Preface: I wrote this article 6 years ago, but Natan instructed me to hold on publication. Natan Friedman, the Father of Israeli Prisoners in US Jails, passed away this past Thursday (Jan.12, 2017/Tevet 14).
I can no longer remain silent. I tell this story in the hopes that someone will be inspired to continue his legacy. Some proper names in this story have been changed by request of Natan, of blessed memory.
Many Israelis have boarded planes to the United States with plans to make money quickly. A few of them engage in dubious or outright illegal dealings, confident they won't be caught.
“In the worst case,” they tell themselves, "yihye b'seder [it will be OK]. The US justice system will show sympathy." That's what they think until the gavel slams down, and a judge metes out a 5-to-30-year jail sentence.
Natan Friedman, a New York businessman who leads a one-man crusade to help Israelis in US prisons, says, “At the moment of sentencing, the cold, harsh ramifications of their mistakes begin to sink in.”
Natan shifts positions in a black, leather chair in his Lake Success conference room to tell one such story of Yehuda from Bat Yam, Israel.
About 30 years ago, four friends in Bat Yam went to the same high school and later enlisted together in the Israel Defense Forces. After the army, Yehuda opened a barber shop. One friend got married and worked at a local business. The two others went into the import-export business overseas.
The two entrepreneurs would leave for California on trips that lasted several months, always returning to Bat Yam and meeting at Yehuda's barber shop. The two appeared to be extremely successful because they always returned from the USA with wads of cash.
At one barber shop reunion, Yehuda asked if there was room for him to join his friends in their import-export business. The two partners warmly welcomed Yehuda, at which point the fourth married friend expressed interest as well.
A few months later, the four old friends with one wife and baby landed in California. After several months, Yehuda's share of the business reached a staggering $300,000. But, Yehuda was extremely unhappy and wanted out.
They were trafficking drugs with the Columbian Cartel.
Yehuda decided that this was simply not for him, and announced that he was going back to Israel. His friends accepted his decision but urged him to remain to finish one last deal, their most lucrative ever.
The deal ran smoothly, and the friends met in a suite in a Los Angeles hotel to celebrate their success and part from Yehuda. During the partying, the married friend noted that since his wife fully participated in the last deal, they should divide the profit into five parts granting her an equal share.
The two founding partners responded with a firm no. An argument ensued and within 60 seconds escalated into screaming and a fist fight. At the height of the violence, one of the two partners pulled his gun.
He shot his married friend dead on the floor. His widow ran for the door screaming, and he shot her as well. She collapsed dead on the carpet of the suite.
Yehuda, who was watching television, stared in shock. The brawl happened too quickly for him to intervene.
The two partners devised a plan to dispose of the bodies and ordered Yehuda to stay behind to clean up. They would all board planes back to Israel the next day.
They forgot one detail: the babysitter. She called the police when the couple didn't return.
The police arrested the three at the airport. The original two partners told their interrogators that Yehuda pulled the trigger, after they threatened him that they would have his family in Israel killed if he didn't comply.
Yehuda was afraid and agreed. He received life imprisonment without parole, and the two founding partners received 8-year sentences.
When the friends were released, they promised they would help. But within two months, one was killed in the streets of Tel Aviv by the Colombian Cartel. The fourth changed his identity and disappeared to a new life in a Kollel [a religious study group] somewhere in Israel.
Natan, the father of Israelis in US prisons, first heard this story from Yehuda eight years ago after Yehuda had already sat 20 years in prison. Natan immediately set out to find the original partner in Israel hoping to extract from him a confession that might help Yehuda.
With the help of the Israeli Interior Ministry, Natan found the new identity of the accomplice - Eliyahu - and learned where he was. Natan entered the study hall of the Kollel, walked right up to the suspect, and called him by his old name.
Eliyahu was middle-aged, had a long beard and peot [side curls], and was sitting over a page of the Talmud wearing a long black coat. Realizing that there is somebody who knows his old identity, he said, "Get away from me, and leave me alone," and fled the room.
Natan told the head Rabbi at the Kollel the story of Eliyahu, and they later confronted the suspect together. Natan showed up with an attorney from Tel Aviv, and Herut Lapid who dealt with Israeli prisoners overseas. Within minutes, Eliyahu broke down and admitted that he lied in his California testimony regarding Yehuda.
The attorney drew up an affidavit of confession, in which Eliyahu admitted that he falsely implicated Yehuda to improve his own case. He expressed willingness to help in any way short of returning to the US, since he was now married with children, and his family knew nothing of his past.
Fours years ago, Natan presented the affidavit to the governor of California who assigned an aide to deal with the issue. The aide asked how can he know that the affidavit is not a lie in order to help Yehuda? After all, what does Eliyahu have to lose?"
Natan responded that much evidence points to the fact that Yehuda's version represents the true sequence of events. "Furthermore," argued Natan, "Yehuda has already served 25 years of his sentence, so the political risk that the governor may be taking for letting a murderer go is mitigated. This combined with the fact that he may be truly innocent, stands as a good reason to release him."
Despite promises and sympathy from the governor's office, Yehuda remains in jail.
In March, 2010, Natan met again with the governor's aides this time asking to transfer Yehuda to an Israeli jail, instead of freeing him. The request is pending.
How did Natan's work start?
Natan's efforts on behalf of Israelis in US prisons began 15 years ago with a phone call from his daughter in Israel who asked him to visit a neighbor's son who was sitting in a Canadian jail for dealing in drugs. Natan visited the young Israeli who told him that were it not for the fact that he was a trained Israeli paratrooper, he would have been murdered in jail "several times over." The boy pleaded with Natan to get him out of jail.
After some inquiries, Natan heard of a rehabilitation program in Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar headed by Herut Lapid, of blessed memory. Lapid would get Israelis out of prisons and take responsibility for them in the framework of his program.
Natan purchased a ticket for Lapid to evaluate the jailed boy in Canada, and then submitted a request to the Canadian authorities to allow him to be released to Lapid's program. The local parole board's session to determine the fate of the young Israeli was set for the Hebrew date of Tisha B'av, a day of fasting and mourning. The former paratrooper asked Natan to postpone his appeal as Tisha B'av is considered a day of ill fate for Jews, and it is customary not to go to judicial hearings on that day.
Natan took the issue to the late Rabbinical leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, AKA the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Schneerson said not to delay the hearing as one could not know when an opportunity for his release would arise again. Rabbi Schneerson said that the boy would be released and blessed Natan for dealing with the case. The Jewish sage urged Natan to continue in such work.
As predicted by Rabbi Schneerson, the parole board agreed to transfer the boy to Lapid's program in Israel. The young man today owns a successful company with 60 employees.
The Israeli consulate in New York is familiar with Natan's work and would refer cases to him since the consulate cannot legally interfere with the justice system of their host country. They need a volunteer like Natan to intercede on behalf of their citizens to try to get them repatriated to Israel under the Transfer Act for Incarcerated Foreign Nationals.
Natan dealt with scores of cases, and is currently working on behalf of sixteen "clients," as he called them. Each one is a story of its own, he would say. Most of them perpetrated non-violent crimes such as selling drugs or fraudulent products.
Because of the large demand, Natan limited himself to Israelis who received at least a 5-year sentence. He tended to stay away from sexual abuse offenders.
Natan notes that a Jew's life in a US jail is in constant jeopardy since there are many Jew-hating Muslems in the jail system, and some of the guards are anti-Semitic. Natan’s work can literally be the difference between life, severe harm or even death. Even getting the inmate transferred to Israeli jail to finish his time is of great worth. Being close to their own culture and families makes a huge difference. Most Israeli families cannot afford to pay a visit to their jailed loved one.
Natan finances his own activity. He notes that the average American Jew is embarrassed that there are other Jews in jail. He finds it difficult to generate sympathy for Israelis who commit crimes.
"I am doing this on my own," says Natan, "following the instructions of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to perform the commandment of pidyon shvuyim [assisting those in jail]. I am also following the example of my mentor Herut Lapid."
The smiling father of Israelis in US jails closes with a word of caution for ambitious Israelis who believe Americans are stupid, and that they can get away with doing what they think are minor crimes. "It's simply not worth it," he says. "And don't expect any sympathy from the system when you get caught."
Postscript: Natan Friedman, of blessed memory, passed away this past Thursday. Will anyone continue his work on behalf of his sixteen “clients” whom he was in the middle of dealing with? And of behalf of many others? May Natan’s memory be for a blessing and an inspiration. He was a Tzaddik (Righteous man) in Our Time. Click here for a story about Natan's visit to Pollard.