Breathtaking tales of Modern-Day Pidyon Shvuyim




    Keren Anash top banner

    Breathtaking tales of Modern-Day Pidyon Shvuyim

    In the 18th century, The Ba’al Shem Tov would go around raising money to redeem impoverished “Moshke’s” from their Poretz’s dungeons. In the 21st century, Kfar Chabad Attorney Mordechai Tzivin’s travels span the globe to rescue Jewish brothers who ended up in prisons for real or false crimes! • By Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Mendy Dickstein, Beis Moshiach

    The average reader who hears the term “pidyon shvuyim” might immediately conjure up the Alter Rebbe or the Shpole Zeide or Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, and other Chassidic greats who did so much to redeem Jews from their captors, usually feudal lords who wanted their money. It is harder to describe a Chassid in a finely tailored suit and tie, well spoken, who in the course of his professional work exerts himself and runs hither and yon for the mitzva of pidyon shvuyim.

    Allow me to introduce to you the lawyer Mordechai Tzivin, whom I met in his home in Kfar Chabad, late at night after he returned from a busy day at the office in Tel Aviv. The previous week included trips around the world to help various Jews.

    He opened a fascinating world to me of pidyon shvuyim in the modern era. When I asked him about the first prisoner he released, he went back in time.

    It was in the year 5759/1999, while Tzivin was in Los Angeles tending to his affairs, when he got a phone call from the family of a rebbi who teaches boys in a yeshiva for baalei teshuva in Yerushalayim. The frightened family told the lawyer that the head of the family was arrested in the airport in Moscow with smuggled diamonds.

    The man traveled occasionally to Moscow to test students who were candidates for his yeshiva. On Rosh Chodesh Adar of that year, he gave a shiur for Jews who were strengthening their commitment to Judaism in the big shul on Archipova Street in the center of Moscow. After the shiur, someone approached him and asked him to take a small package back with him to Eretz Yisrael that contained medicine for cancer. The man added an unusual request, “This package needs to be hidden under your shirt because the Russians don’t allow taking out medication.”

    The innocent rabbi believed the man he had seen several times in shul but when he passed through security at the airport, the alarm went off. The rabbi admitted that he was hiding a package under his shirt. To his shock, it turned out he was carrying diamonds worth $54,000! He was arrested but believed he would be held only for a few days. His family, aided by various askanim, told him that even the prime minister (Netanyahu) was working to free him.

    He thought the matter would end shortly but a week and then two weeks passed and nothing happened, despite requests from politicians in Israel, the U.S. and other countries.

    He experienced very harsh conditions. He was placed in a room with 47 people and 20 beds with extremely vulgar pictures on the walls and he was surrounded by many Christians and Moslems. They taunted the obviously religious-looking Jew. For example, they demanded that he clean the toilets and on Shabbos, no less. For kashrus reasons, he could not eat the food that was served to the other inmates. His claims about not eating because of religious reasons were not accepted by the director of the prison. He was sure that the Jewish inmate was making a demonstration and a hunger strike. He threatened to hook him up to intravenous feeding.

    The family saw that the askanim were not successful and they turned to the lawyer Dror Choter-Yishai who was the head of the Israel Bar Association (Lishkat Orchei Din) at the time. He referred them to the famous yeshiva trained religious lawyer Yaakov Weinroth z”l who was a leading defense attorney in Eretz Yisrael, and he suggested they speak to Tzivin. When Tzivin got the phone call from the family, they already had another lawyer but due to the lack of progress, they wanted to replace him.

    “The truth is,” said Tzivin, “my connections in Russia were exceedingly poor at the time but nevertheless, I decided to fly from Los Angeles to Moscow to try and see what I could do.

    “I arrived a few days before Pesach and the rabbi had been in jail for three weeks at that point. ‘I came from Eretz Yisrael, your family sent me to you,’ I told him when we met in the visitors room in jail. At another meeting, I enabled him to speak with his brother, an absolute rarity. His brother in Eretz Yisrael gave him hurried regards and the conversation ended quickly. Then the rav, a special man, chose to discuss hilchos Pesach with me. This was despite the limited precious time designated for our meeting.

    “One time, he spoke emotionally with his father who was sick. Within seconds, a group of jailers came in and yelled his name and confiscated the cell phone. As a punishment, his religious rights to having a tallis and tefillin were withheld. Of course, we could not accept that and I immediately went to the director of the prison and explained that a tallis and tefillin are of great religious importance and it was not proper to keep them from him. The director agreed to return them. I was not surprised to receive such treatment on the part of the jailers, as I saw that every Russian displayed humanitarian feelings, even the toughest jailers.

    “It is hard to describe how each of my visits helped him and to a degree strengthened me too,” added Tzivin.

    At the same time, Tzivin got to work. He submitted a request through the law offices of a leading attorney in Moscow (today the same lawyer is one of the leading members of the ruling party headed by President Putin and serves as a senior legal adviser to the Russian Parliament) to the clemency committee to release the rabbi while explaining the enormous mistake. After extensive research about the committee he discovered that it is comprised of 11 members, all of them famous artists, painters and sculptors.

    “The chairman of the committee was the most fascinating. Someone introduced me to him and enabled me to speak to him. The conversation was moving.” The man told Tzivin that when a request for a pardon for someone sentenced to death is rejected, “I try to hide the rejection of the request in the bottom of the drawer so the sentenced man lives at least another year.”

    In the end, the committee was convinced by the reasons presented to them and decided in favor of a pardon. President Boris Yeltsin, who was then at the end of his tenure signed the release on Purim.


    Since that case, Tzivin’s name has been linked with dozens of clients who got into trouble around the globe. His determination, his ability to charm everyone and his stubbornness in not accepting “no” as an answer, have made him into a highly successful lawyer including among non-Jews and even Arabs from enemy countries.

    What approach do you use that has proven itself even in cases when many have given up?

    “When a pidyon shvuyim situation comes to me, I first try to locate a effective and thorough local lawyer who is an expert in the field in question. Whether it’s smuggling, tax evasion, money laundering, or international financial crimes. I also try to identify and acquaint myself with influential players in that country to exert their influence, not necessarily on the legal front. I also examine the local criminal law of that country and the international laws; research the quality of the relations between our Legal Ministry with that of the other country, all this before going to that country. This is extensive homework.

    “Only then do I board a plane and go to the country where I meet the inmate and influential people and additional lawyers. Together with them, I construct a plan of action. This approach enables me to sometimes free someone even without having to travel; almost always in collaboration with others.”

    I urged Tzivin for examples. He has numerous stories but he has to remember what not to say. After some thought he told me about a Jew in Uzbekistan who was sentenced to twelve years in jail for forging documents and work permits. The prison authorities had to transfer him four times when Moslem inmates threatened his life.

    “The Bucharian community mobilized on his behalf. It seems they turned to Minister (at that time) Nosson Sharansky or Knesset member Marina Solodkin. They ended up coming to me.

    “I spoke to a millionaire in the Bucharian community who lives in Vienna. In my presence, he called Krimov, president of Uzbekistan. Krimov asked for documents that proved that the authorities in Eretz Yisrael were willing to accept this Jewish prisoner and the Interior Ministry quickly produced the necessary papers.

    “In general, it’s important to know that when dealing with people’s lives, swiftness is a supreme value. Do you know what it means to spare a person from one day of sitting in jail?”

    Tzivin enlisted the aid of every relevant professional for this very purpose. As a result, the members of the Israeli consulate in Tashkent did everything possible so the man would be released that day. People stayed after hours to arrange all the documents.

    When I asked Tzivin about the secret to his success, after thinking for a while he candidly said, “My siyata dishmaya is that the local governments believe me and treat me with respect. They usually know about my unusual international activities and they see me as a stubborn and trustworthy lawyer. I never removed my yarmulka. To them, a Jew, especially a religious Jew, projects greater trust and is respected professionally far more than other lawyers,” he says.

    His characteristic, Jewish stubbornness is not always easy for him. For example, when he went to Bulgaria to release a group of Jews who got entangled in forging credit cards, it was his mother’s yartzeit that day and when he did not find enough Jews to come to shul for a minyan, he paid them to come. A similar thing happened in Germany where the ones attending the minyan were mainly new immigrants from Russia who thought it was an interesting way to make some money.

    The cases that come his way are fantastical. Among the vast array of his cases and extractions, there is the story in which Leonid P was accused of arranging the building of a submarine in Russia to smuggle drugs to South America! This was a Russian Jew who moved from Eretz Yisrael to Florida where he was arrested and accused of this serious crime.

    After he despaired of going free, he met with Tzivin and had just one request, that he be allowed to serve his sentence in Eretz Yisrael. In the end, after concerted efforts, the American court freed him altogether.


    There are cases about which it is better to be silent and R’ Mordechai avoids talking about them or even insists that they not be mentioned for various reasons. The roads to prison are convoluted and sometimes, so are the ways out of there.

    R’ Tzivin is willing to say that, “Sometimes, the way to get a Jew out of an inhumane and unjustified incarceration is by means that are inconsistent with local law, and that is something I don’t touch.” Tzivin repeats and emphasizes that he will never operate against local law. When I pressed him to tell me about one incident, he responded, but obviously with many cautionary warnings:

    “There was 25 year old Jewish girl from Dimona who got entangled in Brazil. The court there sentenced her to three and a half years in jail after finding drugs on her that she bought from a local girl. The local girl informed on her and that is how she was caught. Her worried family tried bribing the authorities to no avail and she was sent to jail. Some think that in certain countries bribes will take care of everything and this is not always correct.

    “Her getting out of jail was made possible when she did not return to jail from one of her furloughs. With the help of smugglers she escaped to Uruguay where she went to the Israeli consulate in Montevideo. After intensive use of contacts and pulling strings, she was given a transit visa and she left for Eretz Yisrael via Argentina and a European country.”

    To what extent do bribes work?

    “I will answer you in general terms. First, it’s a mistake and a delusion. In many cases, unscrupulous machers ask the families for money for bribes and this money simply goes down the tubes. The impression that in countries of the CIS everything works with bribes while in the U.S. and other western countries it all works according to law, is not at all correct.

    “Those times are gone when in Russia you could solve problems with bribes; the enforcement system in Russia fights corruption far more than in western countries.” He knows what he is talking about.

    Law enforcement personnel, who by the nature of things are on the other side of the wall, respect and admire the stubborn lawyer who is devoted to his clients, sometimes, even more so than a regular defense attorney. He tells an anecdote about something that happened with him a few years ago when he went through passport control at the airport in Moscow. A policewoman stopped him and said, “I know that you work for Israeli and Belgian diamond smugglers but I wish you success; I am a Jew like you.”

    How do you handle the tremendous stress while also encouraging the family members who consider you their final hope?

    “Sometimes, it is hard for me,” he admits. “I sometimes serve as a wailing wall to families in distress. Emotionally, it isn’t easy. It is hard to separate between professionalism and human emotion but I will never give them false hopes.”

    You sometimes help criminals who committed crimes for money without taking into account the ramifications of their actions …

    “Right. I mainly have a hard time helping someone who became entangled in illicit substances and yet, I consider this a professional duty and the reason for the crime does not matter. In most cases, these are countries where there aren’t even minimal human rights, or there are disproportionate punishments, and the deciding factor is to help regardless. The fact that you get someone to serve his sentence in Israel, among his people, is pidyon shvuyim in its purest sense, and I have tremendous professional satisfaction from this.

    “One of our principles as Chabad Chassidim is ahavas Yisrael. There is tremendous ahavas Yisrael in our work. When working on pidyon shvuyim abroad, you discover how much local Jews are willing to do for another Jew, above and beyond. Mutual Jewish responsibility takes on dimensions that are almost indescribable. You suddenly discover to what extent all Jews are brothers.”

    The story of the Israeli woman RS lifted the public profile of Tzivin to new heights. She was arrested in India together with her friend on suspicion of drug possession. She gave birth in prison and only then did her trial begin. She was sentenced to eight years in jail. When her hysterical (and justifiably so) family stopped believing in Israeli agents who promised to help and did nothing, she turned to Tzivin upon the recommendation of friends. He quickly entered the picture. He used all his connections in India until she was finally released and returned to Eretz Yisrael.

    “Sometimes, the inmates do not want to go to Eretz Yisrael to complete their sentences,” he says. “Here [in Israel] there is the possibility of being released when completing two thirds of the sentence while in some other countries, you can be released after completing half of the sentence. Sometimes, even the prison conditions abroad are better …”


    It would appear that when talking about pidyon shvuyim, there are no borders and no limitations; the main thing is to get another Jew out of a dangerous prison or from an incarceration where you know how it begins but not how it ends. When necessary, as I discovered to my surprise, in this conversation, Tzivin even uses connections in Arab countries. His office has clients from countries you wouldn’t believe like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Cyprus, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India and South American countries. And of course western countries like the United States, England, France, Holland, Croatia, Montenegro, Australia, Germany, Japan, Russia, and others.

    Representing Arab clients from enemy countries who are naturally antagonistic to Jews and Israel, has led to changes from one extreme to the other. In one instance, this was expressed in an emotional letter written by the wife of the former director of the Defense Ministry of Iraq to a shliach of the Rebbe in a European country. In her letter, she said that thanks to the dedication and integrity of the lawyers Mordechai and Nechama Tzivin and their son, she changed her entire attitude toward Jews. She promised to tell this to every leading Arab personage that she would meet.

    We also found that Tzivin represents some of the most senior political figures of the past and present in the Arab world, even in those Arab countries that are legally defined as enemies of Israel like former, senior, Syrian political figures and a senior Iraqi judge who sentenced Saddam Hussein to death. Tzivin has also dealt with the matter of the European bank accounts of the former Egyptian president and the legal matters of a leading political party in one of the Arab countries. Details are of course privileged information.

    At this point, R’ Mordechai took out a file and blew me away by showing me the power of attorney signed by the aforementioned.

    Tzivin also deals with matters that are far from ordinary, such as the first legal complaint against leading figures in Hamas to the international criminal court in the Hague which prevented counter-claims against Israel.

    However, the reason we met was to discuss the pidyon shvuyim of our time, the redemption of Jews who were arrested for various reasons and were in prisons throughout the world and released thanks to Tzivin’s efforts.

    The internationally sensational case of Yair Klein (Lieutenant Colonel Res.) was very complicated. Colombia wanted him extradited from Russia to serve a prison sentence for the crime of training and arming paramilitary groups in that country. This is where Tzivin’s mode of operation and legal strategy really came to the fore and saved Klein from extradition. Tzivin rallied to the cause the (since deceased) former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak, as well as generals in active service in the IDF and other senior staff officers and politicians. One of them told Beis Moshiach that he did not believe Tzivin would be able to save Klein but determination, persistence and stubbornness won out.

    All the stories are painful, as is the following story. YT from Bnei Brak, was arrested in the wake of a massive investigation in connection with a clever scheme to cheat and steal VAT (value added tax) monies to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. It was only after great efforts that he was released on bail until the end of the trial. The item was publicized in the French media when T’s name was mistakenly included, but the French prosecutor’s office was sure it had a big fish and accused him of major financial crimes which carry prison terms for many years.

    Tzivin got involved through the Nadvorna Rebbe since the accused is a Chassid of his, and it was the Rebbe who guaranteed T’s innocence. As he always does, Tzivin worked with a local lawyer whose expertise is white collar crime. Early on, Tzivin consulted with another, famous French lawyer who served previously as the Justice Minister in France and with whom he had a prior acquaintance from other cases.

    Their efforts were successful and the French court was convinced that T knew not one person involved in the scheme, and had been misled by a number of the other accused parties. In the end, the defense team was able to have T exonerated of all wrongdoing and he was released unconditionally and returned to Eretz Yisrael. As of this writing, a case for reparations is being prepared against law enforcement in France.

    In your vast experience, do you think that there are anti-Semitic feelings in the legal systems and prosecutions which cause them to be tough on Jews?

    “From my vast experience, the answer is unequivocal. No! The phenomenon of a Jew accused or sitting in jail just because he is Jewish is very rare. Those times are gone. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the fact that gentiles do not like Jews doesn’t mean that Jews don’t like money … In the story in France, for example, I must say that throughout the process, the court conducted itself fairly. True, it was clear to me from the start that my client was falsely accused, but you need to remember that this accusation was not due to anti-Semitism but mainly because, in recent years, the name of Jews in France has become sullied in the arena of financial crimes. Although painful to admit, there is something to that.”

    The stories keep coming and the types of cases are of seemingly endless variety. There are cases of financial crimes and serious criminal cases, as well as crimes that seem minor but can get complicated and put the person who tries it out in real danger, and this is also in the category of pidyon shvuyim. Tzivin does not have to think long to come with such a case that is instructive.

    A yeshiva bachur from Eretz Yisrael was arrested in Holland for forging details on his passport. He was suspected of adding an entrance stamp to his passport. Unfortunately, just two weeks after his arrest, he was brought before a judge for a preliminary hearing in his case.

    Tzivin says that it was a judge whose expertise is passports and forged documents. “He is a tough judge who is very particular about the issues that he is tasked with but, miraculously, when the case was presented to the judge for his perusal, he said that although in similar cases the accused were sentenced to prison, sometimes for many months, this time, the two weeks in which the bachur sat in jail were sufficient, and he announced his immediate release.

    “It was an open miracle that the judge agreed to accept the bachur’s claim that he only meant to reinforce a faded stamp and it was done in all innocence with no intent to deceive the law.

    “Sometimes, it happens that through foolishness, without knowing the danger involved, bachurim ‘play around’ with official documents. People need to know that if they change or even darken a faded entry or exit stamp, they can be arrested and initially even be accused of terrorism or other security crimes.”

    I understand that you also work a lot with shluchim around the world. Can you give us an example?

    “The shluchim are sometimes the key players in certain stages of the pidyon shvuyim process.

    “There was an Israeli backpacker by the name of R who was arrested in Chile for setting the huge fire in the Torres Del Paine national park that covers more than 127,000 dunams (over 31,000 acres)! The Chilean investigators suspected that the 23 year old tourist had ignited the fire when he burned toilet paper in the nature preserve, one of the most popular tourist sites in South America and the preferred destination for thousands of Israelis who visit the continent every year. If he were found guilty he would have sat in jail in Chile for years.

    “In this instance, the shliach in Chile, Rabbi Menashe Perman, was the first to know about the incident from official Chilean sources who consulted with him. He used his wide-ranging connections, some of them secret, and went to visit the accused and his father who were staying in the area of the burnt forest, a six hour flight away, in order to try and resolve the legal problem.

    “R’ Perman managed to overcome the bureaucratic difficulties, which in South America are usually harder, and succeeded in vacating the prohibition to leave order by the judge. This enabled the young man to go to S. Diego where he could deal with the situation more comfortably. In the end, the accusations against him were dropped.”

    Tzivin serves as a watchdog and is the terror of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He has exposed failures to properly deal with cases of Israeli citizens arrested abroad, and at his insistence an inquiry was held by the Government Audit Committee in 2005. The committee invited top officials of the Foreign Ministry to a formal hearing, and the conclusion of the hearing was that the State was guilty of neglect when it comes to Israelis arrested abroad.

    “The shluchim worldwide serve as subcontractors of the government in Israel and the Foreign Ministry and this is without receiving any recompense despite it involving many expenses every time.”

    Tzivin had another story about the extensive involvement of a shliach in the release of Jews who got tangled up with the law. This time, the locale was Switzerland.

    “There was the case of an Israeli young man and woman who were arrested on the border of Italy and Switzerland with illegal substances in their possession. After complicated legal efforts I arrived at an agreement with the local prosecutors that the two of them be released and be allowed to leave Switzerland in exchange for a large bail bond.

    “Thanks to the great and devoted efforts by the shliach in Lugano, Rabbi Yaakov Kantor, the release took place within a short time. R’ Kantor worked hard to obtain the financial bond needed as the condition for their release as the parents of the kids could not raise the money. Without R’ Kantor’s monetary aid, they would have sat in jail for quite some time.

    “With shluchim like these, who needs lawyers?” concludes attorney Tzivin.


    Money laundering, international financial crimes, diamond smuggling, counterfeit credit cards, smuggling illegal substances, weapons sales – all these are a few of the crimes that get Israelis and other Jews into deep trouble in many countries around the world. Some of the crimes are more serious; some less so, but most do not want to sit in jail in a foreign country, sometimes without a language to communicate with, even for one day; certainly not for a few weeks and not to mention, years.

    To R’ Mordechai Tzivin, it makes no difference what crime it was. He has one goal: to redeem captives, to get Jews out of jail in difficult places. He is of the view that even transferring an inmate from jail in a distant place to an Israeli jail is a sort of redemption, because, for the most part, the prison conditions in Israel are incomparably less harsh than in other places.

    In Tzivin’s ears ring the words of Dayan CYD Weiss of Antwerp. Dayan Weiss is known throughout the Jewish world as someone who devotes his time and money to the mitzva of pidyon shvuyim. He works to gets Jews out of jails around the world and as a matter of course his path crosses with that of Tzivin.

    “Now and then, he reminds me what it says in Shulchan Aruch that ‘every moment that one delays in redeeming them, when it is possible to do it earlier is like shedding blood.’ It is not enough just to get them released; but get it done earlier and if not enough is done to make the release earlier, it is like shedding blood …”

    When Tzivin mentions the name of Dayan Weiss, I cannot help but recall the story that shook up the religious Jewish world when three religious bachurim, some from Meah Shearim, were arrested in Tokyo shortly before Pesach 5768. In their bags were illegal substances that were discovered in a double wall inside their suitcases. They were arrested when they landed in the international airport near the capital. Needless to say, the three yeshiva bachurim felt lost in the tough, Japanese interrogation rooms.

    In their interrogation, they maintained that they were supposed to take antiques to Japan as part of a business deal in Europe, and they were not aware that drugs had been hidden in their suitcases.

    Tzivin remembers the story as though it happened yesterday and says it was a terrible plot into which the boys fell in all innocence. “The proof is that they told their friends. While they were still in Israel, a religious man offered to pay for their tickets and stay in Europe in exchange for a ‘small assignment.’ The man told them that in Amsterdam they would be met by someone who would give them a suitcase with antiques which they needed to bring to someone in Japan.”

    The story created a tremendous furor in the chareidi community, and as an extreme exception to the normal rules a dayan on the beis din of Rabbi Landau of Bnei Brak permitted informing on the man who convinced the bachurim to work for him, without it being considered [the halachically forbidden] mesira. This was to prevent similar things from happening again.

    “The situation of the bachurim was extremely serious since, in Japan, drug smugglers are sentenced to death by hanging,” said Tzivin. “The authorities in Japan are known to be very severe. Even the minor success of bringing in matza for Pesach, haggados and a Chitas to their cells was a big deal, and this was done with the help of Rabbi Binyamin Edery, director of the Chabad House in Tokyo. Yet, the Japanese refused to allow tefillin and siddurim into their cells.”

    Dayan Menachem Mendel Shafran was the one who enlisted the help of Tzivin in this case, and met with him right after the story exploded. Dayan Weiss of Antwerp also got very involved in the work to free the bachurim and he oversaw a committee that worked intensively on a worldwide campaign to free the boys, as well as to brief the Japanese lawyers who were hired to handle the case. In the end, after lengthy, complicated legal proceedings the bachurim were freed from Japanese prison with one bachur finishing his time in Israeli prison in accordance with the agreement that was reached.


    Tzivin concluded with the fascinating story of the pidyon shvuyim of thirty prisoners at once. The story happened in 5768/2008 when, after much effort, diplomatic wheeling and dealing and pulling of strings, the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that in honor of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, he would pardon thirty Israeli inmates who were serving time in Californian prisons.

    Schwarzenegger announced his decision to Tzivin, saying the prisons were suffering from overcrowding. At the time, there were about forty Israeli inmates in state prisons in Los Angeles and fourteen others in prisons in S Francisco. Prisoners in federal jails were not allowed to be released, nor were prisoners in jail for murder.

    This wholesale release was the crowning achievement of exhausting advance work by religious askanim in California who worked tirelessly for pidyon shvuyim.


    The magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to:


    Tags: ,

    Add Comment

    *Only proper comments will be allowed

    Related Posts:

    Breathtaking tales of Modern-Day Pidyon Shvuyim