Rabbi Josef Mendelevich

During a birthday party for one of the members, Mendelevich made a toast: "I'm raising a glass for a blessing for the coming victory"

Josef Mendelevich was only 20 years old in 1967 and already a veteran Zionist activist. He founded an organization of Jewish students in his hometown of Riga at a time when Zionist activity in the USSR meant almost certain arrest. The organization members studied Hebrew and Judaism, and Mendelevich was the editor of the organization’s journal. On the eve of the Six Day War, during a birthday party for one of the members, Mendelevich made a toast: “I’m raising a glass for a blessing for the coming victory”. When later asked how he knew that Israel would win the war, he asked if there was anyone who ever doubted that.

When war broke out, Mendelevich and his father were glued to the radio, switching from one station to another, trying to hear a word or two, because the Soviet government jammed the western radio stations.  From the scraps that they heard they managed to piece together the picture that Israel was already triumphing on the first day! When Mendelevich went to work the next day, his Latvian friends were eager to hear the news from him. The people of the nation who happily cooperated with the Nazis during the Second World War, were now thrilled that the Jews were beating both the Soviet weapons and the Soviet advisors.

Victory in the war aroused a new spirit of motivation among the Jews of the Soviet Union. They began to understand that somewhere out there is a Jewish state that they can be proud of, and that wants them to come home.  Mendelevich sat in the little hut rented by his underground group, printing news about the Six Day War, and feeling that every letter he typed was like shooting from the only “weapon” he had. The victory motivated Mendelevich and his friends and they prepared a dangerous plan – to hijack a Soviet airliner and fly it to Israel! The plan failed and Mendelevich was sent to prison in the USSR for more than a decade before he was eventually expelled to Israel. While he was in prison, even during the hardest times, he felt like he was continuing the fight for Israel’s victory, in his own way.

The triumph of the Six Day War, says Mendelevich, was the first step of an overall change in the treatment of the USSR towards its Jewish citizens and to Israel. Only four years after the war, in 1970, the gates were opened and the first wave of Aliya of Soviet Jews began. Mendelevich himself came to Israel in 1981, and continued with his struggles for Aliya for the Jews of the Soviet Union.