Last week I visited the Federal Detention Center. I was there to see Dee, a Jewish woman. She was involved in a white-collar scheme, mistakes were made, and now she is three months into her eight- to 10-month sentence. She made quite an impression on me, as did the whole prison scene.

Dear Dee,

On my drive over to you last week, I thought to myself, “What can I possibly say to a person I have never met and who is confined to a prison?”

In a sense, we are all in prisonI thought of telling you that a person must know that when he goes from one place to another, he is not going on his own, but is being directed from Above. And as Chassidic philosophy explains, the intention and purpose in this is to make our Creator known in the place to which he was Divinely led.

How does one “make G‑d known”? There are many ways, but I thought it would be nice to say a blessing and a verse of Psalms. So I was bringing some honey cake (for a sweet year) and some orange juice so we would be able to say the blessings, and I had my book of Psalms.

I was contemplating telling you that in a sense, we are all in prison.

Our soul comes from a lofty, free place to a very confined, coarse body in a very dark world. It, the G‑dly soul, yearns to be free, to return to its source. It only wants to do “holy stuff.” Learn Torah and do good deeds, mitzvot. Be connected to spirituality.

But then I thought it may not be so sensitive of me to say that. For how can I go on about spirituality and all that fancy talk, how can I speak about the metaphor when you are actually, physically, in confinement? And what if you didn’t even comprehend this lofty concept? Nah, I thought, I will give you my ear, my empathy and my love. And I prayed to G‑d that He should put the right words in my mouth to give you the encouragement and strength you probably would need.

However, my dear friend Dee, the tables were turned.

I walked into the big room. Actually, I was led into the big room. Nobody just walks where they choose to in prison. I saw all the women, dressed in green shirts and green pants, sitting around. Quiet. Almost lifeless. Their souls beaten.

Suddenly, you jumped up from your place, ran over to me with a big smile and shining eyes.

“Shalom!” you gushed. “Thank you so much for coming.”

You were so excited. You asked permission for us to sit down and talk because you had so much to tell me. The imam led us to the chapel.

Dee, it pained me to see you standing in the back of the elevator with your back to the doors, as is the rule, while the imam and I were able to stand wherever we chose. I felt low. Ashamed to be treated as if I were better.

We put chairs around the little table, and you started to tell me a bit of your story. You must have seen pain in my face, for there you were, comforting me. You were telling me this is all directed from G‑d and how He led you there for a good reason.

Dee, these were the exact words I was thinking of telling you! You went on to tell me how you feel so close to your Creator and when you will be freed you know you have an important mission to do. You want to learn Torah and do its mitzvot, its commandments. You said how you felt G‑d’s energy right there with you. I was amazed at your words. Wowed by your belief.

I saw all the women ... their souls beatenWe shared some delicious honey cake and orange juice. We said the blessings and recited some Psalms. Dee, you then went on to tell me how, in a way, we are all in prison. You were hesitant ... you weren’t sure I was going to understand you ... you said, our soul is confined ... That is when I couldn’t contain myself and interrupted you. Dee! Again, this was the exact concept I was thinking about on the way over!

“We are friends,” I told you. “We speak the same language.”

Dee, I love you.

Do you remember how we laughed? I told you to take the leftover cake and juice to your room. You said you weren’t sure you were permitted to. When I joked you should stuff it in your pocket, you pointed to the video camera on the ceiling right above us and we burst into laughter as I waved to the camera.

And how (un)funny was it when you wanted to give me a phone number to write down so that I can call your friend. We went to the imam’s office to borrow a pen, and he said outright to me that I cannot give or take any phone numbers. He heard everything we were talking about?!? Wow.

We hugged, and you couldn’t stop thanking me for coming.

On my drive home, I was thinking how everything we say and do is being monitored. G‑d is an enormous video camera. Everything is being seen and heard! I was reminded of the Mishnah, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you—an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears and all your deeds are recorded in a Book.” That is pretty scary. And a grand lesson for life. You can bet I am going to be more careful with my words and actions.

I was able to get in touch with your friend. And I told her that you were in good spirits. When I told her how you were so excited with the orange juice and you remarked that you haven’t had any in three months, she started to cry. She feels for you. I know you asked that she come with me the next time I visit you, but I am sorry to inform you that she probably will not have authorization to come. She will continue to write you letters though.

Everything we say and do is being monitoredI was a tad nervous that after my “mistakes” the staff might not allow me to return. But when I spoke to the imam he was very encouraging that I come back. He said you and I connected. We sure did.

Dee, I know it is pretty cliché to say this, but it is so true. You injected me with strength; you inspired me to be a better Jew and definitely gave me more than I gave you.

Next week when I come to visit, I want to wear a green shirt. Like yours.

Chazak V’amatz! Be strong and resolute! G‑d bless you.

Your friend, DL


Today, when I went to visit I remembered to wear a green shirt. Dee made mention that she noticed.

On my way out, the imam told me, very gently: “Don’t wear green again. Green and khaki are the colors of the federal prison.” Oh, oops ... (and I was wearing a khaki skirt).

I would like to thank Rabbi Mendy Katz from The Aleph Institute and Rabbi Moshe Levin, the local rabbi, for making these visits possible. It was uplifting to see the chapel stocked with Jewish materials from the Aleph Institute. Thank you!