Chassidus and prison. What happens when the two collide? In meeting with Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, I hope to learn the answer.
What began as a letter to Reb Sholom Mordechai has evolved over the months into a deep friendship. My class from Detroit shares a weekly dvar Torah with him and he reciprocates with one of his own, a weekly outpouring of pure Yiddishe hartz. A personal postscript often follows, as waves of mutual chizuk penetrate the cement blocks and barbed wire of the prison walls.
And yet, we have never met. This will be our first live encounter. Here I am, poised to enter the prison walls, albeit for a short visit.
How will I find him? Will I know what to say?
I needn’t have worried. I enter the visiting room, and there he is in the corner, flanked by his wife and son, with a smile that seems terribly incongruous, yet wholly authentic. We hug and remain in our embrace for some time, the vibes of kinship easily penetrating the drab khaki clothes that seek to make this extraordinary man indistinguishable from his surroundings. Afterwards, I embrace him once more.
“This one,” I tell him, “is from Klal Yisroel.” He smiles, wishes me a hearty “gut mo’eid,” and within moments, we are deep in animated conversation, the prison walls slowly melting away.
I inquire about his daily schedule. I quickly learn that this man prefers not to talk about himself too much, favoring divrei Torah, stories, and humor over anything else. For now, however, he acquiesces, and begins describing his daily schedule. “At 6:30,” he explains, “the cell doors open, having been locked the night before at 9:00. And so, I wake up at 5:30, shower, and daven while everyone still sleeps.”
“I’m a chassidishe Yid,” he explains with a grin, “and we go to mikvah before davening; barring that option, a shower will have to do for now.” This is the secret of his survival: “I’m the same Yid I always was and nothing has changed, except what absolutely must.”
During the day, he explains, everybody is assigned a job, and he has been fortunate enough to be assigned to the chapel, which means that generally, when it is open, he can be there. With that, the conversation about his daily schedule seamlessly ends, for we have segued into his favorite topic: Torah. “I can learn there,” he tells me, “and sometimes even manage to have a seder with my chavrusa, another frum Yid who has unfortunately landed in prison as well.”
“So what are you learning?” I ask, as if we are two yeshiva friends catching up on the latest happenings in our respective spiritual worlds. “Menochos,” he answers with a twinkle in his eye. “I just finished Zevochim,” he adds, “and it was extremely geshmak.” Before I have a chance to digest what I just heard, he continues, “I also keep up with daf yomi, and I’m working hard at Yevomos, which I always found difficult.”
So his geshmak is Zevochim, and his troubles, Yevomos. Not the typical lineup of highs and lows for prison inmates, I muse, but then again, he is clearly not a typical man.
“Do you have regular access to email?” I inquire, wondering how he manages to send us a lengthy email each week. “No,” he replies, “it’s six computers for one-hundred and fifty guys, and I have to squeeze in the emails during low-volume times. I write five divrei Torah emails a week, and it’s always a challenge getting them all out.”
As his wife, Mrs. Leah Rubashkin, later shares with me at a follow-up visit that evening in Monsey, “Sholom Mordechai is the only one in the entire prison without enough time in his day; between preparing the emails and learning his sedorim, his schedule is packed.”
We get into a conversation about Sukkos and Reb Sholom Mordechai tells me that on yom tov, the s’chach blew off from part of the small sukkah permitted to Jewish inmates. “Were we allowed to put it back on? We weren’t sure and we had nobody to ask, so we worked around the problem.”
The prison walls may be impenetrable, but to Reb Sholom Mordechai, the walls of Shulchan Aruch are no less so. “Nu,” he prods, “epis ah vort far simchas beis hashoievah?” I’m not sure if he means that he plans on conducting a makeshift simchas beis hashoeivah here in prison, or if he is just desperate to relive those of years past, but I comply, sharing one vort which spills into another, and then another. Amidst a geyser of divrei chizuk that seems to endlessly flow from somewhere deep inside Reb Sholom Mordechai’s heart, he nonchalantly utters something that shocks me. “Boruch Hashem, I don’t have an issue with remaining b’simcha, even stuck here in prison, but for others here, atzvus is the main problem, and I do my best to lift them up.”
Does he really mean that?
He continues, “All day, I play over the words ‘chibah yeseirah’ again and again in my head, and remind myself how much Hashem loves me, and when I do, I am infused with simcha.”
Suddenly, we are interrupted. Reb Sholom Mordechai has scheduled a picture session for us, and it is now our turn. He is allowed two pictures, and we line up against the wall, as the photographer, another inmate, sets up his camera. We place our arms around each other and smile for the first picture.
Before I know it, Reb Sholom Mordechai is holding my hand and dancing. Softly, of course, but with gusto. “Ki v’simcha tzetzei’u u’v’sholom tuvo’un he’horim ve’hagvaos yiftzichu lifneichem berinah v’chol atzei hasodeh yimcho’u chof!”
We sit back down and continue our conversation. I ask about the amount of seforim he is allowed to keep, and somehow, the topic of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning comes up. It’s a popular book here, he tells me, adding that the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent a message to the author midway, encouraging him to complete it. “He gets so close,” laments Reb Sholom Mordechai, “but when he finally gets up to the imperative of finding meaning in life, he fails to describe what that meaning is.”
I agree, telling him how the legendary Reb Avraham Abba Freedman of Detroit was so perturbed by this that he actually flew down to Vienna to speak to Frankl and show him the truth of Torah.
Frankl may have missed it, I think to myself, but Rubashkin hasn’t, and he is writing the final chapter as we speak.
We arrive at the topic of Rosh Hashanah, and Reb Sholom Mordechai tells me a story that touched him deeply. A survivor, he relates, once explained the meaning of the two verses of Avinu Malkeinu ending with, “horugim al sheim kodshechah” and, “tevuchim al yechudechah.” When the Nazis lined Yidden up against the wall and began mowing them down in order, all of the kedoshim began screaming Shema Yisroel. Those on the side from which the Nazis began shooting only managed to say Hashem Elokeinu, while those on the other end were able to complete the verse with Hashem Echad; hence the two verses, al sheim kodshechah and al yechudechah.
I respond by telling the story of a father who asked Rav Oshry if he could bribe the Nazi with his golden tooth to spare his son and take another child, and was told that doing so was questionable. Upon hearing this, the father promptly pulled out the tooth and threw it into the woods, lest he be tempted to perform a questionable act. Reb Sholom Mordechai lets a solitary tear fall, not of sadness, but of awe of the greatness of the Yiddishe nation.
He then shares with me a whimsical grin and tells me that when he said, “tevuchim al yechudechah,” he couldn’t help but think that this verse somehow referred to his situation, which began by protecting tevichah, proper slaughter. But I quickly continue on to the next Avinu Malkeinu, “l’maan bo’ei bo’eish u’vamayim al kiddush Shimechah,” which, I point out, refers also to one who overcomes obstacles and lives al Kiddush Hashem. That, I remind him, is the true prize. He nods in agreement, but if he understands that I am referring to him, he certainly doesn’t let on.
A kippah-clad inmate enters the visiting room, and I look to Reb Sholom Mordechai for elaboration. I have a hunch that there is a story here.
“That fellow,” whispers Reb Sholom Mordechai, “was actually a very rich, completely unaffiliated Jew who has been here in prison for several years, and only recently began observing mitzvos and eating kosher.”
“So who was mekareiv him?” I ask, assuming it was the chaplain. A sparkle lights up Reb Sholom Mordechai’s face. “Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin,” he says, delight in his voice. “I did my job here,” he adds with a smile, “and now, I think I can leave.”
Later, I hear from his son, Yossi, that this man is far from the only individual whose spiritual well-being was strengthened by his father. He tells me the following anecdote.
On Rosh Hashanah, Reb Sholom Mordechai barely managed to scrape together a minyan and practically had to beg some of the unaffiliated Jews to join. “After davening,” he told Yossi, “I could not bear the thought that these Jews would go on to indulge in non-kosher food for lunch, so I offered one of them my own kosher meal if he would agree to get rid of the treif.”
“But what did you eat, Totty?” asked Yossi. “Oh, I only eat matzah on Rosh Hashanah anyway,” replied his father dismissively, “so it was no big deal.” Recalling that his father had mentioned that fact to him once before, Yossi nearly forgot about this incident. It was only later, when he remembered exactly why his father only ate matzah on Rosh Hashanah, that the extent of his father’s mesirus nefesh suddenly took on a whole new dimension.
In order to get his meal, Reb Sholom Mordechai would have to enter the mess hall, something he could never bring himself to do on Rosh Hashanah, given the atmosphere. It would practically ruin his whole Rosh Hashanah. Yet this year, marveled Yossi, he was willing to forego his own Rosh Hashanah atmosphere to enter the mess hall and retrieve a lunch meal for the other man, for the purpose of saving another Jew from eating treif on Rosh Hashanah.
Our time has run out, and the closing moments of this awe-inspiring visit are suddenly upon us. We engulf each other yet again in one final hug, and neither of us can bear to let go, but we must, and so, with tears in our eyes, we do. “Don’t worry,” I foolishly say, “I’ll be back.”
“Back?!” he exclaims. “But I won’t be here anymore!”
“Of course not,” I quickly correct myself, at once mortified by my blunder and amazed by his tangible emunah. “We’ll be back together, and we will have to figure out whether we bring in the class for a seudas geulah, or bring you to Detroit instead!”
He smiles, waves, and just like that, it’s over.
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