Even rabbis have past lives.
Such former exploits were cause for public discussion last weekend when Rabbi Josef Mendelevich, a Russian dissident who rose to fame for his involvement in the 1970 Dymshits-Kuznetsov aircraft hijacking affair, served as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill.
The rationale for inviting Mendelevich was to spark Zionist fervor, explained Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader for the modern Orthodox synagogue.
“I had heard from colleagues that it has been a really powerful experience for their communities to have Rabbi Mendelevich come,” said Yolkut. “Part of the theology that I try to transmit about Israel is a sense of wonder at the miraculous. The idea that after 2,000 years of exile, the idea that the most improbable ways that these ancient biblical prophecies are taking place — for me that is one of the core, kind of at the core of my Zionist identity.”
Mendelevich’s Pittsburgh visit was just one of many times the septuagenarian has shared his story. Both his autobiography, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2012), and Laura Bialis’ 2007 documentary “Refusenik” narrate Mendelevich’s saga as well as the difficulties faced at large by Soviet Jews seeking emigration during the 1960s and ’70s.
Mendelevich’s Pittsburgh stay afforded not only a chance to recount his past, but to speak of his current work as an instructor at Mechon Meir, a religious Zionist yeshiva located in Jerusalem.
Regarding the former, the cultural milieu in 1970 was such that Soviet Jews were essentially forbidden from obtaining exit visas to Israel, explained Mendelevich.
Given the reality that the former Soviet Union posed no real possibility for legal escape, he and 15 other refuseniks crafted a plan. The group’s tactic was to purchase all of the seats on a 12-seater plane, forcibly remove the Russian pilots from the plane during an intermediate stop on a landing strip near the Finnish border and replace them with other conspirators, fly the craft to Sweden and then ultimately head to Israel. On the morning of June 15, the group arrived at a tarmac near Leningrad, only to be met by members of the KGB who for months had known of the plot.
The group was arrested and put on trial. Mark Dymshits and Eduard Kuznetsov, its leaders, were sentenced to death, while the others received lesser punishments. Mendelevich, then 23 years old, was sentenced to 15 years in the gulag.
On appeal, and after international attention was brought to the ordeal, the sentences were reduced. Dymshits and Kuznetsov were to serve 15 years, while Mendelevich’s time was lowered to 12 years.
I have an aim. I have an educational aim to bring people more emunah, more belief in themselves, that they are able and they have to do what I did.
His treatment during those years in Siberia was “regular, nothing special,” he deadpanned. “It was rather cold.” At points, the temperature would drop to 40 degrees below zero, Celsius. The guards provided “some” blankets, coats and hats, but “not enough to get you warm.”
Prior to prison, Mendelevich had studied English at the university in Riga. Despite his incarceration, he practiced the language by conversing with former Russian diplomats who because of their political views found themselves in similar confines. Mendelevich’s prison stay also came alongside fellow Russian dissident Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky, who upon his own release and immigration to Israel renamed himself Natan Sharansky.
In 1981, after his release, Mendelevich moved to Israel.
Although scores of journalists awaited his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, the state presented little surprise, explained the Russian, English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Latvian speaker.
“More or less I was informed about the spiritual situation and the political situation in Israel,” he explained. “Most of the discoveries were of myself.”
Such realizations came by way of study.
“The day after my release, I went to learn in the yeshiva,” he said.
After six months at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Mendelevich left for Mercaz HaRav. Two years after studying at the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research he received ordination and moved on to teach at Machon Meir, a center for students lacking “formal Jewish education,” where he remains today.
Although this was his first visit to Pittsburgh, Mendelevich has been to
Philadelphia, Cleveland and numerous American cities. While many synagogues and organizations have requested him, Mendelevich, 70, is quick to distinguish himself from other professional speakers.
“Whatever I am telling people in my story is being given from the angle of my religious concepts,” he said. “I use my experience and my past to explain exactly what I told you now.”
He sees himself as someone who not only survived a harrowing experience, but as a person whose mission is to convey a spiritual message.
“I have an aim. I have an educational aim to bring people more emunah, more belief in themselves, that they are able and they have to do what I did,” he said. “Whatever the struggle is on the way, we are fighting for our nation.”
Added the rabbi, “Every Jew can do enormous efforts for his nation and for his state. It’s in everybody’s potential, it depends on his understanding of who he is and what a treasure we got having the State of Israel.” PJC
This article has been updated to clarify that the group attempting to hijack the plane planned to remove the pilots during an intermediate stop.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.