26 October 2012
10 Cheshvan 5773
We welcomed a real hero of Jewish history to Gann this week. Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, who served 12 years in a Soviet prison for his Jewish activism, came to tell us his story of courage and resilience.
From the moment he spoke, Rabbi Mendelevich’s passion for Judaism and life and his indomitable spirit were evident and inspiring. He arranged several chairs in our Beit Midrash in the shape of a small square and explained that that was the size of the prison cell in which he spent more than a decade of his life. This alone was powerful, but I also observed something a bit more subtle and not necessarily even intentional. He gave almost his entire talk while standing in the “cell.” The symbolic power of telling his story of faith, resistance, and triumph from standing inside his metaphorical prison cell represented the very faith and optimism that gave him the strength to make it through his experience.
One of the most moving moments occurred after his talk was over, when a group of students gathered around him to ask questions or, perhaps, just to be in his presence. Before he left Gann, Rabbi Mendelevich shared one of the student’s questions with me. “A young woman asked me,” he said, “’You had so few people with you during this experience. How did you fight this fight alone?’ I explained to her that when we believe in something, we have to look forward not backwards. We have to be willing to take a risk, even if we don’t know how it will play out. We have to be willing to go it alone, even when we are the only voice. This is what it means to be a leader, to stay true to our convictions, and this is how one person can make a change in the world.”
I was awed by how naturally these words of inspiration rolled off his tongue, as if the fight he fought was just what he had to do. And I immediately realized how appropriate it was, even magical, that he came to Gann during the week of Parshat Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. What he described is exactly the way our tradition understands Abraham’s courage to blaze a trail of monotheism for the Jewish People and the world. According to the midrash, Abraham believed in the notion of one God despite living in a polytheistic society and, as a child who smashed his father’s idols, Abraham took the risk of staying true to his unpopular faith and convictions. Abraham set off on a journey toward a place that God had not yet shown him and, just as Rabbi Mendelevich described, had the courage to look forward to an uncertain future, not backwards.
As our students grow into the people and the Jews they are becoming, may they, too, discover the difference they want to make in the world and stay true to the courage of their convictions. And may they continue to be inspired by our texts and tradition, by the extraordinary stories of our people, and by role models past and present who have so much to teach us through their words and their lives.
Rabbi Marc Baker