‘Japan Saga’ Ends as Grunwald Heads Home at Last

Yaakov Yosef Grunwald (R) sits next to his father, Rabbi Moshe Yitzchok Grunwald, two weeks ago during his prison furlough.
Yaakov Yosef Grunwald (R) sits next to his father, Rabbi Moshe Yitzchok Grunwald, two weeks ago during his prison

Yaakov Yosef Grunwald left his Nitzan prison on Tuesday for the short drive home to Bnei Brak, capping an extraordinary saga that helped make travelers aware of the dangers of accepting packages to take onto airplanes for other people.

The low-key release of the 24-year-old Israeli yeshivah bachur shortly after noon marked the final chapter in the chronicle of the three boys arrested in Japan, which was sparked by the discovery of more than a million dollars worth of drugs in a false bottom of their suitcase while entering Chiba International Airport on April 3, 2008.

Yossi Bando, Yoel Zev Goldstein and Yaakov Yosef Grunwald told the Japanese border police that they had been duped by a respected member of their community. In a series of separate trials, Bando and Grunwald were convicted for negligence, while Goldstein was acquitted.

Grunwald, who received a six-year sentence, spent much of his time in a detention center in Chiba, a major industrial city in Japan’s center. He was transferred to Israel about five months ago under a bilateral agreement to complete his term, and was freed yesterday after both Japanese and Israeli law agreed he was eligible for early release for good behavior.

Yaakov Yosef’s 1,734-day ordeal was followed by Orthodox Jews around the world, many of whom were convinced of his innocence. He spent his time in prison studying, and he has completed a vast amount of Shas and Shulchan Aruch. Letters he sent to his parents or well wishers were replete with divrei Torah and chizuk.

Askanim for his defense used the opportunity to express their admiration for the bachur they got to know so well over nearly five years and dozens of global trips.

“Yaakov Yosef always managed to look at the bright side,” Aron Nezri and Meilech Bindinger wrote in a statement released yesterday. “When a threat of a sentence in excess of 20 years was looming, he rejoiced that the prosecution ultimately requested 13 years. And when the judges handed him a verdict of six years, he rejoiced that it wasn’t less, so that the prosecution shouldn’t appeal.”

Harav Chaim Dovid Weis, the Satmar Dayan of Antwerp, led the overall defense team, but it was Rabbi Nezri and Rabbi Bindinger who devoted themselves to studying Japanese criminal law, investigating attorneys and arranging food and support for Yaakov Yosef.

Yaakov Yosef yesterday was met by his family outside the Nitzan prison. They came to accompany him home. His first and only furlough came just two weeks ago, when he was allowed home for 12 hours on the first day of Chanukah.

Yaakov Yosef’s grandfather yesterday made a seudas hoda’ah in his Bnei Brak home, where family, friends, and others came to welcome the bachur home.

But inmates at the prison said they would miss him. During the short time Yaakov Yosef was at Nitzan, which is near Ramle, he revitalized the twice-daily minyan, and delivered a shiur to the prisoners every evening after Maariv.

Bando, then 17, is almost finished serving parole for his five-year sentence and Goldstein, then 22, is engaged to be married in Sivan.

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