It is an honor and a privilege to write about great individuals, especially those who’ve tremendously impacted my own life and politics. Joe Mermelstein was one such individual. It is not a coincidence that his third yahrtzeit takes place on the very same day that his friend, his colleague, and his prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is up for re-election on April 9. Joe, if he were still alive, would be the first to pay for 747s to fly Israeli citizens living in America to Israel to make sure to vote in the election (of course, he would not tell them who to vote for, but they would know). He was a man of action. He was not a talker. He was a doer. He made me president of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, and for that I am forever grateful. His life spanned most of the 20th century and was devoted to the Jewish people, his family, and his business. His story is truly an impressive history lesson.
It all began in Vienna when he was only 8 years old and had a chance to hear Jabotinsky speak. According to his son, Bernie, and his son-in-law, Paul Gross, this speech by Jabotinsky was so powerful that it literally transformed Joe Mermelstein’s whole life. It had made an indelible impression upon him. Those who listened to Jabotinsky left Europe and as a result survived the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the majority did not. Jabotinsky’s famous words were “eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you.” Joe Mermelstein was part of a small group that helped bring Jabotinsky’s bones from the United States to Israel for burial in his beloved homeland.
At age 15 he was protesting at the British Consulate to get the British to once and for all leave Israel.
In 1967 he moved his whole family to Israel, and only came back to the USA for business reasons.
When the Jews of the Soviet Union were fighting to be let out and emigrate to Israel, Joe Mermelstein was right there at the front of the line doing everything he could to help. To this very day, Anatoly Sharansky credits Joe Mermelstein with his freedom.
How this was accomplished is an amazing story within a story. Joe took out full-page ads in the International Tribune and New York Times pleading for Sharansky’s release. President Reagan came across the ads. They caught his eye and his interest. President Reagan began negotiations immediately with the Russians, which ultimately led to his freedom.
It is truly awesome how one man could accomplish so much in his lifetime. It is such a valuable lesson to us all mere mortals.
His greatest passion of all was Jerusalem. He was the chairman of the board of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim for well over 25 years. He did it all. He purchased Beit Mermelstein in the heart of the so-called Muslim Quarter (rightfully called the Old Jewish Quarter) when very few even dreamed of doing so. The house today stands as a testimony to his extraordinary devotion to the Holy City.
Joe’s house in Lawrence was a way station for every friend of Jerusalem and Israel. I can remember hundreds of meetings and events held at Joe and Helen’s home. They always provided the finest delicacies. Everyone walked away happy. He was an inspiration to so many on behalf of world Jewry and Israel. He was loved and respected by all.
One story highlights the unique and terrific man he was. Joe saw an obscure small article in the Jerusalem Post of an Israeli soldier taken prisoner in Syria. His wife and daughter were begging for help. Only one man really took it to heart, and that man was Joe Mermelstein. Joe personally took the daughter to New York from Israel so she could plead with then UN Secretary General U. Thant to ask for her father’s freedom. Miracle of miracles, it worked. Eventually he was freed.
As the Israeli election gets closer, Prime Minister Netanyahu can tell you how much Joe Mermelstein meant to him. The juxtaposition of Joe Mermelstein’s third yahrtzeit and the Israeli elections is providential. Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that in memory of his good friend and confidante Joe Mermelstein, he will be victorious.
Joe was successful at everything he did. There is no way he will let his man down. Joe, we love you and truly miss you. Those who knew you are supremely blessed. Am Yisrael chai.
Joseph M. Frager is a physician and lifelong activist.