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December 26, 2014     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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December 26, 2014

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PAGE 14A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 26, 2014 a 4 Members of the Lugansk Jewish community standing ark, Dec. 11, 2014. Cnaan Liphshiz in front of their synagogue's Torah By Cnaan Liphshiz two hours," says Igor Leoni- dovich, the synagogue's gab- L U G A N S K, U k r a i n e bai, or caretaker. "We pray for (JTA)--In an unheated syna- peace. In this cold, two hours goguewith no running water, is enough." adozenJewsaretryingtokeep Half of Lugansk's popula- warm as temperatures here tion of 425,000 has fled since veer toward the single digits. July, when the fighting that Not moving too much claimed some 4,500 lives helps keep the warmth under erupted in the Donbass region their thick coats, they say, a of eastern Ukraine. technique developed as the Amongthosewhofledwere group gathered at least once two-thirds of the city's nurses a week to maintain a sense and doctors, according to the of community in a city torn World Health Organization, 'by ongoing conflict between rendering medical services pro-Russian rebels and the almost nonexistent. Ukrainian army. Earlier this month, a psy- "We usually stay for about chiatric institution in the Lugansk suburb of Slavya- noserbsk reported that 50 of its patients died from cold and exhaustion. Like many parts of Luganskand the surround- ing area, the hospital had no electricity, heat or water. About 2,000 Jews remain-- a fifth of the Lugansk prewar community--but even that determined group is strug- gling now that the winter cold has arrived. "We stay because it's our birthplace, our land," says Leonidovich, who draws encouragement from the fact that fighting in Lu- gansk proper has largely died down in recent weeks after Lugansk is not particularly small house that the Sosnovas a truce went into effect in dangerous because the rebels share with three cats and a September."We don'twant to who controlthe city generally puppyleftbehindbyneighbors. leave, butit'sgettingharderto do not display anti-Semitic The explosion weakened an stay because of winter." attitudes, Leonidovich says. externalwallandthehousehas Near the synagogue, a few Asked whether Lugansk beenslowlycollapsing, develop- elderly people rummage for was in any way extra danger- ing cracks and shifting. Some blankets in heaps of uncol- ous for Jews, a rebel officer doors can't be closed. lected garbage on a street who identified himself only "I hope it won't collapse on scarred by mortar cratersand as Vladimir tells JTA, "There us," Sosnova says. littered with the carcasses of is no racism here. If a per- Across the city, manybuild- abandoned pets. In the dis- son, Jewish or Christian, is ings carry similar scars from tance, explosionscanbeheard law abiding, they will not be the shelling that brought life echoing from the suburbs, harmed." here to a halt this summer. As they face these hard- Evenwithoutbeingspecifi- The situation is evenworse in ships, Lugansk Jews have callytargeted, the dangers in the outskirts, wherevastsun- received assistance from Lugansk are evident. In July, flower fields that should have international Jewish groups, the Jewish community lost been harvested in the fall are includingfoodfromtheAmer- two of its members, Svetlana withering in the snow along icanJewishJointDistribution and Anna Sitnikov, in the roads dotted with burned- Committee, or JDC, and the fighting. The mother and out tanksthat lead to shelled International Fellowship of daughter died instantly when ghost towns. Christians and Jews, or IFCJ. a mortar round exploded out- Before the fighting, the Belt The distribution of the pack- side a grocery where they had MenachemJewishschool here ages has been coordinated in gone to fetch food for Anna's had more than 150 students. part by the Lugansk Chabad 5-year-old son. But they never returned to emissaryin exile, Rabbi Sha- Likemanyseptuagenarians school after the summer lom Gopin, who is in Israel. here, Ernst Kuperman, one vacation and now are scat- Earlier this month, some of the synagogue regulars, teredacrossRussia, Israeland 300 people gathered at the has not been able to collect Ukraine, according to Sergei synagogue to receive food his pension for months. He Kreidun, the principal. packages from the IFCJ, the getsbythankstoJDC'sHesed Although the school is second such distribution in program; which provides the empty, Kreidun still arrives recent weeks. The donation needy with food and medical dailytodeterlooters.Heshows of a generator last month services, offthespaciouscampus,which provided the synagogue with Others, like Anna Sosnova, hasasmall Holocaust museum lights for the first time since who was wounded over the and kosher kitchen, withamix the power went out in August. summer by an explosion near of pride and melancholy. Pride During Chanukah, the herhome, would have left but for what he has helped build community lit candles in the stayed because of family obli- over the past 15 years with synagogue during the day be- gations. Sosnova's house has funding from the Ohr Avner cause of a rebel-imposed cur- electricity, but she still had to Foundation, melancholy over few that restricts movement get a generator to administer what became of the school. after dark. Traveling at night drugs to her mother, abedrid- "As you can see, we're ready also increases the chance of dendiabeticwithonlyoneleg, for the kids here," he says, fallingpreytotherobbersand "There is noway currently gesturing toward a locker looters who have emptied the to safely get her out," Sosnova containinga former student's city's supermarkets and car says. booksandhairbrush."Nowall rental agencies. During the fighting, a mor- we need is the peace that will Being openly Jewish in tar round exploded near the bring them back." By Cnaan Liphshiz Mendelevitch spent the next 11 years in prisons and ST. PETERSBURG, Russia a gulag, where he endured (JTA)--Through the backseat cruel treatment and constant window of a black KGB car, harassment for being Jewish. Yosef Mendelevitch could see He was denied a last visit by university students his age his ailing father as punish- hurrying to take their finals, ment for wearing a yarmulke It was June 15, 1970, and and force-fed after a 56-day the 23-year-old Mendelev- hunger strike he undertook itch had just been arrested toprotestthedenialofkosher along with 11 accomplices food and the right to pray. for trying to hijack a plane "I remember thinking to to escape the Soviet Union. myself, they're going about On the tarmac of an airport their daily lives, while my own outside St. Petersburg--then lifewas ruined,"Mendelevitch Leningrad--officers from the said Sunday during his first Soviets'secretpolicedetained visit to the city since his re- the conspirators before they lease in 1981. couldboardthesingle-engine But his life was far from plane they planned to fly to ruined. Israel. Now a rabbi and father of 416972358 837145629 529863714 265798431 391524867 748631295 982317546 153486972 674259183 seven living in Jerusalem, Mendelevitch received a hero's welcome last week from local Jews who flocked to hear him recall the hijacking attempt that many regard as the opening shot in the massive international campaign to free Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Speaking at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning con- ference here, Mendelevitch needed two sessions--each packed with some 100 listen- ers--to convey the details and aftermath of the daring attempt known as Operation Wedding. But Mendelevitch had an- other objective in returning to a place he says "brings back no good memories." He wants to encourage participants to make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel. "This city has 100,000 Jews, but only 350 came to Limmud FSU," Mendelevitch told JTA. "Most of them became lost to our people through the ac- tions of the system that tried to tear away my identity. I tell them my story. They can draw their own conclusions." Mendelevitchwas one of the leaders of the hijacking team that grew out of Zionist activ- ists who were running un- derground Hebrew-language night schools in Leningrad and Riga, the capital of Lat- via, then under Soviet con- trol. Mendelevitch was born in Riga and was in charge of the cell's Latvian contingent. The group was led by Mark Dymshits, a former Soviet Army pilot who was sentenced to death along with Eduard Kuznetsov, a repeat anti- communism offender. The sentence was commuted, but it sparked international outrage that focused un- precedented attention on the Soviet Union's so-called Prisoners of Zion. Surprisingly, the group knew full well they would be arrested, Mendelevitch revealed. "On the night before the hijacking, our team camped in the woods near the airport," he recalled. "Two government black Volga cars pulled up next to our bonfire in the middle of nowhere and KGB officers started sniffing around before disappearing. We knew they were watching our every move." The group decided to go ahead anyway, "even if only so the world will hear our cry," he said. Among the millions who heard the cry was a young Jewish engineer from Donetsk named Natan Sharansky, the former refusenikwhose incar- ceration in 1977 for Zionist activism became a symbol for human rights activists who rallied across the world for his freedom. Sharansky was released in 1986. "We had no CNN, no Inter- net. Nobody knew anything," Sharansky told JTA. "And though the Soviet regime Cnaan Liphshiz Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport, Nov. 30, 2014. twisted [the incident] in its propaganda, their action pierced a wall of silence, having a huge impact on the movement to free the Prison- ers of Zion." The death sentences at the Leningrad Trials--the name given by the Russian media to the kangaroo courts that punished Mendelevitch and his team--"no doubt played a major role in my decision to begin my activism," Sharan- sky said. "And the realization that there were people willing to die for freedom--not only did it galvanize protests in the West, but it became the first rally point." For Mendelevitch, this "propaganda success," as he calls it, came at a heavy personal price. While serving time in the gulag, he was put in soli- tary confinement for refusing to remove a kipah that he had made by cutting out the hem of his prison uniform. Mende- levitch was ordered to remove the cloth while waiting to see his ailing father, who had trav- eled hundreds of miles to see his son one last time. "I knew itwas the last time," Mendelevitch said. "But I was a soldier and representative for the Jewish people. It sounds harsh, but a dying father is not a factor. Plus, any weakness would've invited my captors to crush me--a sign that I, who had worked hard to be branded a religious fanatic immune to Soviet logic, may finally be cracking." In 1981, a KGB judicial panel informed Mendelevitch that he was no longer a Rus- sian citizen. Shortly afterward he was deported in what he described as "one of the hap- piest moments of my life." Yet Mendelevitch says he does not bear his captors any particular grudge. "Some of them took im- moral actions, yes, but ulti- mately they were the servants of a regime that I vowed to fight," he said. "I fell captive, as fighters often do. But un- like them, I was not a victim of the Soviet regime. I was a combatant."