A Tale of Two Leaders
In this Board Briefing I should like to report about two important Jewish leaders, Menachem Elon and Yosef Mendelevich, from two different Jewish civilizations whose paths crossed in a very unique, productive fashion.
Prof. Menachem Elon
All of us at the Foundation mourn the passing of Professor Elon this February. Prof. Elon, who served as a Supreme Court Justice in Israel from 1977-1993 also served as a long-time member of the Foundation's Board of Trustees, its Executive Committee as well as our Vice President. In all those capacities, he provided leadership and sage guidance to the Foundation in both our institutional and scholarship and fellowship programs.
I had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Elon for the first time in 1973 in his office at Har Hatsofim where he shared with me his work and plans for the field of Mishpat Ivri. The Foundation subsequently supported Prof. Elon's pioneering work in Mishpat Ivri with institutional grants in 1973, 1979, 1984 and 1985. Mishpat Ivri, for which Prof. Elon was awarded the Israel Prize in 1979, unlike Halakhah, which encompasses the entire religious tradition, focuses on the Jewish legal tradition based on our Scriptures as interpreted in the Talmud and as applied by the rabbinic courts.
For the past forty years, Prof. Elon was the leader of the movement promoting the introduction of Jewish legal elements and Talmudic principles into the legal system of Israel. As Professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University Law School, founder of the Institute for Research in Jewish Law there and at New York University's School of Law, Elon spearheaded study of halakhic texts, responsa literature and Jewish history for that purpose. Moreover, as Deputy President of the Supreme Court of Israel, Justice Elon led the struggle for the application of Jewish legal principles to Israeli law.
The Knesset of the State of Israel has, as a result of Prof. Elon's efforts and that of his students, incorporated the values, decisions and legal traditions of Mishpat Ivri into its legislation in numerous areas, (for example, criminal and copyright law and privacy and workers' rights). Prof. Nahum Rakover, a student of Professor Elon, who has also been awarded the Israel Prize for his work in Mishpat Irvi, has assembled hundreds of decisions taken by Israeli courts based on Mishpat Ivri in his two-volume work, Modern Applications of Israeli Law (1992).
Prof. Elon's contribution to the field of Mishpat Ivri goes far beyond his own research and publication. He is responsible for raising a whole generation of young scholars and lawyers dedicated to the formulation of traditional legal practice and insights in modern terms and to their presentation as relevant to the enrichment of Israeli law and its legal profession — bench and bar.
The Foundation has awarded scholarships and fellowships to a generation of Prof. Elon's students and their students who carry forward his pioneering work in Jewish law. They received a total of 63 doctoral scholarships and fellowships from the Foundation for their work in this field, a remarkable statistic. As a result of these grants to Prof. Elon and his students, both were engaged in the Judaization of the Israeli legal system of the future without religious coercion, but rather through research and education.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was preceded by the rebirth of the Hebrew language. It was followed by the "Ingathering of the Exiles". These three monumental accomplishments, unparalleled in world history, inspired Professor Elon to aspire to a fourth "miracle": nothing less than the renaissance of the indigenous Jewish legal heritage, Mishpat Ivri. The Foundation is exceedingly proud to be associated with, and to support, this effort.
We at the Foundation will sorely miss Prof. Elon, not solely because of his masterful scholarly contributions to Jewish scholarship, but for his intense love of the Jewish people as they are, his profound commitment to the State of Israel, and his humility and essential decency as a human being. That synergy of impressive characteristics is rare in Jewish life.
Prof. Benny Porat, a recipient of an Ephraim Urbach Post Doctoral Fellowship in 2010-11 from the Foundation, has recently been appointed to succeed Prof. Elon as chairperson of the Department of Jewish Law at Hebrew University and Director of its Institute for Research in Jewish Law.
We wish Dr. Porat and his colleagues continuing success in their efforts to expand their work in Mishpat Ivri to law schools in universities outside of Israel, especially in the United States. It is also of vital importance that they continue to enlarge their efforts to explicate the historic significance of this enterprise to the Jewish community in the Diaspora, especially among its communal leadership, who do not yet fully recognize or appreciate its implications for both Israel and Diaspora in preserving and enhancing Judaism's role in Jewish life.
Yosef Mendelevich is known to the Jewish world as one of the prominent Prisoners of Zion from the former Soviet Union. As a member of the Jewish underground in the Soviet Union, he was sentenced to a particularly harsh incarceration in the Soviet Gulag for attempting to hijack a plane to Israel. Yosef''s courage transformed him into an international Jewish hero when he was finally released and allowed to go on Aliya and which helped spark and enlarge the aliya movement from the Soviet Union.
Yosef's heroism, recounted by him in his memoir, "Unbroken Spirit: A Story of Faith, Courage and Survival", published with the help of a grant from the Memorial Foundation, provides a moving first-hand account of his struggle to discover and express his Jewish identity under the oppressive Communist regime. There is remarkable constancy and consistency in all of Mendelevich's efforts, both in the underground, the Gulag and even after his arrival in Israel to express and expand his knowledge and practice of Jewish life.
I first met Yosef Mendelevich after his release from Soviet prison in Israel in 1981. At that time he was offered a four-year scholarship to study mathematics, in which he had special talents, in an Israeli university. He declined that generous offer. He was deeply interested and committed to pursuing his religious education. His teacher, the late Rabbi Uzi Elchayim, an outstanding scholar, who joined him at our meeting, testified to Yosef's brilliance and potential for religious study.
The Foundation subsequently provided him with a number of Community Service scholarships, which we were then offering to Russian emigrants to help build a cadre of educators and communal workers for the Russian Jewish community in Israel and behind the Iron Curtain. Mendelevich made incredible progress in his studies and was subsequently ordained by the Rabbi Harry Fishel Rabbinic Academy.
During his studies and afterwards, Yosef was deeply involved in numerous communal programs aimed at re-connecting Soviet Jews to our culture and religious heritage. They included his establishment of the Soviet Jewry Information Center, heading Touro College's Department for Russian Olim, broadcasting from Israel radio a weekly commentary on the Torah portion for Jews in the Soviet Union, and finally teaching Russian students at the Machon Meir.
At this juncture, Yosef Mendelevich's path crossed with Professor Elon's. Rabbi Mendelevich was requested to edit the first volume of Prof. Elon's magnum opus Hamishpat Haivri in Russian. Prof. Elon told me after the publication of that volume that Mendelevich had achieved incredible mastery in his study of Jewish law, considering that he began his studies as a mature adult.
Yosef, who transformed himself from a member of the underground in Riga to an international Jewish hero, has successfully achieved an even more impressive transformation to a dedicated teacher of Jewish religious texts to Russian immigrants and Russian Jewish converts.
When I met him again this February in Israel, several decades after our first meeting, Yosef now 64, continuously smiled as we recollected his odyssey and aspirations during his years of study.
Unlike some other Russian Prisoners of Zion who could or did not make it in Israel, Yosef before we parted declared enthusiastically to me what he deeply believes — "I am here, living my dream".
Best wishes for a joyous Passover.
Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President