Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

Simchas Torah in Otisville, NY

With the help of the Aleph Institute, an organization that services Jewish inmates and soldiers in the U.S. armed forces, permission was granted by the Otisville Federal Penitentiary where Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin is incarcerated, to build a sukkah, Mrs. Leah Rubashkin told the Yated. A handful of Jewish inmates built the sukkah together and shared a few meager meals in it over Yom Tov. To his surprise, Sholom Mordechai found himself left alone by the guards for hours after the others ate and left. “The food was gone, but food for the soul was in abundance,” Mrs. Rubashkin said. “The pleasure of just sitting in the sukkah alone with his Tehillim and his thoughts, far from the cell and the inmates and guards - the simple pleasures that we take for granted in freedom - was a pure gift from Heaven.”

Excerpts from Sholom Mordechai’s letter to his family after Yom Tov:


Boruch Hashem, I was able to say the hoshanos with the five aravos, and to be mamtik the hei gevuros, as the siddur briefly describes the kavanos to keep in mind while banging the aravos.


A thought struck me as I said the yehi ratzon. Isn’t it amazing that we simple Yidden are expected to perform a minhag as the neviim hakedoshim did on Hoshanah Rabbah thousands of years ago? What other minhagim are there in which we emulate the neviim from ancient times?


I suddenly realized that tonight would be Shemini Atzeres and hakafos with the Sefer Torah must be said. How could I round up a minyan? It’s hard enough on Shabbos when Jews, even if not frum, know you need a minyan and are willing to help out.


I was standing there, wondering which way to turn, when Hashem, Who always helps, sends the answer. Shlomo, a Yid from Eretz Yisroel, who came every day of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah to put on tefillin and daven together with me, comes over, saying, “Hello, Sholom!” I respond with a smile. He asks me, “Sholom, what’s on your mind? You look lost!”


I explained to him that tonight is Shemini Atzeres and the minhag is to have hakafos with a minyan of Yidden and how the simcha of such a mitzvah is so great. I told him that we have a Sefer Torah in the chapel and all we need is to get together the ten Yidden. We’re so close to making it happen, I said.


“Can you come?” I asked him. “Please, it’s very important.” He assured me he would. I asked him for help getting everybody else we know to commit to come. He agreed and, boruch Hashem, we got the commitment from ten Yidden. That night we said the hakafos with a minyan, besimcha.



The problem was that they were all yotzei with the first night’s hakafos. Some are Israeli and only know about one day of Yom Tov, and some don’t even know about one day. I couldn’t pull together anyone for hakafos the second night. I did it alone. The loneliness was very strong.


Going through such holy days alone, with no other Yid to share a devar Torah, ah tensel together… a lechaim…a shmeichel… It was difficult and very lonely. It made me realize so powerfully the value of a Yid.


The more solemn days, when you’re more focused on davening, introspection and learning, were less lonesome for me than “Zeman Simchaseinu.” When a person is besimcha, he needs to share his feelings with other Yidden. It can’t be experienced alone. It’s like being at a wedding and dancing by yourself.


How could I dance here myself? I looked around me… I thought un es iz geven tunkel in di oigen. It just makes me sick. So I stopped looking around.




On Shabbos Bereishis, I opened a Chumash and started learning Chumash and Rashi. “Koach maasov higid le’amo, loseis  lohem nachalas goyim…” Rashi explains that Hashem begins the Torah with the story of Creation rather than with the mitzvah of hachodosh hazeh lochem rosh chodoshim in order to make His omnipotence known to the nations of the world.


A Yid needs to know as a foundation of his avodas Hashem and his Torah learning that he must take the land of the umos ha’olam and make it aneretz hakodesh, a holy land.


That would mean that not only must a Jew do Hashem’s mitzvos, but he must be able to overturn an “eretz canaan” – a place devoid of kedushah – andmake it a place for kedushah.


I read this and took strength from it. Here I am in a land that is very not kedushadik, to put it mildly. Beginning this week with Parshas Bereishis, the lesson I need to take to heart is to find a way, by being a loyal Yid even in a place that is so full of the opposite of kedushah, to bring kedushah here as well.




Prison life is not for any living being, especially not for a Yid. But I can’t deny that there are certain lessons about its parallels to life in freedom that, if they were not so very painful, they would be comical. Here is one:


When I arrived here at this prison, some seemingly “concerned” inmates tried to “befriend” me. They gave me well-intentioned advice on how to “survive” prison life. “Hey, you’re a newcomer, you need to learn the ropes,” they’d tell me. “Don’t forget, you’re in prison, you know!” (As if I could forget.) “Here you’re supposed to act like this and do this or that.”


But I’ve read the rules from the prison handbook, and I know those are the only rules I need to adhere to. Any other advice is stemming from ulterior motives.


The “concerned” inmates are giving me all this unsolicited advice so that I should begin to live their life and be more like them, G-d forbid.  It’s obvious when they get to the punch line – “In prison you are supposed be behave like this or that” – that they want you to immerse yourself in prison life spiritually, all the way.


But I look around un es vet mir shvartz in der oigen. Witnessing the lifestyle, it’s sickening. Pathetic. Why would I want to emulate these people and their habits?


On the contrary. With every ounce of strength, I will resist getting conditioned to seeing and hearing all aspects of this lifestyle. I will daven every morning not to be affected or infected by the spiritual and physical diseases that inhabit this planet called prison.


It takes some time until those “concerned” inmates are exposed for what they really are – inhabitants of a dark pit who want to pull me in with them. Survival means breaking away from the friendly-seeming forces who want to pull me into the pit.




Does any of this sound familiar? Think of how a neshama arrives in this world encased in a guf. For the neshama, the guf could be a real prison. Just like a new inmate, a Yid is approached by “concerned friends” with advice on how to survive and prosper… The theme is always the same: This is the real world; you gotta deal with reality. You have to be like them. They don’t like you when you act different.”


The truth is that you’re a Yid and you have a Torah, and you’ve already been coached on how to “survive” in this world. All the workable, survival techniques you need you’ve already been given in the Torah. That’s what will bring blessing. Anything else will backfire in your face.


The point is that the Creator of the world endows you with the koach to bring kedushah in everything you do. That’s your mission. “Kol maasecha yihyu lesheim Shomayim.”




How is that done? How can a Yid withstand the raging waters of this world? Parshas Noach gives the answer. It’s by going into the safety of the teivah. The Baal Shem Tov explains that the teivah represents the “teivos” of davening and learning. The lesson is for every Yid to enter the teivah of learning. Sit down and learn Torah. Daven with kavanah and think of the peirush hamilos, the simple meaning of the words.


Then you will be protected from the raging mabul and its tremendous turbulent waters. But then comes the command from Hashem: Tzei min hateivah! Hashem tells us, “After you have taken all the koach and chiyus from your learning and davening, it’s time to leave the teivah and make the world into a world of Hashem. Ain ode milvado.


May Hashem bless me with the command to leave this prison and all its terrible suffering and limitations. Tzei – Go out! May I be zoche, be’ezras Hashem,to join you for a real seudas hoda’ah on my birthday, Chof Ches Tishrei,habah aleinu ve’al kol Yisroel letovah, bepashtus and in a revealed way.


And may I merit to be able to be together with my family and kehillah and Klal Yisroel for my son Mendel’s bar mitzvah, be’ezras Hashem. Amein, ve’amein.


Sholom Mordechai Halevi



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