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Life Sketches: The Empty Seat

Stories From Around the World

By , Kherson, Ukraine

It was during the intermediate days of Passover this year, when I get a call that the President of Ukraine is coming to town to install a new local government. As the rabbi of Kherson, I am invited to attend. I’m not eager to go. My mother and lots of my siblings and their spouses and children have come from far to share the holiday with us, and I really want to enjoy every minute with them.

But duty calls, and I go. I am seated among the invited guests—the city’s top brass—to welcome the president. I am impatient, sorry to be missing precious time with my family. At some point, a gentleman comes over and asks if he could sit down in the empty seat next to mine. It is the only available seat left in the whole place. I introduce myself. “I know who you are,” he says. “You’re the chief rabbi here.”

His name is Alexei. We get to talking. I soon learn that he is the administrator of the city’s prison system. I ask him if there are any Jews in the local prisons. He tells me about a Jew in a certain prison. He is the prison ringleader, he says.

I tell Alexei that the next day is the 7th day of Passover, and that I would like to get some matzah to the Jewish prisoner. No problem, he tells me. He’ll do whatever is necessary to clear me through security at the prison. I wait until I have the chance to shake hands with the President and quickly leave. The area is closed to traffic because of security, so I sprint back home. I grab a package of matzah, some Jewish literature in Russian, and get into my car. The prison is about half an hour’s drive.

When I get there, I am greeted by prison personnel waiting to escort me through security.

The prisoner is also waiting for me. “They told me that the rabbi is coming to see me,” he says to me. We speak for a while, and I give him the matzahs and the literature.

Outside, I am surprised to see Alexei waiting for me. He wants to know what else he can do for me. Are there other Jewish prisoners, I ask. He already did his research. There are 11 altogether. Let me know how I can help, he says.

Since then, thanks to Alexei’s help, I lead a regular Torah class for the Jewish prisoners.

I missed a few hours with my family that Passover day, but look at what I gained…


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