Sep 28, 2014
8 Blessings I Received In Prison

A former inmate writes about being helped by a Chabad organization he would regularly donate to, but never knew its importance.

(The eight blessings I received from Hashem that changed my life)

There I was, standing in the courtroom, attorney at my side, facing the judge. It had been almost a year since my arrest. Being one of the lucky ones, I had been able to make bail and did not spend any time in the county jail. My wife and a good friend were in the gallery behind me. The courtroom was filled to capacity; prisoners sitting in the jury box waiting to be called, families and friends filling the spectator area, attorneys all around the space. After countless meetings and discussions with my attorney over the past year, I knew that I was finally going to be sentenced. By pleading "nolo contendre" a trial would be avoided.

The attorney had shown me all the math, including my point score, maximum and minimum sentence, and the possibility of avoiding incarceration rather being sentenced to community control. I thought I was prepared for this. Boy was I wrong! All the months of preparation, all the meetings, all the phone conversations were for naught. I had not really believed I would be sent to prison. The judge asked for my plea and reiterated that a plea of "nolo contendre" would leave my fate to his judgment. An exhaustive mitigation brief had been prepared by my legal team, arguing for leniency. It was a great job but was all for nothing.

While acknowledging the great effort made the judge said "despite…" At that point I started to tremble, my knees went weak, and my hearing dulled. The judge sentenced me to six years in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections, as if this was just another case. For Him it was, for me it was life altering. I was so na?ve that I thought the judge would give me time to "get my affairs in order." That only happens on TV.

As soon as the sentence was announced, two Sheriff's deputies approached, placed me in handcuffs, and started to lead me away. I turned to look at the gallery and saw my wife silently walking out of the courtroom, shaking her head. The family friend was standing there with such a look of shock and sorrow; I was able to give her my watch and was then escorted out of the courtroom. It had never really set in that I was going to prison before now; I was simply numb. My only prior exposure to prison was from movies and television. I really had not made any preparations for this; my state of denial was about to haunt me.

As it turned out, nothing that would happen after this is what I expected. My time in prison turned out to perhaps be life-saving, and certainly I am a better man today than I was before. Here is what happened. I was sent to a prison in North Florida, hundreds of miles from home. In fact, the drive from South Florida is about 8 hours minimum. The facility was better than I anticipated, but it was in the middle of nowhere, so far from the environment I was accustomed to. There were approximately 600 inmates at this camp, with about 4 Jews among them plus some "Messianic Jews." The staff was mostly from the local rural area and can best be described as rednecks. The closest synagogue to this facility was more than 75 miles away in Jacksonville. I felt so alone and lost, without any real connection to anyone. In fact, for the two years I was at this facility my wife was only able to visit twice, considering the distance and cost.

I tried to keep my Jewish identity secret, but of course just by virtue of my name it was obvious. The last thing I wanted was to be open about my religion, believing that Jews would not be welcome in this environment. I had been, over my lifetime, either very involved with a Synagogue or cut off from that life. I was raised in a home that was not very observant, although our Jewish identity was always prominent.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York which has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue there. After getting married, my wife and I belonged to several temples over the years. As our location changed we found whatever synagogue was convenient. When my three children were young we were affiliated with a Reformed synagogue, as it had the best education program in the area. Later on we found a home with a Conservative temple, which was more to my liking. But like many of my generation, I was not totally committed to attending synagogue, nor to following a more observant lifestyle.

For the first ten years of my life in Florida, from 1988 to 1998, I worked at a company in North Miami that was owned by two Cuban Jewish brothers. They were members of the Chabad synagogue in Sunny Isles, Florida, which also happens to be the home of The Aleph Institute, although I was ignorant of this fact at the time. However, most Friday afternoons Rabbi Lipskar came to visit our offices and I was afforded the opportunity to meet with him and don tefillin, always giving him some tzedukah. I never inquired what the needs were, just knew that he was a Rabbi and it was appropriate to do this as a way of thanking him. I was totally ignorant of Chabad practices and could not have told you the first thing that distinguishes Chabad from other movements within Judaism.

Skip forward to 2009 and the North Florida prison setting. One day, when it was particularly hot outside, I decided to make my first visit to the Chapel, where I knew there was a small room dedicated to the Jewish religion. For the reasons stated earlier, I had avoided this facility up to now, but since there was air conditioning in the chapel I decided to venture there. I sat down in front of the counter in the Jewish room, where above me were shelves filled with books and videotapes. I pulled one of the tapes off the shelf and to my shock, there on the cover was a picture of Rabbi Lipskar, from Aleph. I was so stunned to have made a connection to my past. I now learned about Aleph and knew what my years of contributions were for. Here I was now, on the opposite side of the equation, in a position to receive help from Aleph. That evening I wrote to Aleph, requesting an application. In a short while I was receiving regular correspondence from Aleph and felt for the first time in a long time that I did not have to hide my Jewish roots.

This was the first of so many blessings I was to receive over the next five years.

In 2011, after discovering that there was a Pilot Kosher Meal program, set up by Aleph, at the South Unit of the South Florida Reception center, I contacted Rabbi Katz to see if he could assist me with a transfer. Two days after my wife spoke to him on the phone, I was called to the Classification Department and asked if I wanted to transfer south to participate in this program. The speed with which this occurred was amazing; nothing happens quickly in prison. Due to some regulations it actually took a few months for the transfer to occur, but soon I was back in South Florida, less than an hour from home, and in a much more amenable facility. This was the second blessing I received from Hashem.

Rabbi Katz, being the wise man he is, approached me one day when visiting with us, and said: "I helped you get here, now I need a favor. I want you to work in the kosher kitchen here for one year." I was not eager but felt I could not refuse and in less than a week I was assigned this job. For the next three years I had mitzvah of preparing and serving kosher food to 18 inmates. This was the third blessing from Hashem.

My Jewish journey was not over. Rabbi Katz, who visited with us twice a month, asked me when I would start to don tefillin every day, rather than just when he showed up. I protested that finances did not allow me to purchase tefillin at that time. After a few requests from him with my response remaining the same, he finally told me that if I would commit to putting on the tefillin every day he would arrange a set for me at no cost. I no longer had an excuse and promised to do so. Two weeks later, I received the tefillin, and have not missed a day of donning it since. In the beginning I was shy about putting on tefillin in a dormitory of 46 men. However, I found that I earned respect from my fellow inmates because of my commitment, and while several men had questions about what I was doing, I was always left alone while I was davening. This was the fourth blessing from Hashem. Imagine, me, a non-observant Jew, donning tefillin and davening every day, in prison no less! This was the fourth blessing.

Rabbi Katz was not done with me yet. In his wisdom he must have seen some potential in me, because he kept encouraging me to take the next step. When he started to urge me to study Chayenu every week, I made the same excuses: I didn't have the financial resources to make that commitment. After a few refusals, he finally made the same bargain with me he did with Tefillin. If I would commit to studying every week, he would arrange for me to have a subscription to Chayenu. I made the commitment, he followed through, and today, even when I am now free from prison, I have not missed a week of Chayenu study. It was difficult at first, especially Tanya, but little by little I became more proficient in my studies. What a smart, wonderful man he is. Now I was not only cooking and eating kosher food, and donning tefillin, but became a student of Torah. This was the fifth blessing.

In addition to Rabbi Katz, we had a second Chabad Rabbi visiting with us at the South Unit. Rabbi Avrohom Brashevitzky, from Chabad of Doral, began a bi-monthly visitation schedule with the South Unit inmates. Over time I made a very personal connection with Rabbi B. As my level of knowledge increased I often had questions to pose to him and always got thoughtful responses. He was becoming a friend as well as a mentor, which was astounding to me. I had never had such a connection with a Rabbi. Over time, Rabbi B. started bringing Chabad books for us to share, and I started reading a few. One day he brought me a copy of "GPS for the Soul" which is a plain language book explaining the meaning of Tanya, something which had eluded me up to then. Reading this book became a life altering experience for me, as I found learning about the concepts of Tanya was bringing me closer to Hashem and to an understanding of so many Jewish fundamentals that I was overwhelmed. I had to read the book twice, cover to cover, before I felt I had absorbed about 20%. This was an enormous leap forward in my Jewish education. I was compelled to write to Rabbi B. detailing my experiences with the book and the thoughts and feelings it evoked in me. This process was another transformative experience for me, as it taught me to truly put beliefs into words that I could understand. I had many questions, but found I could answer some of them on my own, based on my studies. And thus, we have blessing number six.

When I was approaching my release date there were difficulties in getting my home residence approved, as I was subject to Probation regulations. The circumstances are not important, but this was a huge obstacle for me to overcome. Rabbi B. stepped in to rescue me again; he advised me to write to the Rebbe's Ohel, asking for his blessing. He told me to put into words what was in my heart and mind, and trust in Hashem. Incredibly, in a very short time after my letter was received my problems were resolved and I was able to return home. I have no doubt that the Rebbe's intervention was critical in making this happen. When I heard the good news, I was overwhelmed with gratitude, and wrote a second letter of thanks to the Rebbe. I had watched several DVD's featuring the Rebbe's help to so many people, but never imagined I could one day be one of those people. This was blessing number seven.

I have become a member of my local Chabad synagogue, continue my studies every week, take joy in donning tefillin at home, am in the process of converting my home to be Kosher, and humbly give thanks to Hashem for all his blessings. I am so grateful to all the people who assisted me in this journey, because without them I would still be a Jew in the wilderness, exiled from an observant Jewish life. My wife and I celebrate Shabbat in our home every week, making Kiddush, lighting candles, and having some quiet time together. This is the eighth and final blessing from Hashem. Last week we celebrated our 39th Anniversary; what greater gift from Hashem could I ever receive?

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Opinions and Comments
What a tremendous perspective, to see the power of a Jewish soul in transforming darkness into light. Thank you for sharing your experiences, shanah tovah!
(9/29/2014 1:28:37 AM)
Just Beautiful
A very amazing story of this young man and his wonderful family that all experienced such difficulties but because of the love of very Jew that the Rebbe encouraged and fulfilled through Rabbis Lipskar, Katz and Bradshefsky a miracle occurred
(9/29/2014 1:29:54 AM)
always looking at the bright side and the good that come out of his situation.
(9/29/2014 5:37:29 AM)
Very inspiring

Thanks for sharing your story!
(9/29/2014 9:39:31 AM)
Keep up the good work
(9/29/2014 9:42:47 AM)
very inspiring
as a bochur who went to prison for aleph before, and as i plan to go again for this sukkos this story really gives a boost and helps realize how much we acomplish!
(9/29/2014 11:03:21 PM)
To 2
He's not a young man, he's probably in his 60s now having just celebrated his 39th anniversary. But yes, it's an amazing story!
(9/30/2014 10:31:21 AM)
An Update
Thank you for all the comments. No I am not a young man but I am a "new: man. The path i began to follow in prison has continued since my release. My wife and I recently celebrated our 40th Anniversary.! Her devotion to me is the most inspiring thing that has ever occurred in my life. She has encouraged me in my pursuit of deeper yiddishkeit observance, and we have found a new spiritual harmony in our home. It has not been easy, ; the transition from prison to freedom is a long, hard road to follow. I have been blessed by being accepted at my local Chabad Synagogue and have become an integral member of the congregation. I continue my studies, my three best friends are Rabbis (something I could not have conceived of in the past), and have found the comfort of knowing that I am following the path in life that Hashem has led me to. It is a life of wonder as every day I see miracles occurring. If you know a Jew who is in prison, or know his or her family, reach out to them and let them know they are not alone and that the Jewish community will not abandon them. If I can influence just one person to do that then my life's mission will be complete. May Hashem bless each and every one of you.
(10/23/2015 3:17:36 PM)
Further Updates April, 2016
For those of you who have followed my story I thought an update just prior to Pesach was in order.
I have continued my growth in Yiddishkeit. For a man who sent his children to a Reformed Synagogue for their Jewish education, this has been a remarkable time.
I now put on Tefilin and Tallis every morning and doven Shacharis. My home is kosher. We continue to celebrate Shabbat every week. One of the most amazing things was the decision to wear a Kippah all the time. This was not an easy decision as it effects visually who I have been for almost 64 years. What I found amazing is the empowering feeling this has brought about. I am aware of Hashem and my "jewishness" at all times. I feel as if people see and evaluate me differently now, just not in the way I feared. Rather than an object or scorn or derision, I see respect in people's eyes. Perhaps it is only my own subconscious interpretation, but either way it is real.
On another front, I have become the Director of Media Relations for my Chabad congregation, responsible for letting the local news outlets of upcoming events. This is another gift that has been given to me; to be able to be the public voice of our conversation when not too many years ago I had no hope of ever having a place in society is truly a miracle. Thanks to the influence of the Rabbis I speak with almost daily, the lingering negativity of my past mistakes has dissipated.
I can now say proudly and loudly " I am a Jew" again without fear of consequences.
(4/7/2016 10:16:22 AM)
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