he would lay out a white tablecloth to celebrate Shabbat, and share words of Torah. Yosef was punished by receiving less food rations. He later said, “I wouldn’t let it bother me; I wouldn’t let them limit my free will. When they gave me my allotted portion, I would deliberately leave some over – making it my decision how much to eat, not theirs.”

As Yosef languished in a Siberian prison, he became a cause celebre for Jews around the world who were passionately advocating for “refuseniks”. These activist Jews held protests and raised money to smuggle Jewish books into the Soviet Union. Yosef was known as the “Prisoner of Zion.” Finally, in 1981, Yosef was allowed to immigrate to Israel. He became a rabbi and popular public speaker, and wrote a best-selling memoir called Unbroken Spirit. He said, “I wrote my book to show how, with the help of Hashem (God), it is possible for even an assimilated Jewish boy living in Soviet Russia to find his Jewish neshamah (soul). It is my hope that the next generation of Jews will read the book and think, ‘If a simple Jew like Yosef Mendelevitch could do it, I can too.'”

For maintaining his faith in God despite religious persecution, and for inspiring Jews around the world, we honor Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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