Racing thru the pages of R’ Yosef Mendelevich’s autobiography, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival,” Rabbi Heshy Ceitlin kept having the same thought. “Chani,” he said to his wife, “We have got to bring this man to Sea Gate to speak to the community.”
Rebbetzin Chani Ceitlin responded: “I’ll call my mom and dad to see when Chabad of Sea Gate can invite him.”
And so it was.
On November 6, 2017, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich who had flown all the way from Eretz Yisrael to get to the south Brooklyn gated community, found himself facing a packed house of Jews, most of them members of the Knesset Israel Congregation in addition to Chabad of Sea Gate — both run by Rabbis Chaim Brikman and Heshy Ceitlin.
Mendelevich, now a senior citizen with a long white beard and mischievous smile took the audience back to 1970 when he and a crowd of other Soviet “refuseniks” tried to hijack an empty plane and escape the Communist “paradise” by flying over the Iron Curtain and ultimately landing in the ancient Jewish homeland – Israel. The KGB had them in handcuffs before they even stepped onto the plane – arrested for what the government in Mother Russia determined was a treasonous high crime: living the dream, the Torah true dream of being left alone by anti-Semites at least long enough to live a simple observant Jewish life, to raise children likewise, to survive the turmoil, violence, arrogance and extreme illogical competing philosophies marking that era in time as the beginning of the End of Days.
Rabbi Heshy Ceitlin correctly reasoned one of the greatest mitzvot to give Jews today – those destined to witness Moshiach and the end of the End of Days — would be a genuine Jewish hero bringing hope, inspiration, comfort and bitachon (faith). He quietly watched from the sidelines as his father-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Brikman, introduced the time period after World War II when the Jews who survived Hitler were trapped in Russia by the tyrannical Communist government. Because the Lubavitcher rebbes who preceded R’Menachem Mendel Schneerson defied the Kremlin (by running an underground network of yeshivot, synagogues, mikvaot, traveling mohelim, rabbis and teachers), Judaism in Mother Russia remained alive, vibrant, pure, uncompromised, uncorrupted.
The film strip R’Brikman showed was essential to understanding how secular young Jews like Mendelevich felt compelled to risk their own lives and follow Hasidic Torah scholars on a very dangerous road to arrive, someday, in Israel – the biblical Jewish homeland aka the Promised Land. But meanwhile, behind the “Iron Curtain,” the rabbis devised a genius plan for Torah true Judaism to survive – by hiding in plain sight. Imagine a veiled daughter of the King wrapped up in robes, striding through the streets of the USSR bringing the light of a Kingdom yet to come – this was Judaism in that place and time.
As Rabbi Brikman’s filmstrip faded to black, in the hair’s breadth of time between that and the arrival center stage of Rabbi Mendelevich, total silence filled the room. The collective heart of Chabad beat faster. The hidden piano that had belted out Yiddish children’s songs – Oifen Pripetshik and Rozhinkes mit Mandlen – fell quiet.
Suddenly, Rabbi/Author Yosef Mendelevich was standing behind tables piled high with his books, a master storyteller ready to tell the tale about one Jew who stood at the Soviet Gates of Hell and would not back down – and won.
Question: What did he win?
Answer: The right to live a simple observant Jewish life, according to the laws of Moshe and Israel.
Although 47 years have passed since the young Yosef Mendelevich was arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced to over a decade in the barbaric Russian Gulag, finally released and flown to Israel where he served in the IDF, graduated university, became an orthodox rabbi and wrote a book, the man who stood before us – technically in the “senior citizen” category – displayed undiminished vigor, vitality, and vision — meaning the continuing lifelong ability to see and understand things clearly. Having successfully transformed himself, Mendelevich was now successfully transforming others — conveying a kosher vision of the future to younger Jews raised on empty secularism, or in non-Jewish religions of wood and stone, or by repeated exposure to Hollywood’s gallery of fake “heroes” — mostly good-looking young egoists armed with charm, arrogance and whatever passes for wisdom in Hollywood.
Question: How did one Jewish man beat an entire government and its tyrannical “laws” forbidding him to practice his religion – while locked up in its prison? Answers, as listed below, will cause your soul to rejoice:
Made his own yarmulke out of a friend’s pants that were “too long” anyway;
Made a “cut out” in a book of Comrade Brezhnev’s speeches to hide his smuggled in holy Chumash;
Made a Chanukah menorah out of bread drenched in oil with holes poked out;
Worked twice as fast, producing twice as much on weekdays, thereby not violating the Holy Shabbat by “working”;
Davened three times a day without a siddur, by memorizing the Hebrew prayers;
Became a Torah scholar in his own solitary “kollel” by “studying” in the freezing snow outside the filthy prisoner holding pen because they thought he was only on his way to the outhouse;
Upon his release from prison after more than a decade, he was asked what gift he would choose if he could have anything he wanted. He asked for Tefillin. Because the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, R’Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had prophetically known what Mendelevich would be asked as well as what he would answer, the priceless Tefillin were ready to be put in Mendelevich’s hands immediately.
The Chabad of Seagate presentation entitled “Against All Odds” so energized, uplifted and inspired the audience that Rabbi Mendelevich remained on stage long after his presentation, answering all questions, posing for a group photo snapped by Chabad of Coney Island’s R’ Pinny Marozov, watching the crowd file out bubbling over with excitement discussing a true Jewish hero on the way home, oblivious to the freezing cold wind coming off the ocean.
As for Rabbi Heshy Ceitlin who conceived the idea to bring a rabbi from Israel to Sea Gate, Brooklyn to speak to the Jewish community, who “saw” it in his mind before it ever happened, this was a sort of “rerun” that brought a smile to his face and a nod across the room to Rebbetzin Chani as if to say: “Halamti halom!”
If Rabbi Heshy could organize (somehow) a live broadcast of Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich to be viewed all over the world, especially in Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the entire Middle East, one can only wonder what would happen…
Beth Sarafraz is a writer living in Brooklyn whose work has been published in The Jewish Press, The Jewish Voice, Flatbush Jewish Journal, Aish.com, plus assorted mainstream and law enforcement publications.
By: Beth Sarafraz