This is my favorite prison story. I don’t want to say anything bad… In 1969 a lot of young people were into stuffing themselves with drugs. In a city, about two hours away from New York, the grandmother in a very wealthy family died, and she left about a million dollars to her grandson to be given to him on his 21st birthday. But the parents – and he’s also the president of a temple, and the mother is the president of Hadassah of New England, very ‘outstanding’ people – felt the son wasn’t ready for the million dollars. And it’s still better if she has it in her pocket, than in his pocket, ‘since she loves him so much.’ It was mamash ugly.
Okay, the boy was smoking a little hashish sometimes, you know. But he has his head on his shoulders as much as his father. You know what they did, on his 21st birthday? They called the police on him and had him arrested. The boy was so heart-broken. His parents got wild! They put him in solitary confinement.
His girlfriend called me up. And she says, “I want you to know, you don’t know my boyfriend, but he knows you. He was once in the House of Love and Prayer.” And, “The rabbis in that city all know his father, he’s the president of the temple, how would they go against him? He just needs someone to talk to.”
I had to leave the next morning – I had a plane at 9 o’clock to Paris, I had to be there. I said to her, “I’ll tell you something. If you can arrange for someone to drive me from New York to the prison right now, I’m ready to sit with him all night. And then arrange to drive me tomorrow morning straight to the airport.”
Anyway, she came and picked me up to drive me to the prison. But I didn’t know that in order to go to prison, you need a written statement from the lawyer. Now basically, a Rabbi can go into prison any time, but I had no identification that I’m a Rabbi, and I didn’t have a letter from the lawyer.
In prison, everybody sleeps at night. I’m getting there at about eleven o’clock, and this nebech, nebech sad little guard sitting there in prison, half asleep. I knock. And he says, “What’s going on here?” I say, “Listen, my dear friend. I am a Rabbi, and I have to see one of my parishioners. His name is this… he’s in solitary confinement, and it’s a question of life and death. This boy needs me.”
“Uh,” he says to me, “Do you have identification?”
I said, “What do you mean? Are you crazy? Look at me! What do you think I am, a garbage collector or a shoemaker? I am a Rabbi, and I wanna see him!”
Mamash, I put the fear of G-d into him. He says, “Okay, okay, okay!” (ha, ha)
I want you to know. What the saddest thing was, his parents sent food to him in prison, and he refused to eat their food. He just said, “I have nothing to do with you anymore.” I had a coat, and I had filled my pockets mamash full of all kinds of food, falafel, vitamin pills – just for him. And the guard didn’t investigate what I have. I had also brought a lot of Rebbe Nachman books.
The guard brings him out… And this boy was such a high person. I want you to know, I spent four hours with the boy. We didn’t talk about the word “prison,” about parents, about hashish, about anything. I was mamash just learning Rebbe Nachman with him for four hours.
Every few minutes one of the guards came in, listened a little bit, and walked out.
I had to make my flight. So at about 3:30 a.m. I finish. I gave him all of the food, and he hid it in a little coat of his, and we walk out. And here is where the story really begins. The guards are sittin’ there, right? I said to the boy, “Tell me something.” (I said this in front of the guards.) “Tell me the truth brother. Are those guards still human beings, or have they lost everything? Is there hope for them?” So he says to me, “You know something? I think there is hope for them.”
So I said to the guards, “You know something? It seems I came all the way here to spend a little time with you here in this prison. This young man and I were just learning the deepest secrets of the Torah. Why don’t you all join us for a few minutes?” Mamash, we made a circle: the prisoner, humble me, and the guards. We were singing a little bit, and I was teaching them Rebbe Nachman’s Torahs, and they were mamash crying geferlach [profusely]. They were mamash crying. It mamash got to them. It was the most unbelievable thing. It was like after Mashiach has come. Naturally, we then hugged each other, and I kissed them. They locked the door. I walked out. I look back, and the prisoner and the guards were standing there waving. Unbelievable! Listen, I’m telling you, it was like after Mashiach has come. I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it.