When I heard the news last Wednesday that Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin’s sentence had been commuted, I literally jumped out of my chair (after double, triple and quadruple checking that it wasn’t #FakeNews). The joy was immense! 8 years of prayers and it was actually happening!
As I made my way home from work, the smiles and cheer continued to increase. Seeing so many across the spectrum of the Jewish community respond in such a delirious way made it that much more joyful.
But when I saw video clips of Smirnoff flowing on tap on Kingston Avenue and comparisons to Hei Teves and other watershed moments in Chabad history, a slightly unsettling feeling started growing in my belly.
I’ve seen articles and social media posts too many to count decrying the extreme celebration that took place, and initially I felt the same way.
It is without question that Sholom Mordechai suffered a severe miscarriage of justice. In today’s day and age, bipartisan agreement on any topic is as common as a unicorn sighting. Yet both the left and right agreed on this, with even Slate.com publishing the words “Trump Did a Good Thing.” (If that’s not a sign of Moshiach, I don’t know what is.)
Like thousands of others, for 8 years I therefore prayed for him to be freed. But at the end of the day, he made criminal mistakes. Sure, it was a happy day to see him walk free, but were things being taken a bit too far? Wasn’t the singing and dancing in the street and hero’s welcome way over the top?
Initially, I didn’t join the dancing. I put my kids to sleep, made a few jokes on Twitter, and kept up a regular schedule. I had no intention of even going to 770, but at about 11:00 I tagged along with a friend to watch “the scene” for a few minutes.
By the time I got there, the blaring music from cars I’d seen in the videos had stopped. People were milling about outside, but there was no alcohol or dancing in sight.
But before I returned home, I decided to peek into 770 for a second.
The scene was mesmerizing. Hundreds of people swirling in overcrowded circles, loud music blaring. Before I knew it, I was swirling too, in my coat and all.
As the crowd carried me round and round, I saw hats of every shape and people of every age. There were grandfathers and teenagers, respected rabbis and renowned businessmen; yeshivah students, college students and high school drop outs. There were hundreds of non-Chabad Chassidim who had probably never dreamed they’d ever step foot into 770. Everyone was dancing in unison, celebrating.
It’s impossible to describe the feeling of unity that washed over me. It was then that I realized, we weren’t happy a fraudster was being released. We weren’t celebrating or idolizing a community leader. We were ecstatic that a fellow Jew was being reunited with his family after years of unjust treatment.
Sholom Mordechai didn’t get a hero’s welcome, he got a brother’s welcome.
And so I danced. To welcome a family member home, to celebrate the miraculous way in which it occurred and to revel in the unity.
Sholom Mordechai is sadly not the first Chassidic Jew to be released from Federal prison. There have been others of equal familial pedigree and who have been similarly philanthropic and had far better political connections. Yet the community didn’t raise a penny for their defense, didn’t utter a word in their praise and didn’t sing a note in celebration. Neither should we have.
This story was different; there was an unjust sentence combined with not-so-thinly-veiled antisemitism. Additionally, Sholom Mordechai behaved in an exemplary way after his conviction. The faith and trust in G-d he displayed and the optimism and positivity he exuded was truly inspiring for so many in the last 8 years.
These factors combined to create a huge swell of support from the broader community, which in turn engendered a feeling of unity and togetherness that is sadly all too rare.
That powder keg of emotion burst forth with the shocking and unexpected clemency. That is the energy that was seen in the celebrations. That is why I was proud to dance for Sholom Mordechai.