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Selichos in Cell 219

With Rosh Hashanah approaching, letters flowing with heartfelt wishes for a kesivah vachasimah tovah have reached cell 219 in Otisville, where Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin is incarcerated. One note ended with a question: “I couldn’t stop thinking of you during Selichos… Were you able to get a minyan together as you did for other Yomim Tovim? Who came? What was it like?”

The following reply came from Sholom Mordechai:

“Regarding your question, there was no possibility of putting a minyan together. All the prisoners are locked in their cells after 9:30. There used to be a policy where, occasionally, on some nights, they would leave the cell doors open into the common area where inmates could watch a show or talk together. This created a sense (actually, an illusion) of a limited amount of freedom, if only for a very short while.

 

“But this small humane gesture has been taken away, and now, at 9:30 every night, the inmates return to their cells and are locked in. The cell itself is a very small space, originally designed to house one person. Two people are now forced to share this area, leaving no personal space for either one. Stripped of every shred of privacy, even for when nature calls, a human being is robbed of the most basic dignity, degraded to the level of something sub-human.

 

 “This past Motzo’ei Shabbos, Selichos night, the doors locked as usual at about 9:30, and I sat down to my melava malka. I washed, made Hamotzie, and munched on a roll and tuna fish. I sang some songs quietly, grateful that the person in the cell with me is understanding and doesn’t object to what I’m doing. I explained to him that at about one o’clock in the morning, I will have to daven and he said, ‘No problem.’

 

“I spend some time reading stories of Eliyahu Hanovi, make a lechayim, and finish with Birchas Hamazon. I try to learn some words of Torah in preparation for Selichos and, finally, it’s 1 a.m. I stand up wearing my gartel, with the copies of the Selichos in my hand. For a split second, I’m conscious of the weird sight I make to my cellmate. But I quickly close my eyes, banishing my surroundings and flying far away.

 

“I envision myself standing with other Yidden in shul, anticipating the chazzan beginning ‘Ashrei yoshvei veisecha.’ With his words ringing in my ears, I begin Selichos, not as a solitary Yid alone in a jail cell, but together in shul with fellow Yidden, pleading to Hakadosh Boruch Hu for rachamei Shomayim.

 

“I try to focus on the peirush hamillos, the simple meaning of the words. When Ashrei is finished, I wait for the imaginary chazzan to say Kaddish, trying to bring alive in my mind the nusach hatefillah, and following along, word for word. Mentally, I join in with a throbbing ‘Amein, yehei Shemei rabbah mevorach le’olam ule’olmei olmaya yisborach.’ I continue, pausing at the places where the chazzan sings the last pesukim of a section and singing along with him.  

 

“Then it comes to ‘Bemotzo’ei menuchah,’ the main piyut, and now the neshamah is pumping life into a weary body, opening up my heart and the wellspring of longing. ‘Shema koleinu!’ I plead to Hashem. I know He is listening. ‘Al tashlicheinu milfonecha – Don’t cast us away from You!’ My loneliness and separation from where I want to be and where I belong overwhelms me.

 

“‘Hashem, show us You are with us, ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu. Don’t take your holy Presence from us. Even in this lowly place of tumah, be here with me. In this place of darkness and despair, all I have is You.’

 

“The Selichos goes on to describe the many times in our history that Hashem has answered our fathers in a time of need. This gives me a surge of bitachon that He is with me, right now, right at this very emotion-laden moment. I know He will show us mercy and take me out of this golus.

 

“‘Rachmana de’anei le’aniyei, aneina. Oh Merciful One, answer the poor and impoverished! Rachmana de’anei lisvirei leeba, aneina. Oh Merciful One, answer the brokenhearted!’”

 

“It is over so quickly. If I could only remain inside these moments, this place of kedushah that feels so very real, more real than the cold, unbearable jail cell. But I am pulled back inside the bars and the sordidness of this place. I put away the Selichos and say Krias Shema Al Hamitah. I place the negel vasser cup in the shissel, suddenly conscious of being watched. I realize that the person in my cell has been staring at me, studying the whole strange scenario. He comes down from his perch on the top bunk without saying a word and shuts the light.

 

“Yes, I am still in cell 219 in Otisville. But I believe be’emunah sheleimah that Hashem, in His infinite mercy, will soon free me and bring me home with Klal Yisroel. Amein, kein yehi ratzon.”