The role of chaplain was definitely one of the easier jobs
Rabbi Itche Meir Lipsycz had faced. The Federal Penitentiary in Montgomery,
Alabama was run by an easygoing warden who readily permitted all projects the
rabbi planned for his congregants. Alas, not all good things in this world last
forever, and after a media exposť on the leniencies of the prison, the warden
and chaplain were replaced.
Things seemed to be looking down. Rabbi Lipsycz was warned by
several people that the prospective warden was a rabid anti-Semite. But Rabbi
Lipsycz shrugged off the warnings with a remark about trusting in G-d.
A week before Rosh HaShana the replacement was made, and
Rabbi Lipsycz drove to Montgomery to be introduced to the new warden and
chaplain. Without blinking an eye, he informed them of his plans for the entire
holiday season, knowing full well that it was too early for them to attack. His
assumption was proven to be correct, and Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos
went by without a glitch. A few weeks before Chanuka, however, the problems
The rabbi entered the office and sat in the chair.
"Every year we take the prisoners to my offices in Birmingham," he
"Yes, I know," the warden interrupted, "but I
regret to inform you that this year will be slightly different. This year you
must be accompanied by armed guards."
"That is no problem!" Rabbi Lipsycz exclaimed
congenially. "All that means is an extra van."
The warden looked disturbed. Rabbi Lipsycz got up to leave.
"As usual, it is my pleasure dealing with you."
He hoped that line didnít sound too fake. The warden
grunted, and slammed the door behind him.
The day before the projected party, the telephone rang. Rabbi
Lipsycz interrupted his work and reached across the cluttered desk towards the
phone. "Is this the Chabad House?" asked a female voice.
"Yes, may I help you?"
"My name is Lucy Von Hague. I saw your advertisement in
the yellow pages, and I was wondering what you are."
"We are a religious Jewish organization helping Jews of
all affiliations celebrate their religion."
"Really? Iím Jewish myself. What programs do you
"We have adult classes, holiday programs, aid for poor
and prisoners... In fact, tomorrow we have a Chanuka party for Jewish prisoners
here in Birmingham at 5:00 p.m."
"Would it be okay if I come with a friend?"
"Of course! We are looking forward to meeting you in
The day progressed rather quickly. In the Chabad House,
nighttime is just as active as during the day, and when the warden called at
11:00 p.m., he was surprised to hear Rabbi Lipsycz on the other end, wide awake.
"Rabbi, there will be no Chanuka party tomorrow. We have
decided against it Ė for security reasons. Iím sure youíll
"Absolutely not! Why is this year any different?"
"We have decided on increased measures based on certain
problems which I may not discuss at the moment. The subject is closed. Good
night." Rabbi Lipsycz was left with the receiver buzzing in his ear.
"What chutzpa!" he muttered. He leaned back
in the easy chair, totally frustrated, when a thought struck him. "That
woman! I have to call her now. If sheís a businesswoman, I wonít be able to
reach her tomorrow and sheíll come here for nothing!" Immediately, he
called the number she had left him.
Apologizing for the lateness of the call, he explained the
situation. She swiftly interrupted. "Rabbi, do you think this was an act of
Surprised by the urgent tone of her voice, he faltered.
"...Actually, I have good reason to think so... But I canít really point
to it exactly."
"In that case, leave it to me. Iíll take care of it. I
shall see you tomorrow then?"
"Wha - uh, yes... Good night!"
Strange, he mused. What does she have up her sleeve?
At 7:30 the following morning, the phone rang once again.
"Hello, Rabbi Lipsycz. My name is Dr. Riggs from Washington, and I am the
head chaplain of the federal prison system. I hear you are having a
"Yes, in fact I am!" Briefly, he outlined the
points to Dr. Riggs, who listened intently. "May we make a conference call
with the warden?"
"Of course. I will be pleased to deal with the problem
right away," replied Dr. Riggs.
Rabbi Lipsycz put down the phone and glanced at his watch.
"I have to run to the office for a moment. I might as well do that
now." After informing his wife, he walked briskly out of the house. Minutes
later, the phone rang. "Hello, this is Dr. Riggs for Rabbi Lipsycz...
"What do you mean he left the house? We agreed to have a
Leah Lipsycz grasped the situation immediately. "Well,
he assumed you would call back with a time to meet, not right away! If youíd
like, I can call him to come back right now."
"No, thatís not necessary. Just ask him to be home at
Leah hung up, then picked up the phone to call her husband,
unaware that Dr. Riggs and the warden were still connected. As she put the phone
to her ear, she heard their voices once again. Afraid to breathe or hang up the
phone, she heard their conversation clearly.
Dr. Riggs: "Listen, I donít understand the situation
very well, but I must warn you; do not mess around with this rabbi! He has
friends in the Oval Office!"
The warden gave a low gasp. "I-I didnít know..."
Dr. Riggs: "Just be careful, and weíll take care of
this party. Goodbye!"
Leahís jaw dropped. Questions assaulted her brain like an
avalanche. Dutifully, she informed her husband of the news. He chuckled quietly
and told her of the previous nightís conversation.
At precisely 11:00 a.m., Dr. Riggs called back. The warden
apologized profusely, adding that in the future there would be no such
limitations placed on the rabbiís services without prior notice of a few
The rest of the year passed quietly. The warden allowed Rabbi
Lipsycz to do whatever he liked... until there was a change in presidency. The
scheming warden thought that the rabbiís proteksia had finally
disappeared with the Carter administration. He called the rabbi into his office
for a meeting. The assistant warden was present, as well.
"Rabbi, you will not be allowed to take your family
inside the prison for Rosh HaShana services this year."
"We are afraid the prisoners may revolt and take your
wife and children hostage."
"In that case I will come alone."
"But... this is your holiday! How could you not spend it
with your family?!"
"My job is more important. I have the rest of my life to
spend holidays with my family, but these prisoners do not."
The warden was thrown off guard. "Ahem... We... uh, we
will not let you bring in the holiday food this year either. We will distribute
the usual airline meals."
Rabbi Lipsycz exploded. "What?! There are foods we must
eat, symbolic foods that are not offered by the airlines, such as apples and
honey, pomegranates, tzimmes, chicken soup...!"
The warden replied with undisguised hatred, "Fine! Bring
them in. But nothing extra!"
Satisfied, the rabbi walked out.
Rosh HaShana was on Labor Day weekend that year, and due to
various delays, Rabbi Lipsycz found himself at the guardhouse just a half-hour
before the onset of the holiday. The guard met him apologetically. "Uh,
rabbi? The food has to stay outside. I have express orders from the warden not
to let it in."
"Where is he?!" Lipsycz demanded, pounding his
"Heís gone for the day. The assistant warden is in
charge now, and heís at the other side of the camp."
"Call him immediately! And pass me the phone,
please." The guard saluted and dashed from the room. Rabbi Lipsycz took out
his private address book and called Mrs. Von Hague. To his dismay, her husband
informed him that she was in California. Rabbi Lipsycz quickly explained the
problem, adding that the holiday was to take place in 25 minutes, and,
therefore, everything must be dealt with urgently.
"Rabbi, donít worry, weíll take care of everything.
Stay near the phone, and Iíll call you back ASAP."
Somewhat relieved, Rabbi Lipsycz glanced out the window to
see the assistant warden walking leisurely towards the office. Greeting him at
the door, the rabbi began his attack. "Is this what you call a compromise?
I am holding you responsible for the damage you are causing!"
"But Rabbi, the warden..."
"The warden is not here right now to take the blame; you
are! And you will pay for this if I donít have immediate cooperation!"
The assistant was taken aback by his fiery demeanor. Thinking
quickly, he backed off. "Iíll let you in tonight. But tomorrow, youíll
have to deal with him!"
Rabbi Lipsycz smiled. "Tomorrow I shall definitely deal
with him! Letís get to work."
Momentarily, the phone rang. "Rabbi, this is John Von
Hague. Everything has been dealt with successfully. A very happy holiday to
The nightís celebration passed without further incident,
and an exhausted Rabbi Lipsycz retired to his hotel room in the army base
located nearby. At 7:00 a.m. he awoke and began the trek back to the prison,
wondering what was in store.
As he neared the barbed wire gates, an anxious guard ran out
to greet him. "ĎGood morning, Rabbi! The warden would like to speak with
"Oh, joy..." he muttered and traced his steps
towards the wardenís office. It was a sight to see. The burly warden sat in
the corner of his leather chair like a beaten puppy, his head hanging. His eyes
were bagged and his face looked haggard. He glanced up, and seeing Rabbi Lipsycz,
looked away. His voice trembled as he mumbled, "Do whatever you like."
Rabbi Lipsycz looked at him, a hint of a smile in the corner
of his eyes. "Iíll hold to my side of the compromise Ė all I want is
permission to bring in the food."
"Whatever you say."
The rest of Rosh HaShana proceeded joyfully; the warden was
seldom seen. It was an overjoyed Rabbi Lipsycz who came home that Monday night,
and as he stepped over the threshold, the phone rang.
"Hello, Rabbi, this is Dr. Riggs. How was your
"Just fine, thank G-d. Everything turned out
"Iím very glad to hear that." The relief was
evident in the manís voice. "However, can you please do me a favor?"
"Whatís that?" Rabbi Lipsycz asked innocently.
"Iím going to give you my personal phone number.
Whenever thereís a problem, come directly to me; you donít have to get the