Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World

By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum

When the Vilna Gaon, zt’l (1720—1797) was twice incarcerated in connection with the case of an apostate, he was in a cell with nine other Jews, one of whom was his shammash. The Vilna Gaon was permitted to have sefarim. Delving deep into a Talmudic subject, the Vilna Gaon asked his shammash to bring him hot tea. The shammash, incredulous at the request, politely advised the Vilna Gaon that they were in jail and that hot tea was not on the room-service menu. Without hesitation, the Vilna Gaon directed the shammash to twist and remove certain window bars, exit the jail, acquire hot tea, and return.

The students of the Vilna Gaon wanted him to pray for his own release, for they were certain that he would then be released. When the students visited and urged him to pray for his own release, without looking up from his sefer, he indicated that he had his sefarim and, therefore, he was comfortable and productive. The students were disappointed. When the students indicated that the authorities wanted to sentence him to death, he answered that he was not better than Rabbi Akiva and other sages who were executed. The students were crestfallen. When his students advised him that the authorities intended to burn him together with a prostitute, the Vilna Gaon looked up and agreed that he did not like that possibility. Only then did the students become optimistic that the Vilna Gaon would be released. Miraculously, the Vilna Gaon was released within hours, without any explanation from his jailers.

Lubavitcher rebbes who were thrown into jail recited Tefillas Ha’derech daily, optimistically looking forward to traveling away from their confinement that very day. When Rabbi Akiva was imprisoned, he used his limited supply of water to wash his hands rather than for drink, maintaining a level of sanctity. He was envied by his contemporary sages (Eruvin 21b).

Though their numbers are statistically insignificant, even one Jew incarcerated is too many. Approximately one-third of the Jews presently in federal prisons request kosher food. They are put on a “common fare” program that is designed for all special requests such as Muslim, vegetarian, etc. The Jewish inmates are given only three hot dishes per week with their meals as opposed to 21 hot dishes for those on the general fare. In addition, many of the food items are given to them raw, such as uncooked cabbage and other coarse vegetables. Vegetarian beans, served cold, appear to be a staple item.

Rabbi Meir Kahane (1932—1990), zt’l, leader of the Jewish Defense League and later an Israeli Knesset member, sued the U.S. federal government in the late 1970s for kosher food and won. The first kosher kitchen was established at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Camp in Pennsylvania. A former student of mine was then officiating as the Jewish chaplain there and I was invited, in February 1978, to oversee and inaugurate the kosher kitchen. Since every piece of equipment was new, the startup was flawless. Kosher meals, prepared by the kosher inmates themselves, were tasty and met or exceeded every prison guideline. Since then, the offering of kosher food in federal prisons has seriously deteriorated.

Rabbanim Visit

In Israel, in 1999, Rabbi Aaron Leib Steinman and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky visited the austere Ashmoret prison in Jerusalem, generating much public attention. Inmate Aaron Shmuel Kornblit was charged with the ransacking of a Meah Shearim apartment used by missionaries and had been held for over six months pending sentencing. Kornblit, married and the father of six, faced a possible sentence of up to two-and-a-half years. After the visit, he was scheduled to be transferred to another prison where conditions are geared to serve observant prisoners.

The rabbis were allowed to visit Kornblit in the office of the jail’s deputy warden, a rare privilege, in a wing reserved for observant prisoners. The prison chaplain and the warden were present. For the visit, Kornblit was permitted to wear chassidishe clothing as opposed to the coarse prison uniform, another rare privilege. It was apparent that the prison administration had wished to put forward its best face for the prestigious rabbis. After discussions regarding conditions, health, family, and food fare, Kornblit presented the rabbis with a list of more than 30 questions of halachah that arose during his imprisonment. The rabbis gave him quick yes or no answers.

The questions pertained to the observance of mitzvos in confinement and regarding ba’alei teshuvah. Must one affix a mezuzah in a prison? No, because the prison cannot be considered a dwelling because one is held there against his will. May one store food under a bed? The typical prison cell is an eight-foot square holding one or two prisoners. Space being extremely limited, and without other alternatives, one may store food under a bed. Included in the list of queries were many that uniquely concerned food-preparation kashrus, religious items, and outreach to the unobservant.

Here in the United States, observant Jews have been sentenced to prison, mostly for tax or business infractions. Prominent entrepreneurs and respected professionals, highly regarded and charitable members of the religious community, have made serious errors in ethics and are suffering the consequences. Important rabbis have been regularly visiting Jews in prison. The visits unquestionably raise the morale of those unfortunately confined there. Additionally, it transmits a message that observant Jews, regardless of where they may be found, are precious, and that the religious community is concerned for them. Prominent rabbis, by their very presence in prison visiting rooms, elicit the attention of prison officials to the religious needs of observant inmates as well.

The visits of rabbis raise the esteem of the Jewish inmates in the eyes of guards and prison officials. It also generates respect from fellow inmates. This respect raises the level of civil behavior and is duly reciprocated. The importance of the pastoral visits cannot be overstated. In addition, famous as well as up-and-coming Jewish singers generously give of their valuable time to entertain imprisoned Jews, bringing the taste of Jewish soul into an otherwise bleak routine.

The visits also transmit the powerful message that, upon the inmate’s return home and with maintenance of impeccable ethical behavior, becoming a productive, respected member of society within the religious community is again attainable.

Monday, December 15, 2014, was a special day for the Jewish inmates at the medium-security facility of the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, NY (FCI Otisville). Otisville is located 86 miles from Manhattan, 51 miles from Monsey, 28 miles from Kiryas Yoel, and 22 miles from Monticello. In accordance with his practice of devoting much time to chesed activities, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe, formally visited the facility and met with the Jewish inmates as a group and with each inmate individually.

The Otisville facility consists of two parts. There are 1,068 inmates held in the fenced-in medium security facility and 118 inmates are housed in the low-security camp outside the perimeter fence. The Satmar Rebbe indicated his desire to visit Jewish inmates inside the medium-security camp. A call was made to Rabbi Avrohom Richter, the director of chaplaincy services at Otisville, on Wednesday, December 10, to arrange for the visit on December 15. Ordinarily, considerably more time is necessary to coordinate special visits. However, the Satmar Rebbe’s staff pressed for the December 15 date. Rabbi Richter, truly dedicated to those he serves, exerted every influence to get the approval of the warden and all other officials necessary. (Rabbi Richter is the Chabad rabbi of Howard Beach. Recently, he worked with Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niderman of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to have a cross that was the grave marker of a Jewish soldier replaced with a Star of David.)

In anticipation of the Satmar Rebbe’s visit, the prison chapel was meticulously cleaned, polished, and readied. Surprisingly, though somewhat incongruous, the inmates were able to create and place Baruch Ha’ba (welcoming) signs at the chapel entry. At 2:00 pm, with special permission, two inmates, Sholom Weiss and Mordechai Yitzchok Samet, together with prison officials, awaited the Satmar Rebbe at the doors of the security gate.

Sholom Weiss acquired Windsor Plumbing Supply in 1974. The company was then bringing in about $275,000 a year. By 1986, Windsor was doing $20 million in business. Weiss contributed the funding for the main kollel building in Kiryas Yoel. Sadly, he was convicted in 2000 on 93 counts of fraud, racketeering, and money laundering for the mismanagement of the now-defunct Heritage Life Insurance Corporation between 1990 and 1998. He was sentenced to 845 years of prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, possibly the longest sentence ever imposed. The judge ordered Weiss to repay $125 million in customer losses and fined him an additional $123 million. That sentence was reduced in 2011 by 10 years.

Mordechai Yitzchok Samet was convicted of business fraud in 2002 and sentenced to 27 years’ imprisonment. Some feel that the sentencing of Samet had an element of religious persecution, as the judge, seemingly biased, quoted the Bible in imposing the lengthy sentence. Samet had made full restitution but was nevertheless given a sentence considerably longer than headline multibillion-dollar cases of business fraud such as Enron, WorldCom, etc. Recently, in anticipation of a review of his case, Samet has been begging forgiveness in full-page ads in many Yiddish weeklies from anybody he may have personally slighted.

The Rebbe arrived with his assistants and they were all escorted into the chapel, where he was emotionally received. A kabbalas panim tisch reception was conducted. Leading the welcome was Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who was aggressively prosecuted and found not guilty on most of the charges leveled against him. However, on the charges of which he was found guilty, mostly business misstatements, he was sentenced in 2010 to 27 years, notwithstanding that he is a nonviolent, first-time offender. Pending trial, Rubashkin was wrongfully denied bail because he was Jewish, and according to the Iowa Federal court, where he was prosecuted, he automatically was a flight risk to Israel. Rubashkin’s appeal has been denied a hearing by the United States Supreme Court.

The Satmar Rebbe spoke to the group in Yiddish. His words were translated by Rubashkin. The meeting was intensely emotional and affected every inmate, each of whom met individually with the rebbe and spoke with him. After daveningMinchah together with them, the rebbe parted with the teary-eyed inmates.

Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here