Three Rabbis and a Spy

Winston Pickett - Atlanta Jewish Times - January 4, 1993

Grey. Foggy. Cold. Relentlessly bleak.

It was going to be one of those Midwestern winter mornings. Where earth and sky assume the color of dull steel. Where one day looks indistinguishable from the next.

For three Long Island rabbis driving down a desolate ribbon of asphalt after a six-hour journey, the day would be far from indistinguishable. They had a meeting with convicted spy Jonathan Pollard at the maximum security penitentiary in Marion, Ill. It was a day they would remember for a long tome to come.

Maybe it was preparation. The 12 months of letters, faxes, and telephone calls to federal authorities, congressmen, Pollard and even among themselves to get the visit approved.

Maybe it was the eerie sense of empathized incarceration that seemed to come over them once the low-slung factory-like fortress began to crouch up on the horizon, and a light rain began to fall.

Or maybe it was the feel of antiseptic, florescent entombment as the rabbis were escorted through a dozen sliding steel gates, some manual, some electronic, down two floors beneath the earth's surface, and hearing each cage slam shut behind them with a final metallic clang.

For their own protection, the guard said. One of the tightest security prisons in the country. Most of the 300 inmates at Marion Penitentiary are there because they have murdered other inmates or corrections officers elsewhere in the prison system. As they approached the eight-by-eight foot cubicle to meet Pollard for the first time, the shouts, wails and catcalls of inmates became a surreal, cacophonous backdrop.

Or maybe it was the sight of Pollard himself, no longer the lanky, mustachioed, semi-expressionless, handcuffed prisoner with the moonshaped face and oversized tinted glasses. Instead, the man who greeted them wore a trimmed black beard, a knitted yarmulke, and a decidedly warm and engaging disposition.

"He recognized us immediately, and greeted each of us by name," said Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz of Temple B'nai Sholom of Rockville Centre. "It must have been from our photographs, but he offered in mock seriousness that it was because he had 'a superior intelligence network' at his disposal. That made us laugh and put us all immediately at ease.'

Schwartz and two of his colleagues, Rabbis Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom of Lawrence and Sholom Stern of Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst, traveled to the remote maximum security prison in Marion (what Hain described as the "desolate, grey epicenter of America") on Dec. 29, where they spent five hours with the former U.S. naval intelligence officer talking, listening, studying, relieving his sense of isolation, and offering support.

What they came home with, however, was more than they had bargained for.

In separate interviews and in a meeting with the Five Towns spiritual leaders shortly after their return, each spoke with a degree of amazement at Pollard's energy, sense of humor, remorse, thoughtfulness and breadth of Jewish history that made one rabbi feel as if he were "sitting in at a graduate seminar at Yeshiva University."

"I found him nothing less than inspiring," said Stern. "Here he is, underground, cut off from the rest of the world, locked in a Kafkaesque maze, living in what amounts to a narrow air shaft for 23 hours a day - and he is totally connected to his friends, supporters and the Jewish world. Whereas we came to strengthen, to comfort and to teach, we came away comforted ourselves."

What they learned from Pollard the man seemed no less inspiring. "He gets

160 letters a day

," said Hain, and responds almost exclusively to those of children and Holocaust survivors. "Survivors write because they identify with his isolation," he said. Children write out of emulation, a notion that Pollard rejects.

"He doesn't want to be considered a hero, or even a role model," said Hain. "He said he's caused too much anguish and pain to his family and American Jews for that," added Stern. "My feeling was that of a man with a deep sense of charote [regret]," he said.

With 23 hours a day in isolation Pollard has time enough to reflect. And while such isolation tends to make him talk in torrents, he has also had the chance to ponder what made him spy for Israel.

"He spoke of the compulsive side of his personality," said Schwartz, "which drove him to secure more and more documents he felt would help Israel's security. That compulsion he now knows was both dangerous and self-destructive."

But what seemed to impress the rabbis the most was the very ease, familiarity and Jewish erudition Pollard brought to their five-hour meeting.

"What came through loud and clear is that above everything else the man is a religious Zionist," said Stern. "What struck me is that there, in the midst of exile, amid the shouting and the steel bars, he has created a completely Jewish world, one that allowed him - and us - to transcend those walls."

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