By Rabbi Shalom Gurewicz
My job took me this week to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Knowing that Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin is sitting in prison there, I applied last month to visit him. I was approved and visited him on Tuesday.
He was so happy to see me. Besides for just having a visitor, he had also been placed in solitary confinement the night before and nobody, including his wife and attorney, knew about it yet and he was not allowed to make calls.
Rabbi Avrohom Blesofsky, the Chabad shliach of Iowa City, about 30 minutes away, visits him every other day. What a mitzvah!
My zaida, R’ Nochum Zalman Gurewicz, once took my aunt Ida to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. She told the Rebbe that her husband Hershel was not a chossid, but a ‘feiner poshuter Yid,‘ a simple Jew. (In fact, he was a Yid who was a talmid chochom). The Rebbe answered her, “Un vos is ah chossid? A feiner poshuter Yid! And what is a chossid? A fine, simple Jew!”
Sholom Mordechai is a chossid. His actions in prison had me thinking if my ‘chassidishkeit’ and whether my behavior in freedom is the way it should be.
While in prison, Sholom Mordechai has requested to shower every morning. He does not do this for the same reason most people shower in the morning. This is his way of going to the mikvah before davening. He will not daven unless he showers first.
His toilet is in the actual cell, so in order not to daven with a toilet in the room, he has taken his sheets and made a mechitzah around the toilet. At one point, when his ‘cellmate’ complained of contraband, they did a search on the cell and took down his mechitzah.
He told me that in the morning when he woke up in solitary confinement that he started saying Tehillim. (Sholom Mordechai is known for saying the entire Tehillim daily, even before he was in prison.) He then started to cry. Immediately, he stopped himself and looked upwards, to Hashem, and said, “What am I crying for?” He began smiling and then began to sing and dance in the cell. He sang five niggunim, including Napoleon’s march, a known Lubavitcher song.
He takes some of the water that is given to him to drink and saves it in a bag for negel vasser.
He does not watch television, even though there is not much else to do there. He feels that once you compromise your spiritual values, it is a slippery slope downhill.
All the other prisoners watch television. Sholom Mordechai? He has his seforim. He said that when they didn’t watch television, they yell things at each other and there have also been screams of, “There is a Jew here. Kill the ….Jews.”
He reads from his seforim, which give him chizuk to endure the hardships and remain positive.
When he was placed in solitary confinement, the small closet-like room had a slab of concrete to serve as his bed. He was worried. How he would sleep on it without any mattress or something soft? During a small reprieve from the cell, a fellow African American from another of these solitary confinement cells screamed out to him, “Hey, Rabbi!” It turns out that this man is from Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn, which is right near Crown Heights. This man told Sholom Mordechai that a small thin mattress is bought to the room from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and he should not worry.
Sholom Mordechai told me the story of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, I believe, who, while he was in prison, said that at one point he felt like this was Maseches Gehennom, but it was Chelek Bais! Sholom Mordechai felt the same way now in solitary confinement.
On my way out of the prison, I shared the elevator with a lawyer who looked at me and said, “You are a rabbi, correct?” He then said, “That means you are Jewish. Well, I am a Christian who loves Jews.”
I responded that we all need to love each other. I then proceeded to tell him about my visit. He was somewhat familiar with the Rubashkin story. He was shocked to hear about the way Sholom Mordechai was being treated, which is horrific.
Sholom Mordechai and I learned a small part of a sichah from the Rebbe about the geulah from Mitzrayim. Sholom Mordechai was pointing out and trying to understand how it could be that all the Yidden who were taken out of Mitzrayim never even made it to Eretz Yisroel. It was bewildering to him.
Let us be inspired and may Hashem, with our tefillos and all our good hachlatos, help Sholom Mordechai get out of prison and be able to continue his life as a chossid together with his family and community in Postville, who are waiting to see him again.