Friday, May 17, 2024

The Stain That Won’t Wash

One day before Pesach, an important brief on the Rubashkin case was filed with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. This document was not only a trenchant rebuttal of government arguments that contested the Rubashkin appeal. It also unmasked a pattern of abuse of justice driving the case against Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin from the very beginning. The allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct that allowed these abuses have prompted 45 congressmen to write letters of complaint to Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding an investigation. Holder chose to ignore the congressmen, apparently hoping, along with the Iowa U.S. Attorney's Office and the presiding judge, that the noise would die down, that time would wash away the stain on American justice.

But the stain has proved stubborn. Last week, May 3, during a lengthy oversight hearing on the Justice Department conducted by the House Judiciary Committee, AG Holder found this out. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he was asked about the case in live hearings streamed to the American public.


Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla), the newly appointed DemocraticNational Committee Chairwoman, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), used their three-minute speaking allotment to press the highest Justice Department official in the country on what he has done about the injustices in the case.


Rep. Jackson Lee had penned one of the strongest letters about the case from a House Judiciary Committee member. Now she used the oversight hearing to confront him directly.


“The Rubashkin case raises issues of questionable legal ethics, excessive sentencing and a potential miscarriage of justice,” she had written in her June 2010 letter, citing “a series of ex parte communications between the trial judge and federal prosecutors [that] were held and never disclosed to the defense.”


The congresswoman, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, had urged Holder to investigate why Sholom Mordechai was denied bail pending sentencing. At last week’s oversight hearing, Ms. Jackson Lee went even further.


Stressing that Sholom Mordechai was a first-time non-violent offender and father of ten children, she questioned why he was not free on bail for the past 18 months “while his case was on appeal.” She called on the attorney general to take her concerns seriously and get back to her with answers.


Judge Linda Reade’s conduct drew scathing criticism from Rep. Wasserman-Schultz as well, who described the judge as “[having] been accused, accurately, of ex-parte communication and excessive sentencing.”


Repeating the charge, the Florida congresswoman told Holder, “If we can follow up with you and get a response from the Department, I would appreciate it very much. Because it appears that the sentence is incredibly excessive and the judge who levied the sentence engaged in inappropriate ex-parte communications.”




Evidence of “the stain that won’t wash” was on display in the remarks of yet a third congresswoman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who reminded AG Holder of the widely criticized Postville prosecutions following the 2008 ICE raid.


Judge Reade had played a pivotal role in these proceedings, working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prepare plea deal scripts, and afterwards serving as the sentencing judge for hundreds of the arrestees.


The uproar generated by the “fast track” criminal prosecutions that railroaded hundreds of immigrants into waiving their right to trial sparked a 2008 congressional subcommittee hearing chaired by Lofgren.


The committee conducted inquiries into the actions of federal officials and the district court, but ran into an impasse when government officials in Washington insisted that all reports of civil rights violations were false.


But as evidenced by Lofgren’s remarks last week to Holder, the allegations of federal misconduct surrounding the Postville prosecutions were never laid to rest.


“The factory workers there were literally rounded up and herded into a cattle area and then figuratively treated like cattle,” Lofgren reminded the Attorney General. “They had group hearings with shared counsel, no translation services, and very questionable guilty pleas and prison time.


“Judge Mark Bennett, who sentenced a number of the immigrants, said this about that proceeding and I quote: ‘I found the plea agreements [that the immigrants were asked to sign] professionally and personally offensive. I thought it was a travesty. I was embarrassed to be a United States District Judge that day.’”


As the Rubashkin appeal proceeds, and as the Postville-Rubashkin scandal continues to reverberate in political and legal circles, a duel of a different sort is being waged in Otisville prison, where Sholom Mordechai is incarcerated.


In excerpts from his letters to his children below, graciously made available by the family, one catches a glimpse of a heroic struggle to reach beyond steel bars and the excruciating isolation from family to retain sanity, normalcy, faith and hope for freedom.



Zeman Cheiruseinu in Otisville Prison


Excerpts from Letters from Sholom Mordechai to His Children


Dear Kinderlach,


A gutten mo’ed, a freilechen mo’ed un a kosher mo’ed v’yom tov.


As much as I wanted to be home with you, Hashem obviously wanted me to have my Seder here in Otisville… We’ll speak to each other tomorrow, but for now, let me share with you a few of the insights we had by this very unusual Seder.


If you could somehow have peeked inside the prison, you’d have been astounded. There I was, attired in a fancy silk, jet-black beketche and a kasketel, ablack felt cap. (I can hear you giggling. Were we celebrating Purim or Pesach here?)


The chaplain was able to obtain this yom tov levush for me. I was very happy to have it. We know that levushim help with the avodah and setting the proper atmosphere. Wearing these garments instead of the orange prison clothes certainly helped created a sense of cheirus. I brought a pillow and had a chair with arms that I could make heseibah with.


We had been given a small room off the chapel where a Sephardic Yid named Refael worked very hard to set up three folding tables for about 13 people, himself included. The rule was that anyone who wants to, whether they are Jews or not, can attend the Seder by signing up for it.


Of those who came, most were Yidden, with only one who is shomer Shabbos – this Refael, who was born in Morocco and is now a citizen of Canada. He and I decided to say “Korban Pesach” from the Siddur after Minchah. Something happened then – one of those things that seem “random” but carry special meaning when you are in a place like this.


[First, as a hakdamah, let me mention that I had received from someone who mails me different inyanim in learning a wonderful letter written by Rav Shimshon of Astropla Hy”d, which is a segulah nifla’ah to learn any time, especially Erev Pesach.]


Getting back to Refael, he’s flipping through his siddur looking for the Korban Pesach, and suddenly he comes across this piece of Torah from Rav Shimshon of Astropla! It was like a beautiful ray of sunshine lit up the room.


I asked him if he wants to learn it and he was happy to, so we sat and learned together. His face lit up as we got into the actual limud… Then more people started to come in and it looked like we might have a minyan for Maariv.


In the end, we didn’t. I davened aloud, and we said the Shema together. When it came time for Hallel, those of us who knew it sang it together slowly. I closed my eyes and pictured myself in shul davening together with a roomful of Yidden. What power the imagination has. The words of Hallel, so full of longing, carried me far away.


Lo lonu, Hashem, ki leshimcha. Not for our sake, but for Your Name!Min hameitzar korosi. From the depths of despair I call out to You…Anah Hashem, hoshiah nah. I beg of You Hashem, save us! I beg of You, Hashem, grant us success!


I came to the end of Hallel, finishing the bracha, “Ki lecha tov lehodos uleshimcha na’eh lezamer – It is so good to thank You, Hashem! It is so sweet to sing to You!


And how good it will be to make a great seudas hodaya very soon, and be meshabei’ach You for my personal geulah and that of all of Klal Yisroel…


I was lost in these exhilarating thoughts, miles away from everything in the prison. Suddenly, I opened my eyes. There I was, back in Otisville, with a bunch of people staring at me in silence. The quiet in the room stretched on – something extraordinary for this place.


I swallowed my emotion and started arranging the matzos on the kaarah with all the other items, as questions flew around the table. Why three matzos? Why those strange foods? Why the four cups of grape juice?


Besides for the Yid, no one knew about a kaarah and most knew nothing about the Four Questions. One guy from Massachusetts said his Seder was basically a rush to get to the dinner and the delicious brisket they had for the main course.


I started by explaining to everyone present that I was not making myself the leader of their Seder. There was plenty of matzah and grape juice to go around and everyone was free to do their own thing. I said that my intention was to make a Seder for myself the way I did at my home, and if anyone wanted to join my Seder, they were welcome to do so.


(This prevented problems later on, when someone got impatient and wanted me to finish up. “Hey, Sholom, it’s late. Let’s cut it short!” he called out. I reminded him that I was conducting my own Seder and I wasn’t holding him there.)


I explained according to a vort from the Maharil the purpose of the different stages of the Seder and why every act and every nuance is important. We discussed that the very act of eating matzah that night energizes a Yid with the ability for emunah. That is where the Yidden at Yetzias Mitzrayim received their tremendous energy and faith to march into the desert.


That led to a discussion of what matzah is and how a physical thing like food can bind a Yid to Hashem.


It may seem strange that I was talking about concepts that are so remote to most of these people. But every Yid has a neshamah that is sensitive to kedushah and that neshamah is more alive on yom tov.


When we came to maror, someone asked why the maror is at the center of the plate. Is “bitterness” the essence of life? Is that what it all comes down to?


There was the kind of silence you “hear” when people really want an answer. I talked about the bitterness of our own situation, each of us suffering in his own way. I said that some people here deal with the pain by covering it up with a fake show of high spirits. This creates a numbness that keeps them from feeling anything. If you can’t feel anything, you don’t feel completely human.


As we were talking, the idea seemed to settle in that it’s better to let yourself feel bitterness but not to let that become the focus. The point is what you do with it. I talked about how the purpose is to open up our hearts to show Hashem the bitterness of our plight and plead with Him for His help. This, more than anything, has the power to arouse His mercy.


That led to the topic of how we yearn for freedom, but while locked up in prison, many people don’t dare to voice these longings – even to themselves. Like when Moshe Rabbeinu came to the Yidden to tell them about the imminent redemption, they could not pay attention to what he was saying. The posuk says, “Mikotzer ruach umei’avodahj kasha.” Lack of energy plus exhausting labor.


Here, too, exhausting monotony and degradation drains hope for freedom in people. Two of the inmates at our Seder were from Eretz Yisroel. One is a son of Holocaust survivors who is nebach in jail for 21 years! Another is a Sephardic Yid who grew up in a kosher home. He’s been in jail for about 9 years. So there at our Seder table in Otisville, this feeling of slavery being “forever and ever” was very much the mood at first.


But that slowly started to change as we read the Haggadah and related the message of the matzah, how the redemption came so quickly that there was no time even for the dough to rise. And how Hashem did not send a malach or messenger to save us from the Mitzriyim. He Himself came to take us out of our slavery, because He cares about every single Yid. People started warming up to the idea of redemption and its reality.


During the meal, I gave a bracha for cheirus and we all drank lechaim with a heartfelt bakasha to Hashem that we be granted our personal cheirus as the Yidden experienced cheirus at Yetzias Mitzrayim.


Normally, I would get mocking looks and irritation if I tried to give such a bracha. “Ah, what are you yapping about? Leave me alone with your brachos,” people would say. But now it was different. We actually had a second lechaim and I invited them all to come to my house for the Seder next year!


You could see that inside each and every Yid, even a hardened inmate, there is a child who wants to know he has a Father in Heaven Who cares for him. If you can give a Yid the gift of knowing this and believing this, it’s like giving him life.


I can almost hear your question about Eliyahu Hanovi: Yes, kinderlach, two of the Yidden went to the door and opened it for Eliyahu Hanovi, welcoming him into our Seder. Yes, even here. We said Shefoch Chamoscha with deep emotion, with shivers.


May Hashem be mekayeim this tefillah said with so much hartzigkeit by so many Yidden throughout the world on Seder night.


And may Hashem bring me cheirus from prison and unite me with my beloved family very soon.






The Holy Count

    This week, in Parshas Emor, we encounter the mitzvah of counting seven weeks between when the Korban Omer is brought on the second

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