It’s a simple enough question, but until recently, I haven’t been able to answer it. “Who are you?” For years I was proud of who I was. I had no worries in the world. I was making great money, living a life of fun, fancy and fast cars, and thought that nothing or no one could touch me. For years I was a professional criminal.
And then my world came crashing down. I was caught. I was found guilty. And I am now in the process of serving a twelve-year sentence in the Ramla prison in Israel.
The day I entered the jail, I lost my identity. To the prison system, I was merely a number. I had a name, but no one knew it as I never used it. I had a reputation, but it was for what I had done. It no longer applied. You can’t be a thief when you aren’t stealing. You can’t be a drug dealer when you aren’t dealing. But I only knew how to be a criminal. So behind bars, who was I? What defined me?
I was a prisoner. And when you are a prisoner you have no definition. You have no status in the underworld and no status in the real world. You are nothing.
Then I got a glimpse, for the first time in my life, into my religion. It began one June day. I met the prison rabbi. The inmates simply called him “Jacobs.” For the first time in my life, I began to learn the real answer.
I am a Jew.
I am a Jew who never really cared that he was a Jew. I am a Jew who was raised, like most Israelis, with the basic traditions, but with little care or understanding as to what any of it meant. Like many other Sephardi immigrants, my grandparents were quite religious, but it was passed down watered down. What was passed down well was the poverty, the illiteracy, and the hopelessness that many immigrant families have experienced. And, what got passed down was the need to survive and thrive at any cost. And that was exactly what I did.
I was a great criminal. I knew how to lie, cheat, steal, and essentially get whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I had no qualms about my actions. I felt I was just helping make the world a little more balanced. It wasn’t my fault that I was raised with barely enough food to eat. I couldn’t change what I was given, but I could change what I would get. And so, from a very young age, I learned what was profitable. Drugs and weapons were profitable. What I didn’t realize was that they were also deadly.
I watched my friends die. Some physically, others emotionally or mentally. I watched them reach a point where nothing mattered. A point that I never wanted to reach and feared that I would.
Few believe this, but I think I really wanted to get caught. Call it pop-psychology, but I think my getting caught was my cry for help. I knew something needed to change, but for the first time, I didn’t know how to do it. I only knew how to do wrong. No one had ever taught me what was right.
Getting caught and thrown in jail was a real blessing—and not even so much one in disguise. I really think it saved my life.
But it was the prison chaplain who saved my soul. He introduced me to who I was, to who I am, and to who I want to be.
Fishel, aka, “Jacobs,” made sure the kitchen was kosher, there were mezuzahs on all the doors, and that other rabbis did their jobs in the cell-block yeshivas by giving classes in Torah throughout the week.
At first when I watched Jacobs make his rounds, I thought that if he knew what was good for him he’d better stay away from me. I was in a cell-block with a lot of tough guys, men who would stab you in the blink of an eye if they needed to. Upon mentioning my thoughts to a fellow inmate, I was informed that Jacobs was a black-belt in karate and if I was smart, I may want to stay away from him.
So, I quickly realized that fighting this Orthodox rabbi would be a good way not only to end up in isolation, but would be a fight I would sorely lose. I figured I would rely on the age-old idea that if you can’t beat them, join them. He couldn’t be that bad if the other inmates liked him so much.
The first time he entered my cell, I realized that this meeting was going to be very different from what I’ve become accustomed to. Here was someone who didn’t care about my criminal past, wasn’t impressed with my rap record, and only wanted to focus on what’s inside me. No one had ever taken the time to ask or care what was going on in there. He did. He took one good look at me, and his eyes entered a place so deep within-a place I didn’t even know existed.
He explained to me that he is a Chabad-Lubavitch chassid, and his job was to help Jews discover what it means to be Jewish. That was it. Simple as could be. Here was an intelligent man, whose main goal in life was to teach me that I am a Jew.
Here was someone who embodied the exact opposite of everything I knew. I knew people who were nothing, but pretended to be something. “Fake it ‘till you make it.” Here was an American, who wrote books, and was a success in other ways, yet to him it meant nothing. All that mattered was helping others. And, he told me that all Lubavitchers tried to be exactly like that.
Working with prisoners is no easy task. Let’s be honest here. We are the garbage of the world. We are the people you hate, and rightly so. There is a reason we are behind bars. We did something that landed us here. With few exceptions, we deserve to be where we are.
So what kind of person with other career choices chooses to work with us?
This was the first question I asked Jacobs when he entered my cell. His answer blew me away. He told me that the same question was asked to his Rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in regards to how he didn’t tire standing for hours, handing out dollars to thousands upon thousands of people. The Rebbe answered that when you count diamonds you don’t get tired.
Fishel added that even when those diamonds end up in a pile of mud, when you know there are diamonds, you’ll stick your hand right in and pull them out. The mud may cover the diamond, but it can’t penetrate it or diminish its beauty and value. And the mud will wash off.
I was a diamond. Most certainly covered in mud, if not worse, but a diamond nonetheless.
Who would have thought that being imprisoned would be the greatest thing that could have happened to me? It wasn’t until I came to prison that I learned who I was. Until then I thought I knew, but I had no idea. Now, even though I am physically behind bars, I am finally free within. And though this is not a place where I want to stay, I am using every minute of my time here as an opportunity.
An opportunity for growth, repentance and change. I have begun to view my sentence as yeshiva for ex-criminals. I have a lot of time here to study Torah, and I attend a Tanya class and a class in Jewish law every day. I keep Shabbat, eat kosher food, and do mitzvot whenever I can. Funny enough, because I was so well known on the streets, other inmates are willing to attend the classes and learn because of me. Go figure.
I wait for the day of my release. I await the day when I can give back to society and try and make up for the damage I did. I yearn for the day when I can marry a wonderful woman and bring beautiful children into this world. And when I do leave these prison walls, I will know what to answer when asked who I am. I am Moshe. I am a diamond. I am a Jew.