In memory of Joe Mermelstein: A retrospective

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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Joe Mermelstein. Credit: Courtesy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Joe Mermelstein. Credit: Courtesy.
Joseph Frager
Dr. Joseph Frager is a lifelong activist and physician. He is chairman of Israel advocacy for the Rabbinical Alliance of America, chairman of the executive committee of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim and executive vice president of the Israel Heritage Foundation.

It is an honor and a privilege to write about great individuals, especially those who tremendously impacted my own life and politics.

Joe Mermelstein was one such individual. It is not a coincidence that his third yahrzeit 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 was still alive, would be the first to pay for 747 planes 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 Ze’ev Jabotinsky speak. According to his son, Bernie, and his son-in-law, Paul Gross, this speech 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 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 United States for business reasons.

When the Jews of the Soviet Union were fighting to be let out and emigrate to Israel, Joe was right there at the front of the line doing everything he could to help. To this very day, Anatoly (Nathan) 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 The New York Times, pleading for Sharansky’s release. President Ronald Reagan came across the advertisement; 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 more than 25 years. He purchased Beit Mermelstein in the heart of the so-called Muslim Quarter (rightfully called the Old Jewish Quarter) when very few even dreamt 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 food 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 that 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 U.N. Secretary General U. Thant to ask for her father’s freedom. Miracle of miracles, it worked. Eventually, he was freed.

As the Israeli elections gets closer, Netanyahu can tell you how much Joe meant to him. The juxtaposition of Joe Mermelstein’s third yahrzeit and Israeli national elections is providential. Netanyahu knows that in memory to 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.

Dr. Joseph Frager is first vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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