Growing up, my family wasn’t religious. The term “G-d” was rarely mentioned. We ate like everyone else; we lived like everyone else but rarely mentioned G-d. I knew that I was a Jew, and I’m sad to say that I wasn’t proud of it. Still, something inside of me always told me that I was different. This “different “was the candle inside, the Jewish soul, trapped, waiting to ignite.
With The Help Of H-shem
It all started with my dad. My dad, Israeli-born, was always very spiritual and firmly believed in H-shem. He pounded in my head over and over that I was a Jew and that I must marry a Jewish girl. When he would talk about a future event, or he would tell me something he was going to do, he always said, “b’zrat H-shem.” “With the help of G-d.”
When I turned 13 years old, the time of Bar Mitzvah, having one wasn’t something that crossed my mind. I grew up playing sports, which was how my life would be. Judaism didn’t matter to me, and in fact, I was turned off by it. I saw how other Jewish kids dressed and acted, and with my distorted/selfish/childish mind, I didn’t want any part of them. Although I remember my dad arguing with my mom that it was vital for me to have a Bar Mitzvah. This was a big thing; he did such a big mitzvah to ensure I would get a Bar Mitzvah. My mom agreed, I prepared begrudgingly with a Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Oz, and one morning before school, I quickly had a Bar Mitzvah.
After my Bar Mitzvah, I returned to my “normal” life. We didn’t eat kosher, we didn’t do Shabbat, we didn’t do anything Jewish, but still, I knew who I was.
Football Became My Life
I eventually became very good at football. We lived in Las Vegas then, and many coaches told me I could make football a profession. At 14 years old, the next step was to choose a high school that would give me the best chance to reach this goal. That school would be Bishop Gorman High School, a Catholic private school. My dad was enraged and argued heavily with my mom not to send me to this school. My Chabad rabbi asked my mom, “What place does a Jewish boy have in a Catholic school?” But I wanted to go there because of the opportunity it presented to get me into a professional football league, so my mom agreed.
In my freshman year at Bishop Gorman, I was required, like everyone else, to wear a uniform with the cross of the Christians. I was also required to go to Catholic services and a Catholic class once a week. Amazingly, these teachings never penetrated my soul. This is a prime example of H-shem being a “magen” or “a shield.” I still felt “difference,” that I was different from all the other kids and that caused me to feel anguish. In hindsight, this was the cause of my making decisions to lead me down a path of destruction. A course of destruction orchestrated by H-shem to lead me to my true purpose; to be a Jew.
During the next three years in high school, I attended Faith Lutheran High School, a Christian High School. Bishop Gorman didn’t work out, and the only other high school that would give me a chance to go pro was a Christian school. But football was all that mattered, so that’s where I decided to go to school. At Faith Lutheran, I was also required to wear a uniform with a cross, go to services, and take a class on Christianity, constantly feeling “different.”
In my junior year of high school, things were seemingly going great. I was doing great in football, making friends, and life was good. But one night, everything would change. After a game, I went out with a friend to a party and drank alcohol for the first time. I fell in love with the party scene. Slowly, throughout my high school career, I became a full-time drug addict. Every day, every hour, every second, all I wanted to do was do drugs and drink alcohol. It consumed my life. And worst of all, it worried my parents, especially my mom, who witnessed my detonation.
My Senior year was my first experience with G-d, but that disappeared just as fast as it came. I got suspended for the first two games of my Senior year for getting caught drinking at a party. So, when that suspension was up, a thought came to mind, to pray to G-d. I said, “G-d, please let me have a good season, and I will stay away from drugs.”
For three weeks, I stayed away from drugs and had unbelievable games. My stats were through the roof. If I kept this up throughout the year, I would have a real chance to go pro. But one night, Thursday, as the evil inclination does, a thought came into my head to smoke weed. I did, and the next day, unbelievably, I was randomly drug-tested and kicked off the football team. I knew it was from G-d. But I continued in my druggy ways, getting worse and worse, and forgot all about G-d.
Mom’s Newfound Light
My mom started attending Friday night Shabbat services, lighting Shabbat candles, and making a meal with challah to find peace. Many times, she would invite me to participate. But I always told her that I was busy. If I ever did come, I would ask her to hurry up so I could go out with my friends. Her worry increased, but her reliance on H-shem increased as well.
Dead Or In Prison
After high school, I was doing nothing; my drug use increased, I started to steal, get tattoos, and I stopped playing football. I turned into a full-time criminal and was arrested for DUI, which didn’t give me a wake-up call to stop what I was doing. I was ultimately out of control, using all different types of drugs.
At the peak of my deterioration, my family worried about me, but nothing stopped me. The drugs made me cold. Like Pharoah, the drugs “hardened” my heart. There was no amount of crying or begging to stop me on my destructive tracks. I was leading a life towards prison or death. My mom told me, “If you continue, you will end up dead or in prison.”
At this destructive peak, H-shem had mercy on my family and me and took things into His own hands. Out of the blue, I started to have a strange feeling. It isn’t something that I can explain in any way. But I began to feel that “something” was telling me to stop what I was doing, or something terrible would happen. Now, whenever I was going to engage in criminal activity or do drugs, I felt that “something.” But I pushed it off and continued in my ways.
Life’s pressure of having a job and having to sign up for college while balancing a drug-infested criminal lifestyle was getting to me. I felt like I was going to pop.
On August 25, 2015, I was arrested for armed robbery. I was taken to the Las Vegas County jail, booked, and processed. I was devastated, but my family was even more so. The jail was horrible, dirty, and filled with actual criminals. I didn’t feel like I belonged. And when I was finally detoxed from all the drugs a few days later, I felt that “different” again and remembered that I was a Jew. I even started to pray to H-shem to take me out of this nightmare. When my mom and dad visited me, it took so much to hold back my tears. I even remember my mom telling me, “Whatever it will be, I picture you living a beautiful Jewish life when this is all over.”
It sounded good, but all I could think of was having to spend time in prison. My mom and dad also suggested that I get on the kosher diet they offered at the jail. A rabbi who worked at the prison came to my unit and asked me questions to verify that I was Jewish. The next day I would start to eat kosher. Everybody else’s food tray was brown, and mine was red. At first, I was nervous about being different than everyone else. Still, eventually, I realized that if you be yourself with confidence and don’t overstep anybody’s path, you are given respect. Around the unit, guys would call me “kosher” because of my red kosher tray.
Two Weeks In
Two weeks into jail, it had been a very spiritual experience. I was suffering, but I felt G-d. I had the opportunity to get on house arrest bail to await sentencing. At night before the judge’s decision, a random person that knew nothing about me came up to me and said, “I can see that you are going through a tough time, but you’re going to go home soon.”
The next day, the judge agreed to let me out on bail, something unusual for an armed robbery charge. The next day, while I was being released on bail, I walked past a tough-looking Latino individual with tattoos all over his face and body. he asked me, “You goin home?” I told him I was. He said, “G-d bless you.” I left that day with a newfound belief in H-shem. I didn’t understand, but the candle was lit, but not on my own.
Out on bail, I completed a rehabilitation program, but that and jail still didn’t teach me a lesson. For the nine months that I was out on bail, I picked alcohol and drugs back up, even though I was drug tested by my house arrest officer. After a while, my mom was fed up with my behavior and told me that I needed to turn myself into jail before I got into trouble and made things worse. My lawyer already informed me that I was going to do prison time, so it was better to start my time now.
I spent five months in a federal jail in Las Vegas. During these five months, my soul started to inquire more about Judaism. I still wasn’t eating kosher or observing Shabbat, but I wanted to know a little bit more about what it meant to be a Jew. The first thing I started to do was to participate in the fast days. I jokingly told my mom, “Maybe I’ll be a rabbi one day.”
Many times, H-shem gives us a wake-up call that makes a deep impression on us, and one of those wake-ups happened to me after the fast of Yom Kippur. I prepared a non-kosher dish with pork and cheese as the fast was ending. I’ll never forget a white guy with a swastika tattooed on the back of his head coming up to me and saying, “I don’t understand you Jews. You fast and pray, and then eat non-kosher. You’re a hypocrite.” What he said opened my eyes to the truth. That I was a Jew and that I had a purpose. I still wasn’t 100% ready to change, but the change was imminent.
Sentenced To 8 Years In Prison
I was sentenced to eight years and one day in prison. At 21 years old, I would go to Victorville Prison in California, a very tough and dangerous prison. No place for a Jew. Arriving at Victorville, I was nervous but ready for whatever was ahead.
As I said, if you be yourself and are sincere, you will get respect for that. Some guys at the prison told me that I should hide my Judaism, but I let it be known, and respect was given. After getting settled in, I was called into the chapel for Shabbat services on my first Saturday morning.
I showed up at the chapel and was walked to a small room where the Jewish services were being held. As I walked into the room, I was greeted by an African American man wearing a tallit, who introduced himself as, Adir. Adir in Hebrew means mighty. He even had it tattooed under his eye, which I later found out was to cover up a gang tattoo. He explained to me that at 18 years old, he was given a 56-year sentence; he was now 40 years old. For the past 14 years in prison, he practiced Judaism, even though he wasn’t halachically Jewish. In prison, it’s nearly impossible to have a kosher conversion, and he truly wanted one.
Adir explained that since I was Jewish, I should start eating kosher, observing Shabbat, and putting on tefillin, and that’s precisely what I did. I began to eat kosher and do the Shabbat to the best of my knowledge. Until my tefillin would arrive in the mail, Adir would let me borrow his every morning. It’s incredible how H-shem put Adir into my life.
He Was Cool
I looked up to Adir because he was cool, so he made Judaism cool to me. My distorted perception growing up was that being Jewish, eating kosher, and doing Shabbat wasn’t cool. But now that Adir showed me that it was, I wanted more and more to learn what it meant to be an observant Jew.
In Victorville, we celebrated the holidays, and I started attending Friday and Saturday Shabbat services every week. We said Kiddush on grape juice and said “hamotzi” on bread. I stopped making phone calls, emailing, and watching TV on Shabbat. In an Artscroll siddur, I copied down all the blessings on food and always kept it in my pocket. When it was time to say a blessing, I covered my head with my hand (which I now know is not halachically acceptable, but I was trying) and quietly said the blessing. I found out that you are not allowed to pray in the same room as an open toilet, and since our rooms have a toilet in them, I covered the toilet with a towel while praying Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv.
I would call my mom and dad and ask them to look up specific questions on Jewish law on Google. A rabbi from Chabad visited us once a month, and I would ask him questions. I’ll never forget one of the questions I asked that rabbi. At the time, I had in mind to play football professionally when I got out, but I knew it would conflict with my observance as a Jew. I told him that if I played football, I would have to break the Shabbat at some point. I asked him what to do. He told me that I knew the answer. I know the answer now, and as Jews, H-shem must come first over anything.
I was now asking my parents to get me in touch with a rabbi I could speak to at any time because my soul now thirsted to learn TORAH, but I had no idea how. My thirst to be a Jew came out of nowhere, and I wanted more and more. Anything that I found out I wasn’t doing right or not doing at all, I immediately corrected myself to be in sync with the law. I loved it, and still, I wanted more.
Mother Knows Best
One day, my mom came to visit me. She told me that if I wanted to study more about Judaism, I should ask to be transferred to Otisville, New York. Otisville had a full-time rabbi as the head chaplain, about 20 Jews, and a minyan daily. She also told me there’s this person there, Rabbi Rubashkin. He would take you under his wing and teach you how to be a proper Jew.” I was reluctant because of the distance from home and the cold weather in New York. I told my mom that I didn’t want to go and that I was ok where I was.
Too Dangerous… Otisville
Eventually, because Victorville was a dangerous prison, I felt uncomfortable. I told my mom we should try transferring me to Otisville, praying Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv, with great kavanah(concentration), to H-shem. I prayed that he should send me to Otisville so that I may learn to walk in the ways of the Torah. My intent was pure, and he answered my prayers. A few weeks later, I was designated to Otisville with the help of H-shem, my mom, and the aleph Institute.
On my way to Otisville, taking two plane rides and a month in transit, I didn’t miss a day of putting on tefillin and eating kosher. Even at both stops in Oklahoma City and Brooklyn, I was greeted by other Orthodox Jews. In Brooklyn, it was my first encounter with Chassidic Jews walking with a smile, saying, “Shalom Aleichem!” H-shem was genuinely making things happen.
When I finally arrived in Otisville, I was amazed to see grass and friendly officers. In Victorville, there was no grass, and all the officers were very disrespectful. I was taken to the unit where I would be housed. I was greeted by a guy wearing a kippa and tzitzit. He said, “I would like to introduce you to Rabbi Rubashkin. He lives in this unit.” I was thrilled to hear that the rabbi my mom told me about when I was in Victorville and that I would be living in the same unit as him. It was unbelievable.
When I met Rabbi Rubashkin, I was star-struck. He had an aura of light around him that made you forget you were in prison when you were around him and he had a fantastic smile that made you feel good. He brought me to his room, and I put on tefillin and said Shema. Later that day, I would go to my first-ever minyan. When I arrived at the minyan, I was greeted by warm smiles and handshakes. I was on a cloud. Even in the darkest of darks, prison, the Jewish people come together to make a dwelling for H-shem.
I started to wear kippa and tzitzit all the time. Little by little, my service to H-shem became fine-tuned. My kosher consumption, Shabbat observance, and prayer service became in sync with the law since I was surrounded by rabbis and ex-yeshiva students. It was like I was in yeshiva!
Thirst For Torah
But what I really wanted, which my Jewish soul was thirsting for, was to learn The Holy Torah, H-shem’s Torah. Rabbi Rubashkin suggested that since we lived in the same unit, we should learn Chumash with Rashi and Rambam daily. And that’s precisely what we did for the next three months before his presidential commute from prison; he taught me how to learn Torah. I learned so much, not only from what we learned in the Torah, but from how to conduct myself as a proper Jew. He taught me great lessons, and when he left, I was sad but happy that he was reunited with his family. I’ll never forget how he would say all the time that we could be freed from prison at any moment, and that’s precisely what happened. He was released on the last day of Chanukah 2017.
Release of Rubashkin
After Rabbi Rubashkin left, I felt a void. I now knew how to study on my own, and I was more potent in my observance, but my soul was upset from the disappearance of the treatment it just went through. I needed a teacher.
A few months later, my prayers were answered. I started learning Gemara with Rabbi Goldstein, another rabbi incarcerated in prison. His knowledge and patience were incredible. We would study for the next five months every day until he would eventually be transferred to the Otisville camp. Through this time, I became much more familiar with the Gemara, as he was very patient with me, and spending time with a rabbi every day significantly impacted me. Rabbi Goldstein taught me what it meant to be humble.
But when he left, I felt a void again. I prayed to H-shem to send me a teacher, and once again, he answered my prayer. A few days before Pesach 2019, Rabbi Samet, who left Otisville 18 months earlier, had come back. I asked him if he would teach me Gemara, and he happily agreed.
Until the covid 19 lockdown, when we were unfortunately separated, we learned every day for a year Gemara, Shulchan Aruch, and Mesillat Yesharim by the Ramchal. Words cannot explain how proud I am to call myself a student of Rabbi Samet. Every day we learned, he made me understand more and more what it means to be a Jew in this challenging world. He showed me that we will always have problems, challenges, and struggles in life, but it is incumbent on us to use these struggles to increase our emmunah (faith) in H-shem. He has shown me that as a Jew, all we can do is be sincere in serving H-shem. The rest is in the hands of H-shem. It was indeed a blessing to learn from Rabbi Samet.
As I look at where I used to be, as opposed to where I am now, I can only be humble. I see myself as a fully observant Jew, still with many flaws. I am humbled and thankful to H-shem for what He has taken me out of. H-shem saved me from underneath a mountain engulfed in water. The challenges, the Catholic and Christian schools, the drugs, prison, disappointments, discomforts, and confusions, and today I understand that the Torah is our life. I still need to learn how to perfect this service, but at least I know the goal.
I look at all the suffering I, my family, and many others have been through. It is only so that we learn to love and revere H-shem. As it says in Tehillim, “Tov li ci unety lmaan elmad chukecha” “It is for my good that I was afflicted so that I may learn your statutes.” Through my suffering, I’ve realized that salvation only comes from H-shem, and He does everything good and evil so that we may know He is H-shem. I also now understand the Rashi in B’Shelach (15:17), where Rashi explains that H-shem will have supreme sovereignty in the future. It’s not that H-shem doesn’t always have the authority, but now that I am aware of and believe this, this is the true ultimate sovereignty.
As I look at where I am, as opposed to where I’ve been, my intellect shows me that I can only be humble. I am a solid tree. My leaves are green, my fruits are ripening, my flowers are colorful, and my branches are strong. My trunk is firm, ready to withstand the world. I look around at all the other trees. Some are more beautiful than me, which I adore, some without leaves that I abhor. As I gaze into the distance, I see one of the beautiful trees being tended by a familiar face. It’s the same face that has watched me. I’m instantly humbled because I now know it was meant to be. As I look at where I am, as opposed to where I’ve been, it can only be the fool inside of me to say it was me.
Be patient and humble and give to receive. Be kind and compassionate, and you will feel free. Let go of the worry, and let G-d in your life because he’s already there like a little boy kicking and screaming, not wanting to be dressed, and his mother tells him,” Are you done yet so that I can proceed?”