Two rabbis left the prison camp this morning, September 9, 2015, less than a week before the Jewish New Year holiday, Rosh Hashana. Not your ordinary run of the mill rabbis. These two rabbis left their mark on Otisville like no other rabbis. A Sephardi rabbi and a Litvish rabbi. Both had very strong personalities. They each felt it was their duty to assert themselves as leaders and role models for the Jewish inmates. Ben Chaim & Yehuda Leib Pinter. They each spent about five long years locked up for financial crime.
Rabbi Ben Chaim got taken down in the Dwek case, the topic of the bestseller, “The Jersey Sting“, in which a guy by the name of Shlomo Dwek helped set up 48 guys for the Feds, mostly for bribery and political corruption. Ben Chaim wasn’t a big player in the case, but since it was a big case for the Feds, you get treated like you are public enemy number one, and get a long sentence. It provides the Justice Department with good press, and more funding from Congress, the most important purpose of their jobs.
Rabbi Pinter got caught up in mortgage fraud before the housing market crashed of 2008. He got locked up, along with many other individuals throughout the country, including myself. The bankers and big financial institutions, who churned out the fraudulent mortgages for ten years, got pulled over and were given a verbal warning by the Justice Department. The banks ended up paying billions in fines. The banks promised the Feds, pinky swear, that they would never, ever cause the meltdown of the world economy ever again.
The night before the rabbis left I tapped into my artistic talents, which have been dormant since college, and drew two Rosh Hashanah cards for each rabbi, with cartoon caricatures of them. I went around the camp and got a lot of the guys to sign the cards. Big Joe, the very overweight Italian inmate, wrote on Ben Chaim’s card, “May you be like spaghetti, a long life with a lot of dough.” Herman Jacobowitz, the Satmar turned Lubavitcher, who who got 13 years, who runs the shul with an iron fist, refused to sign the cards. I asked him why he wouldn’t sign the cards. He couldn’t provide me with any coherent explanation. He was not a happy guy. You can’t blame him, he got a long sentence.
The rabbis gave parting speeches on the Shabbat before they left. Friday night Ben Chaim spoke. Ben Chaim couldn’t get his speech started on time because Jack and Shrek were cursing each other out. The Russians had to calm things down. Jack was angry because there were too many Russians at the table and he couldn’t get a seat, so he cursed out Shrek, who happens to be a Russian.
Eventually Ben Chaim got started and opened his speech by saying that Rabbi Pinter was a chachum, ie., a wise man, and Pinter came to him in the morning to ask for forgiveness before the New Year. Ben Chaim and Pinter didn’t always agree on everything. It was a cold peace for many years.
Ben Chaim then started to tell a story. He likes to tell stories with a moral message, a moshel. He started to tell a story about Elijah the prophet and two average men who worked as jesters at night to entertain people. After he said the word “jester” Steve Shea blurted out, “Are you calling me a clown??” He eventually finished his speech. It went on for 45 minutes. He said he hoped I didn’t blog about him. Inmate Useless told me after the speech that he brought the two rabbis together. I asked him, how so? He just waved his hand above his head and nodded and walked away, in his usual way.
The next morning Rabbi Pinter was scheduled to speak, if he decided to speak. It wasn’t clear if he was going to speak. A number of new guys gave him a hard time recently because they didn’t like that he always tried to urge guys to be more religious. They felt he was talking down to them. He thought he was doing a good deed, ie., mussar. At one point he refused to make any Shabbat speeches because of the complaints.
In the end Pinter gave a parting speech, after he kept us in suspense for a few days. He opened his speech by saying that he has been accused of being a ba’al machloches, someone who starts arguments. He said he normally stepped aside in the face of arguments. He said that whenever he spoke it was for the sake of the Torah, and what he honestly believed was Jewish law. If he offended anyone he apologized and sought forgiveness. He said it was very painful for him to be locked up for over six years, painful for his family, and his wife who has been a widow all this time.
Rabbi Pinter said he felt he didn’t get the respect due to him, for a guy who was locked up for so long. The longer you get locked up, the more perks you get. You get the tv clicker from the guy who gets released and leaves it to you. Pinter said if he had a problem with anyone he always tried to work things out and make peace, except for the time in the tv room when he told JR that JR may know football but he knows nothing about baseball.
Rabbi Pinter said that Torah law does not lock you up for financial crime. There may be restitution, but nobody gets locked up. How we ended up getting locked up must be from G-d Himself. He said we each have to look inward to see why we are here, and make the best of the situation and to use this opportunity to learn more.
After Rabbi Pinter’s speech many guys were very touched and wished him well. Whenever someone leaves the prison it is bitter sweet. You are happy for your friend, but think to yourself that you are still locked up and have a long way to go before it is your day to leave.
Some of the guys at my Shabbat table were not impressed with the heartfelt speech given by Rabbi Pinter. Insensitive inmates! Inmate Artie said, “I will never forgive that man for provoking me to get so angry that I pushed the podium into him.” I told Artie only a three year old says, “you made me do it.” In spite of the fact that Artie didn’t like Pinter, in the end he signed Pinter’s card. Artie is a true mensch, even though he waxes his betzim.
Dr. Goldberg didn’t like Pinter’s speech. He said, “This was a very lame attempt at an apology, just like when Larry Noodles apologized to everyone for his blogging, that was also lame.” Goldberg said that my apology for blogging tried to twist the facts around and not make it a real apology. I told Goldberg that I was a lawyer for 20 years, I am trained to twist facts around to my favor, I couldn’t help myself. Goldberg said he was too angry to speak about it and further and said he was not going to speak while he was angry. At least he didn’t call me “pure evil.” That was his favorite way to describe me. Spitzer also didn’t like the Pinter speech and said it was “very poor.”
On Wed morning, September 9, 2015, the two rabbis hopped into a prison pickup truck, driven by Israeli inmate Lev, who took them to the medium next door to be processed for release. I presented them with the cards, with everyone’s signatures, which read “5776 REDEMPTION, MAY YOU BE INSCRIBED IN THE BOOK OF LIFE.” They were in tears leaving the camp. They raised and held their their hands together in the prison truck.
I am not sure how the blueboyz were able to arrange that the two rabbis got released on the same day. There was some bickering going on for some weeks as to who was getting out first, to go to the halfway house. I think the blueboyz figured if they have them leave on the same day neither one of them will complain that the other got out first. I told Rabbi Ben Chaim we will meet up when I get released and start a mega synagogue, in the Meadowlands, and I will be his agent, and he will tell his stories to huge crowds. We will be rich and famous. So far this has not happened, but I am hopeful.
I tried to get some of the blueboyz to sign the cards for the rabbis, but they said it was against prison policy. Officer Scalboni told me I can write for him on Pinter’s card, “Get out of my office -bleep – bleep- Remember Pinter!” Not sure what that means. Must be an inside joke.
After the rabbis left the Jewish chapel became very quiet. It was never the same. Inmate Rabbi Useless took over Pinter’s role, but he is low key, and a quiet man. Nobody could replace Ben Chaim. Inmate Getto repossessed Pinter’s soft chair and moved it to the other side of the room, where he sits near the hallway. There was a void in Jewish leadership for some time, until the rabbis from the cattle prod get case arrived. I was long gone when these rabbis checked in…