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Finding the Ultima te Freedom Behind Bars by Shawn Balva


By Shawn Balva

Growing up, my family wasn’t religious. G-d was rarely, almost never, mentioned. We ate like everyone else, we dressed like everyone else, we lived like everyone else, but rarely any mention of “G-d.” I knew that I was a Jew, and I’m sad to say that I wasn’t proud of it, but something inside of me always told me that I was different. This “different” was the candle inside, the Jewish soul, trapped, waiting to ignite. It all started with my dad. My dad, Israeli-born, was always very spiritual and a huge believer in Hashem but not religious. He was my first messenger from Hashem. He pounded in my head over and over that I was a Jew and that I must marry a Jewish girl. When he would talk about a future event or I would tell him something that I was going to do, he always said, “b’ezrat Hashem, with the help of Hashem.”

When I turned 13 years old, the time of bar mitzvah, having a bar mitzvah wasn’t something that crossed my mind. I grew up playing sports and that was how my life would be. Anything Jewish didn’t matter to me and, in fact, I was turned off by it. I saw how the other Jewish kids dressed and acted, and with my distorted/selfish/ childish mind, I didn’t want any part of them. I remember my dad arguing with my mom that it was important for me to have a bar mitzvah. This was such a big thing, and he did such a big mitzvah to ensure that I would get bar mitzvahed. My mom agreed. I prepared begrudgingly with a Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Oz, and one morning before school, I quickly had a bar mitzvah.

After my bar mitzvah, I went back to my “normal” life. We didn’t eat kosher, we didn’t do Shabbat, we didn’t do anything Jewish, but still, I knew who I was.

I eventually became very good at football.

We lived in Las Vegas at the time. A lot of coaches were telling me that I could make football a profession. At 14 years old, the next step was to choose a high school that would give me the best chance to reach this goal. That school would be Bishop Gorman High School, a Catholic private school. My dad was enraged and argued heavily with my mom not to send me to this school. My Chabad rabbi asked my mom, “What place does a Jewish boy have in a Catholic school?” But I wanted to go there because of the opportunity it presented to get me into the professional football leagues, so my mom agreed.

My freshman year at Bishop Gorman I was required, like everyone else, to wear a uniform that had the Christian cross on it. I was also required to go to Catholic services and a Catholic class once a week. They preached that “Yashkah” was the messiah. It’s amazing that these teachings never penetrated my soul. This is a prime example of Hashem being a magen, a shield. I still felt this “difference,” that I was different from all the other kids, and that caused me to feel anguish. Looking back, this anguish was the cause of me making decisions to lead me down a path of destruction – a path of destruction orchestrated by Hashem to lead me to my true purpose: to be a Jew.

The next three years in high school, I attended Faith Lutheran High School, a Christian high school. Bishop Gorman didn’t work out, and the only other high school that would give me a chance to go pro was this Christian school. But football was all that mattered, so that’s where I decided to go to school. At Faith Lutheran, I was also required to wear a uniform with a cross on it, go to services, and take a class on Christianity, always feeling

that “difference.”

In my junior year of high school, things were seemingly going great. I was doing great in football, made some friends, and life was good. But one night, everything changed.

After a game, I went out with a friend to a party and drank alcohol for the first time. I fell in love with the party scene. Slowly, throughout my high school career, I became a full-time drug addict. Every day, every hour, every second, all I wanted to do was drugs and drink alcohol. It consumed my life. And worst of all, it worried my parents, especially my mom, who was witnessing my detonation.

My senior year was my first experience with G-d, but that disappeared just as fast as it came. I was suspended the first two games of my senior year for getting caught drinking at a party. When that suspension was up, a thought came to mind, to pray to G-d. I said, “G-d, please let me have a good season, and I will stay away from drugs.” For two weeks, I stayed away from drugs, and I had unbelievable games. My stats were through the roof. If I kept this up throughout the year, I would definitely have had a real chance to go pro. But one night, one Thursday night, as the evil inclination does, a thought came into my head to do drugs. I did, and the next day, unbelievably, I was randomly drug tested and was kicked off the football team.

I knew it was from G-d, but I continued in my druggy ways, getting worse and worse, and forgot all about G-d.

In order to find peace and also because my little brother was attending a Jewish school, my mom started attending Friday night Shabbat services, lighting Shabbat candles, and making a meal with challah on Shabbat. Many times, she would invite me to participate. But I always told her that I was busy. If I ever did come, I would ask her to hurry up so that I could go out with my friends to do drugs. Her worry increased, but her reliance on Hashem increased as well.

After high school, I was doing nothing, my drug use increased, I started to steal, get tattoos, be with non-Jewish girls, and I stopped playing football. I turned into a full-time criminal. I was arrested for a DUI, which didn’t give me a wakeup call to stop what I was doing. I was completely out of control, using all different types of drugs. My criminal lifestyle included me having a weapon at all times. At the peak of my detonation, my family was extremely worried about me, but there was nothing stopping me. The drugs made me cold. Like Paraoh, the drugs “hardened” my heart. There was no amount of crying or begging to stop me on my destructive tracks. I was leading a life towards prison or death. My mom even told me, “If you continue, you will end up dead or in prison.”

It was at this destructive peak when Hashem had mercy on me and my family and took things into His own hands. Out of the blue, I started to have a strange feeling. It isn’t something that I can explain in any way. But I started to feel that something was telling me to stop what I was doing or else something bad would happen. Every time that I was going to engage in criminal activi

ties or do drugs, I felt that “something” but I shrugged it off and continued in my ways. Life’s pressures of having a job and needing to sign up for college, while balancing a drug-infested criminal lifestyle, was really getting to me. I felt like I was going to pop.

On August 25, 2015, I was arrested for armed robbery. I was taken to the Las Vegas county jail, booked, and processed. I was devastated, but my family was even more so.

Jail was horrible. It was dirty and filled with actual criminals. I didn’t feel like I belonged. And when I was finally detoxed from all the drugs a few days later, I felt that “different” feeling again and remembered that I was a Jew. I even started to pray to Hashem to take me out of this nightmare. When my mom and dad came to visit me, it took so much to hold back my tears. I even remember my mom telling me, “Whatever will be, I picture you living a beautiful Jewish life when this is all over.” It sounded good, but all I could think about was having to spend time in prison.

My mom and dad suggested that I get the kosher food that they offered at the jail. A rabbi who worked at the prison came to my unit and asked me questions to verify that I was Jewish. The next day I started to eat kosher. Everybody else’s food tray was brown, and mine was red. At first, I was nervous to be different than everyone else, but eventually I realized that if you are yourself, with confidence, and you don’t overstep anybody’s path, you are given respect. Around the unit, guys would call me “Kosher” because of my red kosher tray.

Two weeks into jail, it had been a very spiritual experience. I was suffering, but I felt G-d. I had the opportunity to get on house arrest-bail to await sentencing. The night before the judge’s decision, a random person who knew nothing about me came up to me and said, “I can see that you are going through a tough time, but you’re going to go home soon.” The next day, the judge agreed to let me out on bail, something very unusual for an armed robbery charge. The next day, while I was being released on bail, I walked past a tough-looking, Latino individual, with tattoos all over his face and body. He asked me, “You goin’ home?” I told him I was. He said, “G-d bless you.”

I left that day with a newfound belief in Hashem. I didn’t understand it fully yet, but the candle was lit and not by my own doing.

Out on bail, I completed a rehabilitation program but that and jail still didn’t teach me a lesson. For the nine months that I was out on bail, I picked alcohol and drugs back up, even though I was being drug tested by my house arrest officer. After a while, my mom was fed up with my behavior and told me that I needed to turn myself into jail before I got into trouble and made things worse. My lawyer already informed me that I was definitely going to do prison time, so it was better to start my time right then.

I spent five months in a federal jail in Las Vegas. During those five months, my soul started to inquire a little more about Judaism. I still wasn’t eating kosher or observing Shabbat, but I wanted to know a little bit more of what it meant to be a Jew.

The first thing I started to do was to participate in the fast days. I even jokingly said to my mom, “Maybe I’ll be a rabbi one day.” Many times, Hashem gives us a wakeup call that makes a deep impression on us, and one of those wakeups happened to me after the fast of Yom Kippur.

As the fast was coming to an end, I prepared for myself a non-kosher dish, with pork and cheese. I’ll always remember a white guy with a swastika tattooed on the back of his head who came up to me and said, “I don’t understand you Jews. You fast and pray, and then eat non-kosher. You’re a hypocrite.”

What he said really opened my eyes to the truth – that I was a Jew and that I had a purpose. I still wasn’t 100% ready to change, but the change was imminent.

Iwas eventually sentenced to eight years and one day in prison. At 21 years old, I would be going to Victorville Prison in California, a very tough and dangerous prison, no place for a Jew.

Arriving at Victorville, I was nervous but ready for whatever was ahead of me. Like I said before, if you be yourself and are sincere, you will get respect for that. Some guys at the prison told

me that I should hide my Judaism, but I let it be known, and the respect was given.

After getting settled in, on my first Saturday morning, I was called into the chapel for Shabbat services. I showed up to the chapel and was walked to a small room where the Jewish services were being held. As I walked into the room, I was greeted by an African-American man wearing a tallit who introduced himself as Adir. Adir in Hebrew means mighty. He even had it tattooed under his eye, which I later found out was to cover up a gang tattoo. Adir explained to me that, at 18 years old, he was given a 56-year sentence; he was now 40 years old. The past 14 years in prison he was practicing Judaism, even though he wasn’t halachically Jewish. In prison, it’s close to impossible to have a kosher conversion, and he truly wanted one. Adir explained to me that, since I was Jewish, I should start eating kosher, observing the Shabbat, and putting on tefillin –and that’s exactly what I did. I started to eat kosher and keep Shabbat to the best of my ability, and until my tefillin would arrive in the mail, Adir would let me borrow his every morning.

It’s amazing how Hashem put Adir into my life. I looked up to Adir because he was a cool guy, so he made Judaism cool to me. My distorted perception growing up was that being Jewish, eating kosher, and keeping Shabbat wasn’t cool. But now that Adir showed me that it was, I wanted more and more to learn what it meant to be an observant Jew.

In Victorville, we celebrated the holidays. I started attending Friday and Saturday Shabbat services every

same room as an open toilet, and since our rooms had a toilet in them, I covered the toilet with a towel.

I started to pray Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv. I would call my mom and dad and ask them to look up on Google certain questions I had on Jewish law. A rabbi from Chabad came to visit


week. We said kiddush on grape juice and said hamotzi on bread. I stopped making phone calls, emailing, and watching TV on Shabbat. From an ArtScroll siddur, I copied down all the blessings on food and always kept it in my pocket. When it was time to say a blessing, I covered my head with my hand (which I now know is not halachically acceptable but I was trying), and quietly said the blessing. I found out that you are not allowed to pray in the

us once a month, and I would ask him questions. I’ll always remember one of the questions I asked that rabbi.

At the time, I had in mind to play football professionally when I got out, but I knew that it would conflict with my observance as a Jew. I told him that if I played football, I would at some point have to break the Shabbat. I asked him what to do. He told me that I knew the answer. I know the answer now, and the truth is that, as Jews,

Hashem must come first over anything. I started asking my parents to get me in touch with a rabbi who I could speak to at any time because my soul had a thirst to learn Torah but I had no idea how. My thirst to be an observant Jew came out of nowhere. I wanted more and more. Anything that I found out I wasn’t doing right or not doing at all I immediately corrected to be in sync with halacha. I loved it, and still, I wanted more.

One day, my mom came to visit me. She told me that if I wanted to study more about Judaism, I should ask to be transferred to Otisville, which was all the way in New York. Otisville had a full-time rabbi as the head chaplain, about 20 Jews there, and a minyan every day. She also told me, “There’s this guy there, Rabbi Rubashkin. He will take you under his wing and teach you how to be a proper Jew.” I was reluctant to ask for the transfer because of the distance from home and the cold weather in New York. I told my mom that I didn’t want to go, that I was OK where I was. Eventually, though, because Victorville was a dangerous prison, I started to feel uncomfortable and told my mom that we should try to get me transferred to Otisville.

Every Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv, I prayed with great kavanah

to Hashem that He should send me to Otisville so that I may learn to walk in the ways of the Torah. My intent was pure, and He answered my prayers.

A few weeks later, with the help of Hashem, my mom, and the Aleph Institute, I was designated to Otisville. On my way to Otisville, which took two plane rides and a month in transit, because of Hashem and the help of Rabbi Katz, I didn’t miss a day of putting on tefillin and eating kosher. Even at both stops in Oklahoma City and Brooklyn, I was greeted by other Orthodox Jews. In Brooklyn, it was my first encounter with Chassidic Jews walking with a smile on their face saying, “Shalom aleichem!”

When I finally arrived in Otisville, I was amazed to see grass and nice officers. In Victorville, there was no grass and all the officers were very disrespectful. I was taken to my unit where I would be housed. I was greeted by a guy wearing a kippa and tzitzit. He told me, “I would like to introduce you to Rabbi Rubashkin. He lives in this unit.” I was very happy to hear that I would be living in the same unit as the rabbi that my mom told me about when I was in Victorville. It was unbelievable.

When I met Rabbi Rubashkin, I was starstruck. He had an aura of light around him that made you forget you were in prison. He had an amazing smile that made you feel good.

He brought me to his room, I put on tefillin, and said the Shema. Later on that first day, I went to my first ever minyan. When I arrived at the minyan, I was greeted by the warmest of smiles and handshakes. I was on a cloud. Even in the darkest of darks, prison, the Jewish people come together to make a dwelling for Hashem.

I started to wear kippa and tzitzit all the time. Little by little, my service to Hashem became finetuned. My kosher consumption, Shabbat observance, and prayer service became in sync with halacha due to the fact that I was now surrounded by rabbis and some observant Jews. But what I really wanted, which my Jewish soul was thirsting for, was to learn The Holy Torah, Hashem’s Torah.

Rabbi Rubashkin suggested that, since we lived in the same unit, we should learn Chumash with Rashi and

Rambam every day. And that’s exactly what we did for the next three months before his presidential commute from prison, he taught me how to learn Torah. I learned so much, not only from what we learned in the Torah alone, but on how to conduct myself as a proper Jew. He taught me great lessons and when he left, I was very sad but also happy that he was reunited with his family.

I’ll always remember how he would say all the time that at any moment we

him if he would teach me Gemara, and he happily agreed. Since he came, for the past year, we have been learning Gemara, Shulchan Aruch, and Mesilat Yesharim by the Ramchal every day. Words cannot explain how proud I am to call myself a student of Rabbi Samet. Every day he makes me understand more and more what it means to be a Jew in this tough world. He showed me that, in life, we are always going to have problems, challenges, and struggles but it is incumbent on us to use these strug


can be freed from prison – and that’s exactly what happened. He was released on the last day of Chanukah 2017.

After Rabbi Rubashkin left, I felt a void. I knew how to study on my own, and I was stronger in my observance but my soul was sad from the disappearance of the special treatment it just went through. I needed a teacher. A few months later, my prayers were answered and I started learning Gemara with Rabbi Goldstein, another rabbi in prison. His knowledge and patience were amazing. Every day, for the next five months, we would learn until he eventually went to the Otisville camp. Through this time, I became much more familiar with the Gemara, as he was very patient with me, and just spending time with a rabbi every day has a great impact on you. Rabbi Goldstein really taught me what it meant to be humble. But when he left, I felt a void again. I prayed to Hashem to send me a teacher, and once again He answered my prayer. A few days before Pesach 2019, Rabbi Samet, who left Otisville 18 months earlier, had come back. I asked gles to increase our emunah (faith) in Hashem. He has shown me that, as a Jew, all we can do is be sincere of heart in serving Hashem. The rest is in the hands of Hashem.

As I look at where I used to be, as opposed to where I am now, I can only be humble. I look at myself, a fully observant Jew, still with many flaws, I am so humble and thankful to Hashem for what He has taken me out of. Hashem saved me from u n d e r n e a t h a mountain engulfed in water. The cha l lenge s, the Catholic and Christian schools, t he d r ug s, prison, disappointments, discomforts, and confusions – and today I

sit, with an understanding that the Torah is our life. I still don’t know how to perfect this service, but at least I know the goal. I look at all the suffering I, my family, and many others have been through. I realize that it is only so that we may learn to love and revere Hashem. As it says in Tehillim (119:71), “Tov li ki unety l’maan elmad chukecha, It is for my good that I was afflicted so that I may learn your statutes.” Through my suffering, I’ve realized that salvation only comes from Hashem, and He does everything good and bad so that we may know that He is Hashem. I also now understand the Rashi in B’shalach (15:17) where Rashi explains that, in the future, Hashem will have supreme sovereignty. It’s not that Hashem doesn’t have sovereignty always, but now that I am aware and believe this, this is the true supreme sovereignty.

As I look at where I am, as opposed to where I’ve been, my intellect shows me that I can only be humble. I am a solid tree. My leaves are green, and my fruits are ripening. My flowers are colorful, and my branches are strong. My trunk is firm, ready to withstand the world. I look around at all the other trees. As I look into the distance, I see one of the beautiful trees being tended by a familiar face. It’s the same face that has tended to me. I’m instantly humbled, because I now know that it was meant to be.

Be patient and humble, and give to receive. Be kind and compassionate, and you will feel free. Let go of the worry, and let G-d in your life because He’s already there.