On an overcast morning one Fourth of July, sullen clouds hinting to the imminent fall of rain, I came to a Forensic Psychiatric Ward in Northern Connecticut.

Nestled on a hill and bordered on the side by a dilapidated red brick factory, the gray walls of the building were nearly camouflaged, wedged between brown grass and a turbulent heaven.

"Some Fourth of July this will be," I mused to myself, "stuck with the criminally ill, on a stormy day…"

Entering with my friend Mendel, we passed through a relatively posh waiting room and came to the security clearance.

In the narrow hall that separated the outside world from the one within, all pretenses of fancy and beauty, the paintings and flower vases that had lined the waiting room, are dropped. Here everything is for a purpose, an x-ray machine, a booth for the security guard, cubbies to place items not permitted to enter the ward.

We go through the check list with the guard: our cell-phones must be left outside, the Jewish Art Calendar can come in and be given to the patient, our Tefillin must stay outside since the leather straps could theoretically pose a danger to the patient…or to us. Knots begin to form in my stomach. The hats must also stay behind.

We're ready to go.

A thick metal door slides open revealing a vestibule. Entering, we now hang in limbo between the two worlds. The door slams behind us with an electronic click and a new door in front of us opens, ushering us into the ward proper.

Following the guard we walk briefly down a long hallway towards the visitor room. He opens the door, watches us go in, and then returns to his office.

Inside a room that could have been the reading room of some local branch of the public library sits a lone Jew. He's dressed in baggy jeans and a blue polo-shirt. I notice that his shoes are Velcro; laces are meaningfully absent.

We shake hands. His are large and fleshy, and the one shaking mine easily engulfs it. Chancing a glance into his eyes, they seem to have a medicated glaze to them, partially concealed behind large, scratched glasses.

I think how every Jew is a Jew, and try very hard not to think about his crime.

Mendel and I sit on a well-used tweed couch, which, in other circumstances I would even have ventured to call comfy. Our friend returns to his own chair.

We speak.

Nervous introductions give way to small talk, and then finally to meaningful discourse.

He's interested in learning Torah, in performing all the mitzvot he can. He has a collection of Jewish books, and reads avidly, despite the paucity of material available to him.


"The local Chabad rabbi tells me that I have the soul of a chossid," he says with a grin. "I've read the Tanya, but I consider myself more of a mussar'nik -a follower of the works Nineteenth Century ethicists."

He mentions several times his guilt, how he won't get out. When he does his eyes turn down, revealing a deeper character that I hadn't at first noticed - failed to notice, I chide myself.

"Here they keep you for a very long time, but at least it's safe." He says with a sigh, caught somewhere between remorse and a sense of security.

I tell him that every Jew is connected to Above on two levels: one revealed, one hidden.

On the revealed level we connect to G‑d via mitzvot, if we miss out on a mitzvah, we miss out on a connection. If we go against the Torah, we have separated ourselves from our source, G‑d.

But on a deeper level, every Jew, no matter what he has done, has a connection to G‑d that transcends the connection through Torah. Therefore, even if he is guilty, Teshuvah (returning to G‑d) can bring forgiveness. It re-forges the bond that was destroyed by tapping into the eternal bond that each of us possess.

This is a bond so strong that it is deeper then the Torah. Once this bond has been re-forged, the person continues to connect via the normal path of Mitzvot.

Suddenly an awful cackle, the maniacal kind that one would think could only come from a psychiatric ward, is heard over the intercom.

The words cling to the inside of my throat.

"What was that?" I finally ask.

"Oh," our friend says, "Just someone having fun with the intercom."


The conversation goes on.

We focus on which mitzvot can be done practically in a place where wearing tzitzis is forbidden for the same reason as wearing shoelaces.

We decide that saying the Modeh Ani, the prayer of thanks said upon rising in the morning, is fitting. It requires neither physical precepts to perform nor lengthy tomes from which to read; it can even be said with unwashed hands.

What is more, it expresses the inner connection of the soul. Other prayers must be said in a place of purity and cleanliness. Like the essence of the soul that can never be defiled or lost, a beacon of G‑dliness in even the darkest places, the Modeh Ani, however, can always be said. Simple, pure, untouched.

The guard taps on the window. Our time is up.

We leave with a second, more personal handshake.

As I walk through the long hall, I look out the window to the inner courtyard set aside for patient exercise. The grass outside is almost as gray as the sky.

But I'm no longer looking out, I'm looking in.

For I know there's a ward on a hill, bordered on the side by a dilapidated red brick factory, and surrounded by gray walls. Look deeper still and I will find that through layer upon layer, door behind door, and room within room is found a room that could be the reading room of some local branch of a public library. Within that room on a tweed couch that could otherwise be called comfy sits a lone Jew. He looks out to the world from behind a large pair of scratched glasses with two large eyes, and within those eyes can be seen a soul.

The eternal soul of the Jew that is always aflame with the Creator.