Lessons I Learned from Behind Bars
It felt (smelled) like the entire kitchen came out to hug me! But it turned out to be the Mashgiach of the place who after many hours of working in the kitchen carried a blend of aromas on his person. Grilled meat, onions, spices, you get the point. What really made the moment so enjoyable was the fact that one of the last times I’ve seen this guy was him in an orange jumpsuit, in a county jail.
I actually stopped in to get something to eat. It was late in the evening, I was out with my wife and realized that we were hungry and could use some nourishment. What I got was a lot more than food. I had the wonderful experience of realizing actual (tangible) satisfaction of doing The Rebbe’s Shlichus. (No worries. As good as the feeling was, I did change my shirt as soon as I got home.)
The story doesn’t start nor end here. It all began several years ago when Rabbi Mendy Katz from The Aleph Institute asked me to volunteer to visit Jewish inmates in the jails / prisons nearest to Doral. Knowing that this was a highly important matter to The Rebbe, I said yes. Truth be said I was excited in the beginning but lost my stamina pretty quickly.
There were those times that I got stuck for longer than I expected due to a “lockdown”. Other times I just came out depressed. Yet in general, although I kept on going regularly, I’d continuously ask myself: what’s the purpose? Most of the guys seemed so far, so distant. Of course they get to do some Mitzvos. But, will they ever grow? Etc.
Then comes the regular “Shlichus problem”. I have to fundraise to cover my budget. I need to be in touch with so many people but one cannot bring a cellphone into these facilities, thus getting cut off from the entire “outside” during the few hours spent “inside”.
To make a long story short, I came home one evening from the jail and after seeing all the so many missed calls and getting it over the head from my bookkeeper (we share the same bedroom… “work” follows us where ever we go) – it was a particularly difficult week – I decide that perhaps I will stop going altogether.
I got home and quickly began helping out in the kitchen (to impress the “bookkeeper”). As I try to do, I dialed the Chassidus on the phone to hear the daily Sicha. Now, usually there’s an obvious connection between the selected Sicha and the Parsha or events of the week. This Sicha however had no (seeming) connection to the week’s Parsha, but it DID speak directly to me!
The Rebbe was explaining the great importance of visiting Yidden who are confined against their will, whether in hospitals or behind bars. So I had my answer as to what my decision will be…
And, since then I have received many more. All of them were highly enjoyable and satisfying.
For example, the Chanukah night I got stuck for way too long sitting with some inmates (I didn’t have the heart to leave and have the officer put out the candles – although they arrived late) and my kids missed the Chanukah concert. I felt very bad as we were lighting our menorahs so late. The disappointment in their eyes was stabbing at me, especially after they waited for so long with excitement. As I finished the last candle I receive a call from Zak* who had recently gotten out and was struggling to find work and make sure he doesn’t get back in. He called to wish me happy Chanukah and to get some Chizuk. Instead he was like a direct messenger from The Rebbe, telling me I did the right thing.
Again today, I had that wonderful experience. As I was entering the Chapel I met Steven* with a book under his arm. I bring them books to read and upon return I loan them new ones. He was holding the GPS For Life (a new book on the Tanya) which I recently loaned him. “Rabbi! This book’s so amazing that I asked my wife to purchase 5 copies; for her, each of my children & my son in law!”.
As we walked in he continued: “I’d already given up on studying Tanya, but this book changed everything! It’s amazing! I’m finally realizing that the reason I ended up here is to appreciate and study Torah and find real meaning in life!” He continued to detail the method he’s implemented in order to “really study it; not like a book you really like – which you don’t stop turning the pages”. He read a chapter then the next, went back to Ch. 1 reread it then ch. 2 again. After reading Chapter 3 he went back to the beginning of ch. 1 and so on. (I must admit, I can’t really claim to have endeavored to study Tanya in such depth and interest – ever!).
At this point I must tell you that the purpose of my writing is NOT to appear as some kind of hero. Rather my objective is to A) encourage each and every Shliach (and Anash) that can make the time, to go visit these facilities. Try it you’ll like it! It’s rewarding! B) to express my thanks to The Rebbe for the wonderful opportunity and experience and most of all for the Zchus to actually get the privilege of seeing results.
My real hero is a fellow Shliach whom I barely know (on a personal level). The story begins with a Jack* who owns a business in my area. I visit him at least once every week or two and we became friendly over time. He almost always put on Tefillin when I’d come. I offered him many times to study Torah. L perhaps buy his own pair of Tefillin, but nothing really came of it. Unfortunately he had some problem with the IRS and “went in” for about 8 months in upstate Florida right near the coast.
Recently Jack got out and of course I resumed my visits (with more frequency). He couldn’t stop telling me about how impressed he was about “Rabbi Mendy (Shechter) who drove every week from New Orleans three and half hours in each direction(!) just to spend an hour or so with us”. Consequently Jack now owns a Talis and Tefillin and committed to studying Torah once a week in his office!
I also take this opportunity to thank Rabbi Mendy Katz and the Aleph Institute for the wonderful work they do around the clock. Mendy you are an inspiration to me and many others!
first hand experiance
I am a Bochur and I was visiting Prisons for Purim, I saw first hand the dedication and hard work that Rabbi Mendy Katz and Rabbi Yossi Stern do. may they be blessed with everything good in their lives