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Free Spirit

Yisroel Besser

What has Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin been doing in prison for the last 1,400 days (with another 23 years to go)? How could it be that his eyes are brighter than ever, his emunah stronger than a rock? When there’s nothing outside, he says, you have to reach deep inward — and discover tools most people are fortunate not to have to use.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The dominant feature of the Otisville Correctional Institution landscape is the high, gleaming electric fence enclosing the prison building.

Men circle the running track at its side, but they are looking down, rather

than ahead. Eventually I manage to correctly fill out the forms. Pockets are emptied: cell phone, keys, change, papers, and even my pen are left in a small locker as I am waved through the metal detector, across a large courtyard and into the visitors’ room. Outside, the heat is oppressive; in here, a bit worse. The large fans provide more noise than relief. The guards ask who I’m here for and I am instructed to sit down and wait.

The scene all around is heartbreaking — families waiting on the hard plastic chairs rearrange their features into smiles as their visitors are led through the door from the “inside.”

“Daddy!” shouts a cute little boy as his father scoops him up and lifts him high. Some of these visitors are wives, but many others seem to be mothers, older women who continue to see the khaki-suited men before them as the sweet little boys they once were. “Now honey … you’d best be eating your meals, look at you. You’re disappearing! Mr. Hooper sends regards, and of course, your brother says hello and tells you to hang in there.”

Sometimes they break, these hardened men, emotion flooding their features as suddenly as an oncoming truck in the rearview mirror. Other times, the mask stays frozen in place: allowing a crack to appear would ruin everything.

“Rubashkin!” bellows one of the two guards leading my friend Reb Sholom Mordechai into the visiting area. Here he is.

Over 1,400 days in prison, a diet of matzos and tuna fish and unimaginable loneliness and he looks great. He nearly bounds over to me: “Shalom aleichem!” His eyes haven’t lost their gleam — if anything, they’re brighter than ever — and he looks vibrant and hearty. The insipid brown of his uniform does nothing to dim his luster.

I felt connected to Reb Sholom Mordechai from the minute I met him that clear summer day four years ago. We strolled through the cornfields near his home in a distant corner ofIowa, at a time when his future was uncertain. He’d just lost his entire business, the plant he’d worked so hard to build, and his mood was one of dazed acceptance.

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