Finding Freedom in a Prison Cell
Introduction by Larry Dubin, branch leader for Jews for Jesus in Washington, D.C.
It was a hot and humid Mid-Atlantic August day when the letter from a local detention center arrived. Often, I am unable to provide the kind of assistance requested in such letters. But after reading Martin Friedman’s words, I decided to meet with the chaplain of the detention center. I completed and submitted various forms for permission to visit Martin and, after waiting weeks for the paperwork to be evaluated, my request was granted.
It was not a typical visit. Martin and I were separated by iron and cement, and we spoke through a closed-circuit television system. Week after week and month after month for almost two years, I returned to visit. Each time, we read the Word of God and discussed how the biblical story was applicable in every circumstance. We concluded our visits with a time of prayer.
Over time, I began to see changes. Martin seemed at rest; there was a sense of peace that resided in him. He was not anxious about his life. He started to teach the Bible to other inmates. God had given me the privilege to disciple this man for almost four years. Here is his story:
Both my parents were Jewish (Dad deceased in 1955; Mom in 1992) and emigrated to the United States from Kiev in the Ukraine area of Russia. My family did not keep kosher and did not attend synagogue.
During childhood, my Jewish background meant no school on Jewish holidays, being enrolled in Hebrew school (on an indigent scholarship), and attending Friday night services. After about five years of Hebrew school, I was Bar Mitzvah. Because my family had very limited resources, the ceremony took place on a Thursday, with a modest family reception in our apartment.
In my teen years, I wanted to attend High Holy Day services. I was unable to do so because I could not afford a ticket on my own and did not want to ask for aid.
On holidays my mom and older sister would “celebrate” by going out together to a local racetrack for a day of horses and fun. Similarly, to “observe” Yom Kippur (traditionally a day of atonement and fasting), my sister (who was eight years older) and I would go out for an Italian meal.
It was not until 1969, and my first of two marriages, six months after I graduated college, that I came face to face with certain aspects of my mom’s take on Jewish identity.
My bride was Catholic (non-practicing), and I consented to the church wedding she had always wanted. My father had passed away years earlier, but almost all of my small family – brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and my paternal grandmother who spoke only Yiddish – attended. My mother did not attend. She and I did not speak for about three years.
A turn in the road
Beginning in the mid 1990s, I gave in to an addiction that kept getting stronger and stronger. This addiction led to my arrest in May 2009, and I served 26 months in jail.
I was overcome with shame and guilt, and terrible disappointment at missing my daughter’s high school graduation just two weeks later. Yet I also had a sense of relief, grateful that I had been forced to stop this virtually unstoppable behavior.
I felt alone and isolated in terms of family and friends, but the fact that I did not have a sense of any relationship with God did not really concern me. Shortly after my arrest, I wrote a few letters to tell people where I was, how stupid I felt for being there, and to ask for their forgiveness.
One of the people I wrote to was my first ex-wife. It had been 25 years since she had given birth to my best friend’s baby, which led to our divorce. After a few years, we began to talk again and maintained a cordial relationship. But I still had not forgiven her… until, that is, I started to write my letter to her. As I wrote, I realized I was no longer harboring resentment. I was stunned. Something totally unexpected had happened to my heart. I knew immediately this was something only God could have accomplished and it made me want to know Him more. I figured a Bible was a good place to start.
The chaplain invited me to attend Bible study. I responded that I was Jewish, but when he said the Bible study was open to all faiths, I accepted the invitation. The guest speaker that night offered me a Bible. I was really only interested in the Jewish Bible (“Old Testament”), but when he offered a Bible that included the New Testament as well, I took it.
I learned that a small group of inmates in that housing unit held a Bible fellowship every evening. It was there that I began to learn, for the first time, about Jesus Christ and His teachings. It did not take long for me to be awed by the beginnings of this new “relationship.” While much touched me deeply, what most inspired me early on was God’s role as Father to the fatherless, and His unconditional love offered through Jesus.
Nobody was attempting to “sell me” on Christianity, but I was drawn deeper and deeper into a faith I’d never really asked for.
By mid-July, I knew I had received Jesus as my personal Savior. Although I did not feel the need to make a public announcement, I was feeling very good about the path I had taken.
Telling my sister and first ex-wife (who, since my incarceration, has become my best friend) was not nearly as difficult as I had imagined.
I certainly was not looking for confirmation for my new faith, nor did I expect any, but a few days after I knew I’d received Jesus, something completely unlooked for happened. I was lying down on my bed in the afternoon. This bed was bolted into three walls and to the floor. My bed began to shake… and it shook for two minutes! I confirmed the fact that it was not me who was shaking. I confirmed the fact that no one else experienced this event. I have no doubt that my Lord Jesus wanted to visit me to say, “Welcome to My family!”
But I still had lots of questions. I had been a Jew, albeit of questionable repute, for 62 years. Where does the Old Testament “fit in” with the New Testament? What of the 5,000 years of Jewish heritage and tradition that I was now expected to carry on?
A new kind of Jew
I vaguely recalled having once heard about Jews for Jesus. The recollection made me think, “Maybe I am not alone.” I contacted the chaplain and received Larry Dubin’s mailing information.
My expectations were low when I wrote to Larry. He was a considerable distance away and besides, I had already found the true living God, or, I should say, He had found me. What else did I really need? I was actually surprised that Larry responded with an offer to visit me.
So our times together began. Rather than trying to sell me anything, or trying to show me the errors of my past (which I had already taken ownership of), Larry became my teacher.
Prior to coming to faith, I was under the false impression that being Jewish had nothing to do with Jesus – that the Old Testament was the only Jewish Bible and the New Testament had nothing to say to me as a Jew. I had no idea what a Messianic Jew was until I became one.
Larry has been instrumental in my ongoing quest for Jewish completeness,with his teaching, explanations, and spiritual guidance. He made the long trek to see me just about every two weeks. We would discuss the Old and New Testaments, the living Messiah in us, and my blessings as a Jewish believer in Jesus.
Through Scripture, I continually learn that to be a Messianic Jew is to be a complete Jew. Through Scripture, I am in the process of learning my rights and responsibilities, my blessings as a child of God, and the meaning of my salvation. And I praise the Lord for bringing me to the Jews for Jesus doorstep.
Freedom on the inside
Obedience to God does not always come easily, but it brings freedom. Initially I rejected the idea of moving to the faith-based housing unit, because I felt I was accomplishing more for myself and others by staying where I was. When I received a letter from a brother in the faith asking me to reconsider, I prayed about it. I said, “Lord you know I really don’t want to make this move, but if it is Your will, I will obey.”
I submitted my application, only to find out that while the chaplain had approved the move, the medical authorities had disallowed it to maintain my proximity to the medical department. I’d been all set to move, but after my willingness to trust God was tested, I was able to stay. Shades of Abraham and Isaac!
I was not sentenced until fourteen months after my incarceration. Although it would have placed me on the low side of sentencing guidelines, being released was not beyond the realm of possibility.
Well! The month of my sentencing I fasted for three 24-hour periods, praying for the most lenient of the judges. My God certainly has a sense of humor. Not only didn’t I get the most lenient judge, I actually had the judge with the harshest reputation, and received a sentence of 30 months.
In terms of time served, I would still have another 16 months. Yet I was not crushed at all, recognizing it as God’s will. By this point I was extremely active with the Bible fellowship.
When my release was finally approaching, my plan was to relocate to New York City and move in with my first ex-wife. After hearing a sermon on adultery, I realized that living under the same roof with a woman who was not my wife was not God’s will. I chose to remain in Virginia with my church contacts, despite a harsher probation system. But whatever restrictions I would face, I now had the freedom to call God my Father, and the freedom to turn to Him with all my concerns.
Faith and freedom on the outside
When I was released on August 15, 2011, I cherished God’s handiwork. For more than two years I had not seen trees or grass or rivers, nor had I even felt the rain.
But my “freedom” came with many restrictions. The week of my release, I learned I could not attend church. So I started attending a weekly Bible study at a homeless shelter and attending weekly prayer meetings. Soon, probation took those “privileges” away.
Now I rely on my visits with Larry, and embrace the Christian broadcasts on TV and radio. Hopefully, that will expand in the future.
Life as a Christian
When I was in jail, I used to look forward to visits from my “Sunday Pastor,” Jim Wright. Come summer 2012, I had been out of jail for about a year. Jim had been battling, and sometimes winning, against a debilitating disease. On August 1, 2012, I was baptized in his backyard pool. Jim performed the ceremony and several of my church group friends attended.
The sky was cloudy and dreary. But when I came out of the water, I looked up and was kissed by the strongest ray of sunlight!
A year has passed since my baptism . . . and I am blessed.
I embraced Jesus so that He could show me how to live. And sometimes I even listen.
He is teaching me about humility and how to accept, even welcome, tribulation.
Even though I am unclear as to my legal standing, I know I am under God’s guidance. And yes, I find myself occasionally praying that He remove this anxiety from my thoughts, and I am comforted by Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you. ” My Heavenly Father has never left me, and my standing in Him is secure.