I was asked to interview Rabbi Elchonon Jacobowitz, sixth grade Rebbe in Yeshiva Darchei Torah of Detroit, Michigan, about “Inside Out,” a new book published by the Rubashkin family. The book consists of the correspondence between Reb Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin and the sixth graders in Rabbi Jacobowitz’s class.
The story began two and a half years ago, when the class began corresponding with Shalom Mordechai, sharing divrei Torah on a regular basis. The exchange of letters evolved into a relationship that has changed their lives.
As the dedicated rebbi writes in the foreward: “Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who writes from the Inside, is a captive, while my talmidim and I, who write from the Outside are free. Yet over the course of our correspondence, we have learned what true freedom is.
“I have learned that R’ Sholom Mordechai is the freest man I have ever known, incarcerated in prison yet entirely unbound by confines of space and circumstance. In the most unlikely of places – a prison cell – R’ Sholom Mordechai has created an invisible sanctum in which he lives as a free man, with Torah, avodah, and kiddush sheim Shamayim his constant preoccupation.”
Can you give me a bit of background about the book?
The book is a recent development, though our correspondence began exactly two and a half years ago, over the Sukkos vacation. I’ve been teaching sixth and seventh grade in Yeshivas Darchei Torah for the past four years. My talmidim are truly exceptional, refined young men from wonderful homes. Over Yom Tov, I was thinking of a project that would involve the entire class and make them feel connected. In the Yated, I read many powerful articles about Reb Shalom Mordechai and his acceptance of his situation.
Though I had never spoken to him, my shver, Rabbi Avrohom Flam, who is a rebbi in Monsey, asked his talmidim to write Reb Shalom Mordechai a letter during his trial. He responded with a beautiful letter full of Torah insights and chizuk.
I decided to make this a class project. I didn’t know if we’d be able to continue all year, but first we would start. Little did I know how much both my students and my family would grow from the connection.
The first letter I sent Reb Shalom Mordechai is the introduction to the book. Here’s an excerpt: Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Elchonon Jacobovitz, and I’m a sixth grade rebbi at Yeshivas Darchei Torah in Detroit. Although we have never met or corresponded, I feel like I know you through the chizuk I’ve received from your emunah and the kesher I’ve felt when davening for you. As I was thinking about your situation, Hashem placed an idea in my head that I’d like to share with you.
I was wondering if you would perhaps be willing to receive a short dvar Torah each week from me or one of my students, to which you’d respond with a short dvar Torah of your own. After sharing a “machzor” of the Torah together, we might want to publish a pamphlet of the correspondence, so that people might receive a lift from seeing how Yidden can be mechaye themselves through Torah even in the bleakest of situations.
How did Reb Shalom Mordechai respond?
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would receive a response. I knew that the mail system to the prison was sporadic, and there were so many rules and regulations. To my surprise and delight, I received a beautiful, lengthy letter from Reb Shalom Mordechai, saying how happy he was and that he thought it was a great idea.
If you’ll read the book, you’ll notice that the first letter my students sent was dated Parshas Lech Lecha, because we started with our correspondence right after Sukkos. At first, we sent the letters to the prison through ‘snail mail.’ A short while later, Mrs. Rubashkin called to advise me to start sending the letters through email, which were much more efficient and reliable. I would send them to her email address, and she would forward them to her husband.
Did each of the students write their own letter, or was it a group effort?
Neither. After a period of trial and error, we decided on a rotation system. Every week I would select another talmid who would come up with a vort on that week’s parsha and write a letter to Reb Shalom Mordechai. I would edit the letters and moderate the correspondence, adding a few lines of my own. These letters were written in English, which is the main language the boys feel comfortable expressing themselves in.
In what format did the boys write? Was it a personal letter, ‘hi, how are you?’ or just their own thoughts?
At first, the correspondence was strictly divrei Torah, with the boys writing a vort and Reb Shalom Mordechai responding with a vort of his own. After all, despite his appalling surroundings—there are no words to describe how degrading and humiliating it is, all that matters to him is Torah. That’s what he lives and breathes for.
As time went by, the letters became longer. We started incorporating riddles. Reb Shalom Mordechai would send my talmidim a few riddles every week, on the parsha or Yom tov. For example, a recent riddle was, ‘Why does the word Yehudim have two yuds in the megillah?’ My talmidim would receive the question before Shabbos, and they would have to come up with an answer over Shabbos. Then I would email their responses—sometimes there were many different answers, to Reb Shalom Mordechai, and he would send more riddles.
How did the letters evolve over time?
As our connection with Reb Shalom Mordechai strengthened over time, the letters became longer and more personal. Although our base is always divrei Torah, between the lines, we began to sense a piece of his neshomah. Though he doesn’t talk openly about his conditions and the daily routine, here and there, from the vertlach, especially on Yomim Tovim, we can get a glimpse. For example, during the letter on Purim, “In the Palace,” Reb Shalom Mordechai compares life for Esther in the King’s Palace to life in prison.
As he writes, “Looking into the Megilah for lessons that Mordechai and Esther teach us, we come up against the subject of golus, and how a Yid should deal with the limitations and nisyonos that are a part of every golus. There are certain similarities between the general golus all Yidden are in, and the very specific type of golus that is a place called Prison.
People tend to think that in a place with so much fear, pain and pressure as this place called Prison, a Yid should do the minimum requirement in Torah and mitzvos. What a huge mistake! Because it’s davka the kedushah of Torah and mitzvos, that connect a Yid with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and keep him safe and intact from the extreme tumah. And it is precisely Torah and mitzvos, that will bring a Yid the freedom he longs for.
Chazal tell us the free person is the one who is occupied with learning Torah. From Purim we learn how learning Torah and doing mitzvos can be done not just in a minimal way, but b’hidur and b’simcha.
Based on your correspondence, did you find that Yomim Tovim in prison were harder for Reb Shalom Mordechai than ordinary days? After all, spending Rosh Hashonoh or Pesach in prison must be a living nightmare.
On the contrary. It may sound strange, but during the Yomim Tovim he seemed to be on a higher plane, more elevated and b’simcha. During Yom Tov, Reb Shalom Mordechai’s guf may be in prison, but his neshomoh soars above the barbed wire. He is in a world of his own, with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, making a seder to the best of his ability, encouraging other Jewish inmates to join him, immersing himself in the true simcha of the Yom Tov.
His family, his dedicated wife and children, share his elevated level of emunah and bitachon. When you speak to them, you get the feeling that this is only temporary, that today is his last day in prison, and tomorrow he will be released. It’s not just words they’re saying—they live with Hakodosh Boruch Hu every moment.
One cute story comes to mind—my wife called Mrs. Rubashkin this year on Shushan Purim to wish her a guten Erev Shabbos. Mrs Rubashkin told her that her husband celebrates Shushan Purim, because he is in a place with a “chomah.”
Have you ever met Reb Shalom Mordechai?
Yes. By now I have visited him in prison several times. The first visit took place during Sukkos, a year after I started corresponding with him. I was in Monsey, by my shver for Yom Tov, and I wanted to meet Reb Shalom Mordechai in person. It wasn’t easy to get onto the approved visitor list.
The biggest obstacle was that there is a limited amount of visits in prison. For example, Reb Shalom Mordechai only gets twelve visits per month, usually on Fridays and Sundays from 9:30-2:00. If I come to visit, for example, that takes away one visit from his family.
However, if someone else arrives while I am already there, we both count as one visit. Also, children can come along for ‘free.’ Each time I would go to visit, I needed to coordinate with his family, so that he wouldn’t ‘lose’ a visit. Over the past two years, I went to him several times, either alone or with my young children. In fact, when the children came back to school after Yom Tov, and their morah would ask where they were over Chol Hamoed, they would say ‘in jail!’
Were these visits traumatic for the children?
Not especially. They are very young and I prepped them about what to expect. But the visits were traumatic for me. Prison is not a very pleasant place to be—it’s a humiliating environment which wears you down. The guards treat you like a number, not like a human being. They have a grudging respect for Shalom Mordechai, who mainly keeps to himself. They know he’s not like everyone else.
What did you talk about during your visits?
Divrei Torah, of course. That’s what keeps him going. Shalom Mordechai spends his days learning. He has a whole schedule; Rambam, the Tanya, sifrei Mussar and chasidus. Most of my visits were during the Yomim Tovim, on Chol Hamoed, when I was in Monsey, which is only an hour away. We would speak about the deeper meaning of the chag. Sometimes Reb Shalom Mordechai shared some of the challenges and tremendous hashgocha he experiences during Yom Tov.
Can you give me some examples?
I’m thinking of one powerful story, which I heard from him last Chol Hamoed Pesach. Reb Shalom Mordechai told me that the Chaplain had arranged for a seder plate. It arrived on the first seder night, but it was missing a zroah.
Reb Shalom Mordechai had been working to get into the spirit of Yom tov, and he had planned a seder with some of the other Jewish inmates, but it wouldn’t be the same without a zroah. He went over to one of the guards, and showed him the picture of a complete seder plate on the Maxwell House Hagaddah. He tried to explain that a seder plate without a zroah is like a machine with the most important piece missing.
As Reb Shalom Mordechai told me, he didn’t think anything would happen, because how could a guard get hold of a zroah? Things move very slowly in prison, and it has to be authorized well in advance. He figured that he has nothing to lose, so he asked the guard to call the nearby camp and ask if they had a spare zroah.
Normally, as he explained, the camp doesn’t pick up the phone, and they are not very interested in accommodating the prison. This time, it was an open miracle—someone picked up the phone and said that yes, they have a spare zroah. A half hour later, two zroahs arrived!
When the guard came with the zroah, Reb Shalom Mordechai was on such a ‘high’ that he started dancing with him!
How have the visits changed the lives of your talmidim?
What a question. When they read letters from a Yid in such a situation, who is living with der Eibishter, his only concern how to finish a masechta and make a siyum in jail, it talks to them, much more than stories from people who lived generations ago. On Erev Shavuos, for example, reading about Reb Shalom Mordechai’s preparation for Kabolas Hatorah brought our own hachonah to a new level. Originally, I thought I was doing this for my talmidim, and for Reb Shalom Mordechai, but it has changed my life as well.
In closing, I want to relate a story that happened during a visit a couple of months ago, after Rosh Hashanah, as mentioned in the final chapter of the book: On Rosh Hashanah, Sholom Mordechai barely managed to scrape together a minyan and practically had to beg some of the unaffiliated Jews to join. “After davening,” he later told his son 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.”
In order to get his meal, Sholom Mordechai would have to enter the mess hall and given the atmosphere there, that was something he could never bring himself to do on Rosh Hashanah. Yet this year, marveled Yossi, he was willing to forego his own Rosh Hashanah atmosphere and enter the mess hall and retrieve his lunch for the other man, all 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 tearful hug, and neither of us can bear to let go.
“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 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.
To order “Inside Out,” call 347.480.3305. All proceeds go to Klal Yisroel Fund, 53 Olympia Lane, Monsey NY 10952.