A Minyan in Prison
by Leah Lipszyc
When my husband, Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Lipszyc, and I were shluchim (emissaries of the Rebbe) in Alabama we regularly visited Jewish prisoners at a federal, minimum security prison. Every Wednesday evening my husband gave a class; thank G-d there weren't many Jews, but those who were there attended.
The first year Rabbi Lipszyc went to prison to lead the High Holiday services they were short a minyan for Rosh Hashana. There were six Jewish prisoners, two shochtim (men who perform the ritual slaughter of meat) from Montgomery, Alabama, and Rabbi Lipszyc. But nine doesn't make a minyan.
Everyone thought hard when Rabbi Lipszyc asked if there wasn't maybe one more Jewish person somewhere in the prison.
"Gene's mother was Jewish but his father was Catholic," someone mentioned. "But Gene considers himself Catholic."
Rabbi Lipszyc found Gene. "Is it true that your mother was Jewish?" he asked Gene.
"Yeah, but I'm Catholic," Gene told him.
"According to Jewish law, you're Jewish," Rabbi Lipszyc tells the surprised Gene. "We need a quorom -- ten men -- in order to say our prayers," he continued. "Will you try it tonight? We won't press you to stay if you feel uncomfortable."
During the services that first night of Rosh Hashana I noticed that Gene had tears in his eyes. At the meal after the services, someone asked him if he would come back the next day.
Gene informed us that he had a parole board meeting in the morning and, though he was pretty pessimistic about the outcome, he wanted to go all the same.
One of the shochtim said that there is phrase which is a "segula" -- beneficial to say before a court case.
Gene was eager to try anything and asked for pen and paper to write it down. But it was Rosh Hashana and Rabbi Lipszyc explained to him that we don't write on Rosh Hashana.
Rabbi Lipszyc offered to meet Gene just before the parole meeting at 8:00 a.m. and say it together with him.
When Rabbi Lipszyc arrived a few minutes before eight, Gene was already looking at his watch with great concern. Rabbi Lipszyc said the words three times, "Ima d'Avraham Avinu Amtalya bas Karnavo. The mother of Avraham our Father was Amtalya the daughter of Karnavo." Gene repeated it word for word.
Gene went in to the parole board meeting and Rabbi Lipszyc went back to begin the Rosh Hashana services -- without a minyan. A little while later an ecstatic Gene came back to the minyan.
"They let me off two months earlier than I even asked for!" he told all of us.
Gene stayed with the services for the whole of Rosh Hashana. After that he started coming to Rabbi Lipszyc's weekly class and put on tefilin each time. After Gene got out we kept in contact with him for a while and he was still putting on tefilin the last time we spoke to him.
Six years ago, when my husband went to arrange and lead Yom Kippur services, an interesting incident happened.
Just before the last Yom Kippur prayer, Neila, Rabbi Lipszyc explained to everyone that the Heavenly gates of prayer would soon be closing. He suggested that everyone take upon himself a new mitzva for the coming year, thus accompanying his prayer with a good resolution.
There was silence for a few moments while everyone considered the mitzva he would take on and then the Neila prayer began.
After Yom Kippur, as everyone broke their fast, someone who had never been to any class approached Rabbi Lipszyc.
"I need help with a mitzva," he told the rabbi.
"What mitzva did you take on?" the rabbi asked.
"Shabbat," was the simple reply.
"And what help do you need?"
"Well," began Curt, "I don't know anything about Shabbat. It's the only mitzva I ever heard of, though. So, if you can give me some books on it I would appreciate it."
The following week Rabbi Lipszyc brought Curt a few books in English about Shabbat.
Curt began coming to Rabbi Lipszyc's Wednesday night class. A few months passed. One Wednesday night Rabbi Lipszyc noticed Curt's absence and asked the other prisoners where Curt was.
"You won't believe what happened to him," someone responded. "You had given Curt these books about keeping Shabbat and he started doing whatever he was learning in the books.
"Well," continued the person excitedly, "it says in one of those books that if all Jews would keep two Sabbaths they would be redeemed. You also taught us that everything that applies to all the Jews applies to each one of us as individuals as well.
Curt figured that if he would keep two Sabbaths perfectly he would be let out. He read everything and kept two Sabbaths exactly the way it says in the books.
That very week the federal prisons initiated a new program allowing people who have committed white collar crimes to be released under house arrest.
Curt was the first one they let out under that program. When we had our little minyan last Friday night we all danced and sang with him. Just the other day he actually left!"
As soon as Curt got out of jail he called us in Alabama.
He asked us a few questions, including a few about Shabbat. We're still in touch with him and every year he takes on a new mitzva on Yom Kippur.
The Lipszycs are now the Rebbe's emissaries in Crimea.