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November 26, 2015 / 14 Kislev, 5776
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Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Pioneering Russian Refusenik

Rabbi Mendelevitch and Avital Sharansky meet then-President Reagan and Vice President Bush.

Rabbi Mendelevitch and Avital Sharansky meet then-President Reagan and Vice President Bush.
Photo Credit: White House archives


YM: What happened the day you were released? Did they just walk in the room and say “gather your stuff and get out of here”?

RYM: They didn’t say anything. One day they just flew me from the prison camp in the Ural Mountains to Moscow. But they wouldn’t explain the reason why all of the sudden they did this. I was incarcerated there for two weeks without any explanations. I finally assumed that this was just another attempt to break me. Then all of a sudden they declared that according to the decision of the parliament they revoked my Soviet citizenship and they’re throwing me out of the country, like a scoundrel. They said I never deserved to be a Soviet citizen, so they told me to just go away.

YM: I’m sure you cried at losing your citizenship!

RYM: Certainly! I cried from excitement that I was finally going to Israel. At that moment I was put in a big black car and taken to the airport to an airplane that was waiting to take me to Israel.

YM: Did your family that was back in Riga come to Israel as well?

RYM: My mother died when I was a child and my father died while I was in prison. My three sisters came to Israel immediately after my arrest as part of the first 17,000 that got permission to leave.

Reflections on Israel

YM: After all you fought for and suffered for the Jewish people what are your thoughts in Israel now that you’ve been here for roughly thirty years?

RYM: Our struggle was to come to Israel and to become a part of Israel, with all the problems and issues. So in that respect I’m happy because I feel we succeeded. Also on a personal level I’ve been able to fulfill my dream of learning in a yeshiva.

The moment I stepped out of the airplane in Lod Airport in Israel an Israeli reporter came up to me and asked, “What do you envision as the future of the State of Israel?” I immediately answered with the biblical verse that Israel is to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So he immediately closed his microphone since he probably thought to himself, “another extremist has arrived!”

Although it’s true that as a people and as a country we’re still very far from that, we hope it will change, as it can change at any moment. I’m very optimistic. Although we’re familiar with the problems and shortcomings, we have to open our eyes and see the positive process in am yisrael and in the State of Israel.

YM: What are the main areas or problems that need to be rectified in order to see your vision realized?

RYM: I think more than anything we’re lacking real national leaders. Of course we have Torah giants but they’re mainly good in teaching or setting rules and laws but not too good in providing real leadership and vision for this complicated reality we live in.

YM: Do you think there’s any chance that within the next twenty years someone who is a leader imbued with real Jewish idealism and vision can become Prime Minister of Israel?

RYM: I’m not sure, for in addition to vision and ideals such a person needs to be real strong so that when he becomes part of the political game he won’t be corrupted. A lot of people started out with high aspirations but the moment they entered this field everything changed.

In order to progress in the political realm you have to cooperate and make compromises, otherwise people will say you’re not realistic. So we need someone who is ready to not be realistic! In order to change the situation here we need a big transformation and for that we need a big dreamer. We need someone that people will look at, at least in the beginning, and say “What is he talking about? He’s not realistic.” This of course is the opposite of someone like Ariel Sharon who once said “Okay, I was an idealist but the moment I got to the top of the stairs I see the difference.” We need someone who will reach the top floor and stay the same. For such a person I’m more than ready to help.

About the Author: Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem. He can be contacted via http://yoelmeltzer.com.

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One Response to “Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Pioneering Russian Refusenik”

  1. Tzvi Fishman says:

    Rabbi Mendelevitch is indeed a true Jewish hero. His book "Unbroken Spirit" should be read by everyone. Especially by our young people who are so desperate for true Jewish heroes of bravery, idealism, and substance. I recommend the book highly.

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