Bernard H. Mehlman

b. 1937

Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, Temple Israel of Boston’s senior scholar,  served as senior rabbi at the synagogue from 1978-1999. Mehlman went on several missions to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s with Temple Israel clergy, congregants and rabbinic colleagues from New England. Mehlman helped facilitate the departure of high profile émigrés from the USSR and was also active in the resettlement of Soviet Jewry in the Boston area. He helped facilitate the emigration of several high-profile refuseniks, including Ben Charny, father of activist and mathematician Anna Charny. 

Scope and Content Note

Rabbi Mehlman discusses the large quantity of Judaica he and he is Temple Israel of Boston rabbinic colleague Ronne Friedman brought on their first mission to the USSR in 1986.  He tells the story of waiting for Rabbi Ronne Friedman to clear customs at the Moscow airport during their first mission trip to the USSR in 1986. Mehlman and Friedman entered the USSR with heart valves meant for a Jewish woman who needed heart surgery. Both rabbis took a heart valve into the Soviet Union. Mehlman cleared customs without a problem, while Friedman was thoroughly questioned by Soviet authorities and was ultimately not allowed to take the heart valve he brought.  Rabbi Mehlman describes what it was like to stay at a bugged hotel in the USSR in 1986.  He recounts how he and Rabbi Friedman decided they needed to deliver the remaining heart valve as quickly as possible. Mehlman talks about delivering the heart valve to the husband of the woman who the heart valve was meant for. Following their trip to the USSR, there was a whirlwind mission trip to Riga in 1987. When Mehlman and his traveling partners landed in Riga, Soviet officials told them they would not be allowed to stay as long as they had originally planned.  He recounts how he reached out to oil executive Armand Hammer’s personal attorney, a former congregant of Mehlman’s, to help arrange for the evacuation of refusenik Ben Charny from the USSR to the United States in 1988.  Rabbi Mehlman describes how Temple Israel of Boston sold postcards with the pictures of Soviet emigres on them to raise money for the families of Temple Israel of Boston that had settled in the Boston area.  Rabbi Mehlman discusses how Temple Israel of Boston had Soviet emigres already established in the Boston area teach newly arrived emigres about American cultural practices such as personal hygiene. He talks about the English language classes, career prep workshops, and adult Jewish education courses Temple Israel of Boston organized to help newly arrived Soviet emigres. Finally, Rabbi Mehlman describes how Temple Israel of Boston paired Soviet emigre families with Temple Israel families and the patterns of emigre involvement at the temple. 

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How to cite this page

Oral History of Bernard H. Mehlman. Interviewed by Tamar Shachaf Schneider. 1 November 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 26, 2024) <http://jwa.org/oralhistories/mehlman-bernard>.

Oral History of Bernard H. Mehlman by the Jewish Women's Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://jwa.org/contact/OralHistory.