From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

A Hug in Prison

We can do no great things; only small things with great love.

Mother Teresa

About two years ago, I had the privilege of accompanying Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to a prison in upstate New York. This time he had actually been invited by the Jewish chaplain, who asked that he perform a Hanukkah concert for the Jewish inmates there. There weren’t many there, not even a minyan (quorum needed for prayer services), only about eight. No payment was involved, but Shlomo accepted the invitation without a moment’s hesitation. It was a shlep, three hours each way. “No problem!” said Shlomo cheerfully.

The concert was a huge success, and Shlomo made the event into a real Hanukkah celebration, but that was only the beginning. When the Hanukkah chagiga (party) was over, Shlomo turned to the chaplain and said, “Please . . . I would like to visit with the rest of the inmates here. Could you get permission?”

Shlomo went into every cell, where he hugged, kissed and talked with each inmate. Then he went into the dining room, into the recreation room, into the kitchen, into every possible nook and cranny of the prison where he was permitted to go, not satisfied until he had ferreted out every prisoner, making certain that no one had been overlooked. Finally, he was ready to leave, and we were walking down the hall when a big, burly inmate with a scarred, pitted face started running after us. “Rabbi, Rabbi,” he shouted. “Please wait.” We stopped immediately, and Shlomo turned to beam at him. “Yes, my holy friend?” he inquired sweetly. The man began to shift in embarrassment, almost as if he regretted his impulsive act, and then, finally gathering courage, blurted out, “I just loved that hug you gave me before! Would you mind giving me another one?” Shlomo gave him the most radiant smile in the world, and then tenderly enfolded him in his arms. They stood clasped together for a long time.

Finally, the inmate broke away and heaved the deepest sigh in the world. “Oh Rabbi,” he said. “No one, no one, ever hugged me like that before.” And then tears began to stream down his face.

“You know, Rabbi,” he sobbed in remorse, “if only someone would have hugged me like that ten years ago, I surely wouldn’t be here in this prison today.”

Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum
Previously appeared in

Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul

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