Gary (Chaim Yosef) Apfel, a prominent corporate attorney residing in Los Angeles, is the lead attorney for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. For four and a half years he spent his days and nights working on obtaining Sholom Mordechai’s freedom — all the while refusing to take any sort of remuneration. In this interview, he takes us behind the scenes and reveals what inspired his mesirus nefesh.
I understand that you were the one who got the call from the White House about the commutation.
It was about 12:30 p.m. L.A. time, 3:30 p.m. in New York. I was sitting in my office in Los Angeles when I saw a call with a 202 area code.
We’ve been working on this for a while, I thought to myself. Maybe this is it.
I picked up, and the caller said, “Mr. Apfel?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“You are the attorney for Sholom Rubashkin?”
I confirmed that I was.
He told me that he was from the White House counsel’s office.
“I am calling to let you know that the president has just signed a commutation for Mr. Rubashkin. I’m calling you because you’re his attorney, but you can’t tell anyone yet. We are working on a press release that will probably take about an hour, and we don’t want anyone else knowing until the press release goes out.”
“May I tell the family?” I asked him.
“No. No one can know,” he replied.
I asked for a copy of the actual commutation, and he said he would email it to me together with the press release.
At first, I was literally jumping up and down in my office, saying, “Thank You, Hakadosh Baruch Hu! Thank You, Hakadosh Baruch Hu! Thank You, Hakadosh Baruch Hu!” Then I sat down and started saying Tehillim as I waited for the next call.
About 40 minutes later I got an email from the White House with the commutation letter. The email said that the press release and paperwork would take about another hour to complete, but that I now had permission to tell one person — whoever would be picking him up from prison. The email also included the direct number for the prison warden, and instructed me to call her directly to arrange the release.
So I picked up the phone and called the warden. My heart was pounding.
Someone answered the phone.
I said, “My name is Gary Apfel. I am an attorney for Sholom Rubashkin, and the White House instructed me to call the warden.”
“Oh,” the man replied. “What do you want to speak to the warden about?”
“I’m so sorry,” I answered him, “but the White House gave me strict orders that the only person I may speak to is the warden.”
So he said, “All right, let me get you the warden on the phone.”
The warden got on the phone and told me, “Mr. Apfel, we received the commutation order from the president at 3:48. Your client was released from his jail cell within 10 minutes. In fact, he’s sitting in my office right now, waiting for someone to pick him up. Would you like to speak to him?
I’ll give you one guess what my answer was.
Sholom Mordechai told me that the guard had come into his cell and told him that he needs to get out immediately.
“I had no idea what this was about,” he told me. “Then he took me into the warden’s office, and the warden said to me, “Mr. Rubashkin, the president has commuted your sentence. You are free to go home.”
I had always said to him, “Yeshuas Hashem k’heref ayin” — and that is exactly how it was.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to President Trump. It is very important that every reader of Hamodia expresses his or her gratitude directly to the President of the United States. They can either call the White House at 202-456-1111, write the president at: The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500, or send a message through the White House website.
How did you first get involved in the Rubashkin case?
Over the years I read about the case, and suffered for Sholom Mordechai. It was obvious to me that something terrible was transpiring. I followed the case as he was convicted, and sentenced, and then the appeal was turned down — and was deeply anguished.
Every time there was an appeal for his legal fees, I sent a check. I really wanted to be of help as a lawyer. But I felt that if I would pick up the phone and say, “You know, I am not a bad lawyer, and would like to offer my services,” they would think I am just a kook from California. … so I suffered alone.
Four and half years ago, Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky of the Aleph Institute, who lives in Los Angeles, contacted me about a totally unrelated tzedakah matter. I was scheduled to leave for Philadelphia on business on Monday, and my father, z”l, had taught me that when one pledges tzedakah one should give it before leaving on a trip. So on Motzoei Shabbos I brought my check over to Zvi’s house, and he was on his porch, checking his emails as he was talking to me.
I happened to notice the name Rubashkin on one of his emails, and I told him how I always wanted to help, but …
Zvi is a networker extraordinaire, and he immediately told me, “We’ve been trying to get [former FBI director] Louis Freeh to help us and to join our cause and we can’t even get through to him. He is the chairman of your firm. Do you know him?”
I said yes, he is a great person who happens to be a friend of mine.
“Do you think you can get him to help us?” Zvi asked.
I said I would be glad to try. (A week later I met with Louie, and he immediately agreed to come on board.)
I asked Zvi who from the family was running this effort and he told me that it was Sholom Mordechai’s oldest daughter, Mrs. Roza Weiss. (She is an amazing person who has done incredible things and earned the great respect of everyone who has come into contact with her.) I asked whether there was any way she could meet me on Monday in the Philadelphia airport to discuss the case.
On the plane, I read some of the filings that had been made, and it just confirmed to me that he did not receive a fair trial, and certainly should not have been sentenced to 27 years. I could not understand why the Supreme Court had refused to hear the case.
When I met with Mrs. Weiss, I told her that the legal system had failed. It was clear to me that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted a political solution.
Yet you pressed ahead with the legal battle, in particular the 2255 petition?
Now I can reveal that our strategy was to press ahead with the court case as a vehicle to obtain political support. Through our legal investigation, our research and discovery, we were able to get the facts out. Because of the filings we made, we were able to bring the documents to light and get the attention at the highest echelons in both the legal and political spheres.
I’ve actually had the privilege to speak to every living former attorney general prior to the Obama administration.
As you know, with siyatta diShmaya, we obtained the support of Edwin Meese, President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general; John Ashcroft, who was the attorney general under President George W. Bush; and Ramsey Clark, who served as attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson. That is about as far to the right and left of the political spectrum as you can get.
The way we were able to persuade them and the hundreds of other prominent members of the legal and political establishments to support Sholom Mordechai’s cause was by presenting to them what he discovered in the litigation process about the conduct of the prosecutors and the judge in the case.
If not for the legal efforts, it would have been impossible obtain the support from the legal and political establishments.
This soon became a full-time occupation for you.
Twenty-four/seven. During the weekdays we were drafting documents, making phone calls and holding meetings, and, because it was pidyon shevuyim, even on Shabbos — in addition, of course, to davening for Sholom Mordechai — I would be thinking about strategy.
How did your family react?
My wife really deserves a lot of credit for her support. My children were very supportive as well. I am privileged to have children who are real bnei Torah — my youngest son currently learns in a yeshivah in Monsey — and they truly recognize what the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim is.
What inspired you to devote four and half years of your life to work day and night, pro bono, for someone you had never even met before?
My father, Reb Willy (Zev) Apfel, z”l, was a very well known and greatly beloved individual who lived for other people. His life revolved around doing for others. He was very close with many tzaddikim, but first and foremost was his kesher with the Kopyczynitzer Rebbes, Harav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, and his son, Harav Moshe Mordechai, zechusam yagen aleinu, and my father would say that they were the inspiration for all of his activities.
My father couldn’t have done what he did without the support of my mother, Mrs. Jenny Apfel, shetichyeh; she had a major role in all his acts of chessed.
My own relationship with Kopyczynitz began at my bris. The Rebbe, Harav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, was my sandak, and he put my tefillin on me on the day of my bar-mitzvah. I merited to have a relationship with Harav Moshe Mordechai even before he succeeded his father, but after he became Rebbe, I had the zechus of spending many hours in his presence, and drove him on various occasions.
I observed firsthand his legendary acts of chessed, the chizuk and sagacious advice he gave, and how he was constantly raising tzedakah for various causes and individuals. I developed a very close bond with him, and though more than 40 years have now passed since his petirah, he is still an enormous influence in my life.
I am fortunate that even after the Rebbe’s petirah, his wife, Rebbetzin Chanah Heschel, shetichyeh, and her children welcomed me into her home. I spent many Shabbosos and Sundays there and watched as she perpetuated the legacy of the chessed of Kopyczynitz. I continue to be inspired by her example.
What I learned from Kopyczynitz, through my father and through my own relationship, was that the most important thing we have to do is help each other. So that’s why I got involved.
After I got to know Sholom Mordechai, it just intensified my commitment 10 times over. He is a genuinely warm, kind and decent human being.
His level of bitachon is unparalleled; he’s a walking Shaar Habitachon of Chovos Halevavos. You get to see a person’s true level of bitachon when he’s in a situation like that. Incidentally, Sholom Mordechai’s grasp of legal issues is outstanding. Many times I would ask him, “What law school did you go to?”
How often did you speak to Sholom Mordechai?
I had the privilege to — basically every week for four years — have a two-hour legal call with him, and must have visited him in Otisville 25-30 times over the years. I felt that one of my responsibilities as a Yid was to try to give him chizuk. But every time we got together, he ended up giving me the chizuk!
I would like to add that getting to know Mrs. Leah Rubashkin and speaking to her on an almost daily basis has been a very enriching experience. Her inner strength, her lofty levels of emunah and bitachon, have been a true source of inspiration.
You believed the whole time that he would get out.
I never, ever doubted it. And yet, now that it’s happened, it’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable, but I never doubted.
Tell us a little about those who were involved in the commutation effort.
It is important to realize that, as mentioned, the success of the commutation effort was the culmination of the legal effort.
It was a process we had to do one step at a time. So we have to thank everyone who was involved in the legal battle, which means every one of the bidders [to purchase the company] who provided us with affidavits. Even though they initially weren’t comfortable getting involved in the case, they signed affidavits relating how the prosecutors frightened them off from purchasing the company, which, in turn, led to the company being sold at a far lower sales price than its real worth; this caused the bank’s financial loss. The bankruptcy trustee, Joseph Saracheck, provided very valuable information and signed two very important affidavits.
While I represented Sholom Mordechai pro bono, we needed a lawyer on the ground in Iowa. With siyatta diShmaya, we retained a wonderful Harvard Law-trained lawyer — Stephen Locher. Steve was the primary draftsman of our numerous motions and filings and played a major role in developing our strategy.
Many people were involved along the way, and it is impossible to name all of them.
I am going to mention only few, and ask forgiveness from all the others.
This was a really a team effort, and Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky of the Aleph Institute in Los Angeles had a key role every step of the way. Just about every senator, congressperson and senior justice official we were able to reach out to was arranged either directly through him or through contacts he or his colleagues at Aleph provided. We worked very closely on a daily basis.
I have had the joy and pleasure of being here since Thursday to participate in the celebrations. Everyone begged Zvi to come as well, but he couldn’t come because he was too busy helping other Yidden.
The assistance of Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, the editor-in-chief of the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, has been invaluable. He gave us wise advice and support throughout the process.
Yoeli Schwartz, a Satmar Chassid from Monroe was moser nefesh for Sholom Mordechai throughout the process.
Alan Dershowitz was consulted at various steps along the way. Most significantly, because of his special relationship with the president, he became the conduit to the White House. He would let Zvi or myself know what documents, letters or other support was needed. He played the key role persuading the President and others at the White House. He did all this without remuneration.
Four former deputy attorneys general played a key role, all of them pro bono: Larry Thompson, who later served as general counsel of PepsiCo; Professor Philip Heymann of Harvard Law School; Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI; and Judge Charles Renfrew, who, sadly, passed away 10 days ago and did not live to hear the news.
Each of them was passionate about the case, and did all he could to help.
Judge Renfrew was close to 90 years old when he, along with Larry Thompson and Professor Heyman, and I, flew to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to try to convince the new U.S. attorney to bring the matter to a close. Louis Freeh couldn’t make it, but followed up after the meeting with two phone calls of his own.
I said at the time that it was probably the first time in the history of the United States that three former deputy attorneys general were in the state of Iowa at one time, much less in the same city at the same meeting!
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the results we were hoping for, but their attendance testified to their dedication to the cause, and helped us later obtain the support of the others.
The assistance we received from former Attorney General Michael Mukasey was extraordinary. Not only did he agree to sign letters of support, he actually made numerous phone calls and attended meetings on our behalf. Whenever we needed, I would call him up and ask him to call So-and-So. … It is pretty hard for anyone to refuse a former attorney general.
How did you manage to get so many people in the upper echelons of both the legal and political realms on board?
It was simply a matter of getting through to them and laying out the simple facts of the case. The facts spoke for themselves. That was how we got the support of all these attorneys general, deputy attorneys general, U.S. attorneys, judges, FBI directors, senators and members of Congress. It’s amazing how many people I’ve gotten to meet and know over these years — people I’d read about in the newspapers and always respected — who became totally accessible and committed once they found out about the case.
In addition to the president, there are two individuals who deserve a message of gratitude from every Yid.
GOP Senator Orin Hatch of Utah is a Mormon. He not only wrote three letters on behalf of Sholom Mordechai, he hand-delivered one of them personally to the president, telling the president how important this case is to him.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, a fierce political opponent of the president, put aside politics and wrote a powerful letter of support for the commutation effort. That was a very courageous thing to do.
We owe them both a real debt of gratitude.
The letter from Congresswoman Pelosi is actually addressed to you.
That is correct.
Any final thoughts?
Many people did their part in the hishtadlus on many fronts, but it was the Ribbono shel Olam Who heard the tefillos of Klal Yisrael and got him out. So many Yidden, from the leaders of the generation to simple Yidden, poured out their hearts on his behalf every day. Hashem heard the tefillos and the achdus and that is what got him out.
I also would like to take the opportunity to thank Mrs. Lichtenstein and the staff at Hamodia for their support all these years. The editorials and articles were very helpful to the cause.