It was the last day of Hanukkah. For the first time in over a week there were no blessings for miracles. Then, in the eyes of many people, one came anyway.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, a Lubavitch rabbi who had been incarcerated for eight years for bank fraud. Over the years, Agriprocessors had been accused of variety of abuses, from fraud to a litany of labor abuses to identity theft in order to obtain false work papers for undocumented workers. The fraud conviction stemmed from a raid by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement when 400 of these laborers were arrested.
The reactions beyond the world of Chabad were immediate, and largely critical. Inside the world of Chabad however, the contrast couldn’t be stronger. There was elation, celebration and praise for Trump. At 770 Eastern Parkway, there was singing and dancing. Men and boys in black hats and jackets spilled into the service lane in front of the landmark synagogue and held hands, waved flags and sang a song titled “Didan Notzch” (“We will be victorious”).
Many of my own friends were repulsed. One of my vegan friends was distressed, because Agriprocessors, the company Rubashkin was CEO of and the center of his crimes, had been accused of truly horrific animal cruelty. On its face, it seemed at best unseemly—and at worst sick and callous—to celebrate the release of a man found guilty of terrible crimes solely on the basis of tribal affiliation.
But that analysis is too simplistic. Evaluating it as a tacit endorsement of his crimes or expression of his innocence is to miss a larger point about this community and its experiences. For those interested in accessing a truly morally complex historical and communal story, one must first begin by understanding the centuries-long relationship that Lubavitch has with captivity and imprisonment.
For starters, struggle for freedom is at the heart of Judaism as a whole. Those who pray every day are required to remember the exodus from Egypt. Every spring Passover is a seven-day reaffirmation of our gratitude for liberation. Pidyon Shvuyim—the redemption of captives—is a serious duty in Judaism. To raise money to free a fellow Jew from kidnapping or imprisonment is considered an enormous mitzvah.
But the Lubavitcher hasidim have an even more specific, and long and harrowing, relationship with incarceration. In the Soviet Union, Jews were the perpetual exiles, “rootless cosmopolitans,” and Hasidism were especially vulnerable: less willing to assimilate, separated from the populations among whom they lived—never quite Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Lithuanian etc. They were always at the whim and under the thumb of the political powers of the region and era. Many of Chabad’s leaders were jailed on spurious charges of treason or rebellion. Sometimes this was based on their growing followers or efforts to aide Jews in foreign territories such as Ottoman-occupied Palestine at the time Russia was at war with the Ottomans.
Incarceration was weaponized. From the 18th century through the early 20th The Alter Rebbe, the Mittler rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab the Tzemach Tzedek and the Frierdiker Rebbe spent time in jail cells. It would be folly to view these as simple detentions. They were direct attacks to the movement and its adherents
Even the revered final Rebbe of Lubavitch, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, was arrested in Berlin during an intoxicated episode on Purim. He was preaching standing on a chair in public, which was apparently illegal. He famously was freed by Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, the prominent Lithuanian Rabbi, who went to the police station to explain that Purim was a harmless celebration. This is important, because the details of release were as important a part of the story as the reason for the arrest. Release is a significant event—materially, emotionally and spiritually. The highest holiday in the Chabad is the 19th of Kislev, the anniversary of the aforementioned Alter Rebbe’s release from jail. It’s viewed as a G-d ordained event and a validation of his teachings. On that day there are many farbrengens (gatherings) to share his teachings and the teachings of his successors. It is known as the “New Year” for hasidim.
And there were many more victims. One famous Chabadnik, Reb Mendel Futerfas, spent 12 years in Siberia after the KGB snatched him up for running Jewish schools. Previously, many Chabad Rabbis or associates were caught in a wave of arrests from 1948 to 1953, including one Reb Zevulun Leviev—whose grandson, Lev Leviev, is now one of the richest men in the world, and who donates millions to Chabad.
These stories are told over and over again. Even as somebody who came to Lubavitch in his mid-20, as I did, these stories remain ingrained into my mind. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who raised in the fold.
I believe that when Sholom Rubashkin was arrested, it triggered for many Lubavitch hasidim historic memories of anti-semitic persecution and played into familiar narratives of captivity as a hostile action. Yes, of course, Chabad is doing well now–they have centers in thousands of location across the globe. Chabad leaders have photo ops with world leaders, including presidents and even Vladimir Putin, the iron fisted leader of the country where their worst oppression occurred. But it wasn’t always this way, and memory runs deep. Chabad was forged under brutal conditions of oppression and for many those memories have not faded.
Last night, as I watched clips of twirling crowds and celebratory drinking, the analogy that came to mind was when O.J. Simpson acquittal of double murder. There were many black Angelenos and African Americans around the country who were elated. Does that mean that the zeitgeist if mid-90s, African-American culture endorsed violent homicide? Of course not. In both cases the mood is a reflection of relief—however small—of centuries of compounding oppression, the sting of which is transferred from generation to generation.
And there is a rational defense on their side. Rubashkin’s sentence was excessive. For a man of his age 27 years is a near-life sentence. Furthermore, his being Jewish was specifically cited when he was initially denied bail. The judge determined he could be a flight risk and mentioned Israel’s right of return law.
For the record, I believe Rubashkin’s crimes warranted consequences, but the perverted, corrupt and nakedly antisemtic nature of his prosecution cannot be overlooked. The justice system must be fair and…well, just. It failed on multiple levels.
Nevertheless, at the heart of his incarceration were victims. Maybe not for the specific crimes he was charged with, but he caused suffering for real people. He exposed hundreds of people to prosecution, stole millions in wages and probably caused the suffering of a few thousand animals along the way. So I could not participate celebrations; and to be honest, I was bothered by some of the revelry that seemingly ignored these crimes. He should not be revered and I worry about the effect this will have on children who see the celebrations. What will they think?
The one unexpected—and, at least for me, potentially hopeful—consequence of Rubashkin’s near-decade-long ordeal is the effect it’s had on Chabad: For many Lubavitchers, his case opened their eyes to the mistakes and even savagery of the U.S. Criminal Justice system. Despite conservative leanings, many in Crown Heights are now extremely concious that the system can be obscenely racist. I can only hope that they contribute to a movement that would see others—including others not like them—emancipated from the tyranny of false or excessive imprisonment.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wrap my head around mildly agreeing with something Trump did.