Written by R’ Avrohom Rainitz
Nothing prepared the Jewish world for the happy news that suddenly appeared on the small screens, announcing the sudden freeing of R’ Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin.
Beis Moshiach tracked the explosion of tremendous joy that united the entire Jewish world around the globe, and offers a fascinating timeline of ten special moments, from the moment of the commutation to the uplifting speech given in 770 at the central Hei Teves farbrengen on Motzaei Shabbos.
Wednesday, eve of 3 Teves, 5778 – New York time: 5:19 pm
Life as usual in the bustling shuls in the religious neighborhoods in the New York and New Jersey areas. The waiting time between Mincha and Maariv on a regular weekday. Many have just finished their workday and are making their way to go daven Maariv. Chanuka is drawing to a close, and it is back to the routine of gloomy winter days and long nights.
With no advance warning, the silence is suddenly disrupted. Beeps and vibrations of incoming WhatsApp messages are heard one after the other. People hurry to check out what can be so urgent, coming from every direction, and everyone is suddenly saying, “What? Can it be true?”
In those first instants, people are still struggling to believe that the news of the release of R’ Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin is actually true. After eight years of appeals from every possible legal angle, after the level of hope was raised time and again, only to be dashed to the hard ground of reality, it is hard to digest the fact that the hoped-for miracle has finally arrived! It turns out that the prayers that were on the lips of thousands of people for the release from prison of “Sholom Mordechai ben Rivka,” have finally borne fruit and been realized.
What made it real was seeing the official press release from the White House, announcing that President Trump had commuted the sentence, and citing the extensive and bipartisan support for review of the case.
It is hard to put into words the outpouring of joy, when it became manifestly clear that the legal travesty which had dragged on for eight long years had finally come to an end, and that R’ Sholom Mordechai had actually been freed. Spontaneous dancing broke out wherever there was a concentration of Jews, in America and around the world. Men, women and children, came in droves to join the dancing crowds that only seemed to grow larger from minute to minute.
The following are ten especially emotional moments, which stand out as snapshots in time in the unfolding of the personal redemption of this long-suffering Chassid.
THE WHITE HOUSE IS CALLING – 1
Wednesday, 2 Teves, 3:30 pm Eastern time, 12:30 pm Pacific time
The lawyer, Chaim Yosef (Gary) Apfel, was sitting in his California office and feeling especially despondent. A few days earlier, he received the ruling in the ninth appeal of the terrible sentence imposed on R’ Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who was sitting already for eight years, and had 19 more years to go. The ninth appeal which was rejected the previous week, was the final possible appeal that anyone could dream up. The legal route had ended with one big zero, and now there was no hope of gaining his freedom through natural means. And then the phone rang. The White House functionary on the other end of the line informed him with great ceremony: The President of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump, moments ago, signed an order of commutation for your client Mr. Rubashkin, and he is free to leave prison and go home.
The voice on the phone added that he could not yet share this information with anyone, not with the family members or other members of the legal team, until the formal press release from the office of the president.
Apfel, who had gotten involved in the case five years ago, putting aside his legal career to pursue the case, and who became, over time, a close personal friend of the defendant, could not contain his emotions and broke out in a dance in his office. After he calmed down somewhat, he took a T’hillim and began to say chapters of praise and thanksgiving to the One Above for the great miracle.
THE NEWS AND THE RELEASE – 2
Wednesday, 2 Teves, 4:20 pm
Sitting in his cell, feeling lonelier than ever, R’ Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was eating a meal to commemorate the final moments of Chanuka. Suddenly, one of the guards entered the cell and ordered him to step out and come with him. R’ Sholom Mordechai tried to do a quick mental review of the last few days, trying to think of what he might have done to get into trouble. Making an on the spot decision, he grabbed his tallis and tefillin, so that if they put him into solitary confinement, he could daven properly.
The silent walk through the long hallways of the prison was incredibly tense. Then they entered the warden’s office, where he was received warmly, almost joyfully. Something odd was clearly happening.
The warden invited him to take a seat and then informed him: President Trump has just decided to release you, and you are free to go!!!
R’ Sholom Mordechai was overwhelmed with joy. The first call he made was to his wife, informing her of the good news. It didn’t take very long for the news to spread like wildfire across the globe.
THE MESSAGE OF ALEPH-BEIS-GIMMEL – 3
R’ Sholom Mordechai’s wife, Mrs. Leah Rubashkin, who spent the last years believing, hoping for, and anticipating, the moment of redemption, always kept her husband’s Chassidic garb in her car, so that when the time came he could change from his prison issued uniform and go free. Now the moment arrived.
The news having spread like wildfire, by the time the couple left the prison, there were dozens of excited Jews waiting at the nearby gas station. R’ Sholom Mordechai happily exited the car and joined the spirited dancing. His son, R’ Getzel, paused the dancing to say a few words, “Rabbosai, this is an open miracle of Hashem, of the Rebbe, in the merit of our prayers!”
As a Chassid who is trained, as the Rebbe taught us, to connect everything to the Geula, he added, “A few hours ago, I was sitting in my office, and in one second I got the message and flew to the car. I didn’t have time to change my clothes, my pants, nothing. Moshiach will come the same way. One minute we will be in the office, and the next second ‘on the wings of eagles,’ with no time to change clothes, to put on a fresh pair of pants… So we need to make sure that we have the proper clothes, meaning Torah and mitzvos… It’s true that we say all the time that he is coming, but the moment that he arrives, we will be shocked. We need to learn Torah, do mitzvos, and serve Hashem, so that we will be ready for Moshiach!”
R’ Sholom Mordechai himself spoke and reiterated this short and powerful message, “L’chaim, l’chaim! Our secret is contained in the letters, aleph, beis, gimmel. When we have Emuna (aleph) and Bitachon (beis), that is when the Geula (gimmel) comes! I merited to have faith and rely on Hashem the entire time, and it is in that merit that the Geula came!”
He also recorded a message for those celebrating in the Holy Land, reiterating the theme aleph-beis-gimmel. He also emphasized that the redemption was in a way of “He redeemed my soul in peace,” in the merit of the prayers of the public, as after all the legal fights were unsuccessful, a presidential order came and redeemed him in peace, with no battle at all.
UNPARALLELED JOY – 4
Wednesday night, 3 Teves, 5:35 pm
In every country and community, wherever the news reached, Jews began to celebrate, with many Chassidim of all stripes going out to the streets to dance.
Streaming video of the intense dancing in 770 began to circulate on all the social networks, and thousands left their homes, offices, and other activities, to join the dancing in 770. People could be seen walking in the streets with big smiles on their faces, wishing each other “mazel tov,” and even hugging and kissing.
The bachurim quickly moved out the benches from 770, in order to make room for all those coming to dance, just like on Simchas Torah. The cleared-up space was quickly filled with hundreds more Chassidim, who kept streaming towards 770.
Looking around, one could see the amazing cross-section of people, including some who as a result of the darkness of the exile have not stepped foot in 770 in years. At this time, everybody felt that this is the most suitable place to give thanks to Hashem for the great miracles and wonders. Throughout the night, there were hundreds of people from other streams of Judaism who made their way to 770, from those who identify as Litvish to Satmar Chassidim. Thanks to R’ Sholom Mordechai, the Chassidic spark was awakened in many Jews who kept on coming.
After a brief interlude for Maariv, which was said with a Yom Tov tune, the rumor began to circulate that R’ Sholom Mordechai would be coming to 770, and hundreds went outside to dance on the island outside 770. A Chassid with initiative, attached some loudspeakers to his car with joyful music, and many followed him for a parade through the neighborhood.
In a number of Chassidic courts, the good news arrived during the tish held in honor of “Zos Chanuka.” When the news came, these gatherings turned into celebrations of joy, with the Admorim dancing with their Chassidim in thanksgiving to Hashem.
Pictures and video clips began to circulate of Jews in Boro Park blocking a main artery with dancing in the streets. Crowds gathered outside the store and offices of R’ Avrohom Aharon Rubashkin, the happy father. One clip shows him dancing in his office with a few close family members and associates, but after a few minutes, he came down to the street to join the crowds.
The joy and celebration reached Kfar Chabad, where there was dancing in shul, and one fellow went around the community announcing and singing “Didan Natzach.”
In the Marina Roscha synagogue in Moscow, the news arrived in the early morning hours, and the many congregants and the students of the school could be seen dancing. The famous refusenik, Natan Sharansky, in Moscow at the time, also came and spoke about his personal salvation from prison 35 years ago.
Video clips showed the celebrations extending all around the world, from Toronto to Lakewood, to the shul founded by R’ Sholom Mordechai in Postville, and even the lone dance of his cousin, Mendel Duchman, who got the news while on a commercial airline flight, and broke out in dance in the skies.
RETURNING HOME TO HIS PARENTS – 5
Wednesday, 3 Teves, 6:12 pm
Of all the moving and intensely joyous moments that were crammed into such a short time, the moments that stand out are the encounters between R’ Sholom Mordechai and his parents and family members. His nonagenarian father got the news in his office, and after he calmed down somewhat he received an emotional phone call from his newly freed son.
During the conversation, the father reminded his son that he would always tell him that instead of us going to visit you (in prison), you will come visit us, and how with Hashem’s help that is what is happening.
Much later, when R’ Sholom Mordechai arrived at his parents’ home in Boro Park, the joy was impossible to describe. Those present broke out into song, “Chasdei Hashem ki lo samnu,” as he proclaimed, “Mama, see I am here!” as he bent over to kiss his mother. What made the reunion that much more moving to those present, as well as those who viewed clips of the event, was the feeling expressed by many as, “Who would have believed that these ninety-year-old parents would ever see their son again as a free man?”
ROAD TRIP OF REDEMPTION – MONSEY, BORO PARK, 770 – 6
The first stop after leaving prison was at the family home in Monsey, where thousands were awaiting his arrival, filling the entire street. Standing on the steps of the home he had never been in, he thanked everyone for their support and said that this is a simcha of all Jews, and as such it is the time to ask Hashem for the simcha of the final Geula.
He recounted that “before I entered prison, someone brought me a copy of the Shaar HaBitachon from the Chovos HaLevavos. I learned from it regularly, and boruch Hashem it strengthened my bitachon. By divine providence, this morning I took the seifer and put it inside my tallis bag, so that when I left only with my tallis and tefillin, two sefarim came out with me – the Chitas obviously, and the Shaar HaBitachon.”
The family left Monsey on a special bus provided as a courtesy by Monsey Tours to go to his parents in their Boro Park home. Word spread quickly, and the street out front filled up with thousands who came streaming to share in the simcha of the family. When the bus arrived, R’ Sholom Mordechai had difficulty getting off the bus and making his way through the crowd as many wanted to shake his hand and wish him well. When he got to the porch of his parents’ home, he shared some inspiring words with the crowd about the power of prayer and the great miracle that took place, when there was no way out through natural means.
COMING HOME TO 770 – 7
Seven hours had already passed since the news first broke, and the dancing in 770 kept on going and even growing. Thousands of Lubavitchers, alongside hundreds of members of other groups, crowded 770. Even the ladies’ section was completely packed.
At about 1 am, the bus arrived in front of 770 with R’ Sholom Mordechai and his entire family. With difficulty, he pushed his way through the crowds to the reader’s lectern in front of 770, as he wanted to daven his first Maariv as a free man in 770. At the conclusion of the davening, which was conducted with a celebratory holiday tune, R’ Sholom Mordechai stood and made the blessing of “He who frees the incarcerated,” and the entire crowd answered an enthusiastic amen.
Speaking briefly, he announced in a voice choked with emotion and joy, “Sholom Mordechai came home.” He continued with citing the verse, “I have been made small with all the kindnesses,” and describing how his transition from prisoner to free man was in an instant, similar to the way it was with Yosef, “One minute, I was sitting in a cell, and a second later they opened the doors and said to go home!”
One of the Chassidim pointed out that when Yosef HaTzaddik was released from his incarceration, he did not have anyone to say l’chaim with, since the only people around were Pharaoh and his servants, whereas R’ Sholom Mordechai, who felt all along how Jews of all walks of life shared in his pain, now is able to feel upon his release the shared joy of the entire Jewish nation.
R’ Yossi Cohen provided the musical accompaniment for R’ Sholom Mordechai to sing “Pada B’shalom,” and thousands of Chassidim joined in. The dancing continued until the wee hours of the morning.
MAKING THE HAGOMEL BLESSING – 8
Thursday, 3 Teves, 10 am
Crowds of people began streaming towards 770 for the Shacharis minyan with the Rebbe at 10 am, in order to be present for the special moment when R’ Sholom Mordechai would recite the HaGomel blessing at the Torah reading.
The children from Ohr Menachem were brought to join the services, and those who met R’ Sholom Mordechai before the davening, wished him heartfelt wishes of mazel tov. For the Torah reading, children from the other schools in the community also arrived, so that when he was called up to the Torah there were thousands of Chassidim present who answered with a rousing amen to the bracha of HaGomel.
THANKING THE PRESIDENT – 9
On Friday afternoon, a contingent of Jews from the Palm Beach community gathered at the point where the motorcade of President Donald Trump would be passing on his way to his holiday vacation. As he passed, they called out and waved signs expressing gratitude and appreciation. Clips that were later posted online, showed the President waving and smiling to the people.
THE THANKSGIVING TALK IN 770 – 10
Motzaei Shabbos, Hei Teves farbrengen, 770
In the days following his release, R’ Sholom Mordechai did a round of visits to the courts of those Admorim who had been supportive and partners in his difficult times, and now felt like real partners in the great celebration. Wherever he went, he was given a royal reception and used the opportunity to emphasize the Rebbe’s message of Geula, using his personal experience as a tangible example of redemption seemingly against all odds.
As a born and bred Lubavitcher, he is quite removed from all of the trappings of honor that were shown and continue to be shown to him, and he expressed his true feelings at the central Hei Teves farbrengen in 770, when he opened his words with the quote of the Mitteler Rebbe, said to a Chassid who was concerned that his reviewing of Chassidus in public might cause him to experience hubris, “An onion should become of you, but Chassidus you should review.”
Although he arrived at the farbrengen after 1 am, the place was still filled with thousands of Chassidim. In trying to express his intense feelings he said, “It is impossible to describe the great miracle that occurred with me. On Motzaei Shabbos, exactly one week ago, I was sitting alone in a cell, and now I am here in 770 together with thousands of brother Chassidim! Hodu l’Hashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo!”
In the days following his release, many different and sometimes bizarre stories made the rounds on the net, about the dreams and visions experienced by R’ Sholom Mordechai prior to his being freed. We talked to his family members who clarified that like many other Chassidim, he did merit over the years to have dreams of the Rebbe, but the stories that are out there are all fabricated.
However, they did share a dream that he had this past Yud-Tes Kislev, two weeks before he was freed:
In his dream, R’ Sholom Mordechai was standing on line in 770 in order to receive “kos shel bracha.” He was standing in the rear of 770, dressed in his prison clothes, with an improvised suit jacket made from prison clothing material, and without a hat. When he arrived in front of the Rebbe, the Rebbe asked him, “Where is your kapote?” To which he answered that he had jut left the prison and did not have time to put on his sirtuk, and the Rebbe responded with a broad smile.