Mr. William Rapfogel shares his journey of endurance and growth through the prism of prison
Zman Cheiruseinu — a time when we relive our redemption from the torturous prison that was Mitzrayim, and can also free ourselves of any meitzarim that constrain us.
May this powerful story of one individual’s emunah throughout his incarceration and subsequent freedom be the forerunner of the Geulah Sheleimah.
Mr. Rapfogel, for more than 22 years, you led the Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty. Can you give us some background about your story?
In 1992, when I took over, the Met Council was a relatively small nonprofit. Baruch Hashem, it was a very nice little program. Over the 20 years that I headed the Met Council, we grew into an effective, multifaceted entity that fought poverty and helped many thousands of people.
We worked very closely with the Jewish Community Councils around the city. Each one of these community councils was an independent not-for-profit with its own board of directors, etc., and they knew what their communities needed.
In the late 1990s, the Washington Heights Jewish community was told by its state senator that he was getting them a grant for $50,000. We began advancing the money, about $20,000 of it, and after four months he denied that he ever said there would be a grant. In the end, this senator became attorney general and prosecuted my case and he was very vindictive toward me because of what happened then.
In 2013, three men with whom I had worked were called in to the attorney general’s office for questioning on charges of financial misconduct. Then, a few months later, they all changed their stories and said I was part of their scheme, which was not true.
Now, I did make mistakes, mistakes for which I will forever be sorry. I opened the door to the prosecution by what I did, and I accept that responsibility. I know that I let the staff, the board and the clients down — people whom I loved and wanted to help more than anything. I cannot express the enormity of my regret and pain. But while I did commit financial crimes, I did not commit the grand larceny or money laundering that had been going on. I had nothing to do with that.
But again, I am angry at myself for opening the door to the whole mess with my tax evasion. It feels devastating to think about the people whom I let down and hurt.
The other men changed their story to make themselves look good?
I think to lessen the punishment that they would receive. One of them called me before he passed away to ask mechilah. He had cancer and he was clearly in tears …
What was your response? You can’t put a dagger in someone’s heart and say, “I didn’t mean to kill you, but sorry that I did.”
Right. But what went through my mind … was how [the perpetrators of the official search] terrorized my family. How they came to my apartment in the city and ripped through everything, tore through things, threw things away … It’s just a horrific experience to go through. I thought about how they terrorize people, and I can only imagine what they did to him and to his family. And as he said, at that point, it was over. It wasn’t as if he could stand up and say something that would’ve mattered. So I said, “Sure.” We all have weaknesses, and we learn.
Just for the sake of honesty, shouldn’t he have said something?
I understand that at a certain point, you would give anything just to have it over. During the period of time of almost four months of waiting when they changed their stories and things began to crystallize that this was not going well for me, I literally felt like my skin was being peeled off every day. There were leaks in the press about things that had nothing to do with anything. It was horrific.
I’ve heard that before a person even steps into prison, life is so miserable …
The period leading up to prison is worse than prison. And prison is not good. Many of us think that we live in this great progressive state of New York, but the state prison system is anything but progressive. I remember spending some time with Rav Reuven Feinstein, shlita, and he said, “You’re going to see some terrible people.” And he meant the inmates. He said, “You’re going to have to have real emunah to get through this.”
And the irony is that the inmates were not really the problem. It was the guards. If two or three out of ten were anti-Semitic — and they were — they could make your life miserable. They have such control and such power. But, you know, there are a lot of lessons learned and I’ve been doing a lot of work with Aleph. We’re trying to do things to reform the system, and every little thing that we can do that can help somebody is enormous.
Can you give an example of where you would love to see reform?
There are so many ways. The reforms must be comprehensive, from leveling the playing field with prosecutors to making prison more humane to training people for what comes when they return to society. We must fight to significantly increase alternative sentencing for nonviolent first-time offenders.
One of the things that prosecutors do is try to limit discovery. So, for example, while they were questioning me, they didn’t allow me to have access to my calendar for the past 20 years or to emails or even contacts. So they were asking me questions and after a couple of hours, I said, “I have to look at my calendar.” They said, “You’re not being truthful.” I said, “Without looking at my calendar, I don’t know what happened.” They didn’t care.
I think perhaps prosecutors are as corrupt as, if not more corrupt than, many of the people they prosecute. The defendant should not have to wait to go to trial for discovery. Discovery should be available from the very outset, so that you have the opportunity to look up something and say, “You know what? Wait a second. I found something that works in my favor…” You can’t do that.
Prosecutors have incredible power in this country. And even when they find clear evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, [the prosecutors] usually do not face any penalties for it. They just have to apologize.
Then there’s prison. In federal prison, when somebody is being sentenced and is not violent, not a danger, they allow the family to drive him to the prison. The state system takes the person from the courthouse, shleps him down to the Tombs in Manhattan and to other places, basically keeps him there for 24, 36 hours; nobody knows what’s going on. Usually, there’s no food. If you’re lucky, you have water. You’re with crazy, dangerous people. And then, if you’re lucky, they take you to Rikers, which is a horror.
One immediate thing that the Aleph people and I would like to do in New York State is that non-dangerous criminals should be allowed to be driven to prison by their families (without Rikers or Downstate).
Did you really end up at Rikers? That is iconic for horror.
It is horrific. Though the guards were not as anti-Semitic in Rikers as they were upstate. I faced probably my worst moments before prison, but the worst moment in prison was very early on. It was the first Shabbos, the first Friday night in Rikers, which was … gehinnom.
What happened after Rikers?
From Rikers they take you to Downstate, which is their way of inculcating you into the prison world. In my case this was 50 people coming off the bus into this big cell. A 6’5” prison guard came up to us, told us to turn around. He came over to me, took my yarmulke, threw it on the floor, put his hand on my head and said, “Where’s your horns, boy?” Then he shoved me into the wall. That’s what Downstate is.
Downstate lasts weeks. It’s not a stopover, it’s weeks of just, in effect, pure torture. And every time I got to a particular place, my family would reach out to make sure that I had a siddur, food for Shabbos etc. At Rikers and Downstate, they intentionally didn’t cooperate.
Couldn’t you file a complaint in any of these places?
After Downstate, they took me to a place called Hudson for a few weeks, which is up near Albany. They put me into protective custody there, and I was with former cops, former prosecutors, people who were convicted and weren’t able to be with the general population because of their previous lives. And it was interesting because the deputy superintendent of Hudson would come there and talk to all of us very informally. He actually tried to be very nice.
I told him a little bit about what happened at Downstate, and he said, “Let me give you a piece of advice: Never, ever file a grievance. If you file a grievance, you will be, like, with a big G on your shirt and every guard in this system will have you with, like, a gun on your back.” Not really a gun, but they’ll make your life more miserable. So the grievance process is by no means a real grievance process.
Was kosher food a problem?
Well, kosher food they had, although they kept trying to give me food that someone wrote on with a magic marker “kosher.” It was crazy. There was a guy who worked in the kitchen in Rikers, and he said to me, “Don’t take the stuff that says ‘kosher.’ Wait for the stuff that is actually sealed.”
You come across little acts of chessed…
How were you strengthened by your experiences in general?
I made four siyumim while I was away. The last one before that was 40 years ago.
One of the things that I decided early on was, obviously, that I was going to work on my middos, that I was going to try to be a better person. I don’t believe that I was a narcissist before, but I believe I took liberties; tax evasion was one of them. I guess I wasn’t as good a person, as good a Jew, as I should’ve been.
When I moved to the last place that I was at, a place called Wallkill Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York, I said, “I also have to take care of myself physically.” So I started to do more exercise.
And in Wallkill … there was this older baal teshuvah who wasn’t frum before he went to prison, and then he was in this terrible place called Altona near the Canadian border. Toscher Chassidim came and were mekarev him. It was unbelievable. They gave him his first pair of tefillin.
I first came to Wallkill on a Friday morning. In Wallkill there was a shul. This man was there on Friday night and he said to me, “Can you teach me how to put on tefillin?” I said, “I can’t do it on Shabbos, but on Sunday morning.” For the next few weeks, I taught him how to put on tefillin.
Then there was my emunah … Somebody told me that you find emunah either in inspiration or desperation.
I remember reading in the papers that someone “found G-d in prison.” And, you know, like everybody else, I said, “Yeah, sure.” But there are people who had nothing in terms of relationship with G-d, or any understanding of emunah before, and they find G-d in prison … But the issue is not so much finding emunah, it’s strengthening emunah. The desperation really strengthens what is already there.
Can we have a timeline for the years that you served?
I first went away in July of 2014 and I got to work release in late November of 2015. I was paroled in May of 2017, and the parole ended May 2018. In fact, I just voted recently for the first time.
So you began in July 2014. Where? In Rikers?
First I was sent down to the Tombs for 24–36 hours, I don’t remember exactly. From there, I was taken to Rikers. Every time people are transported — whether they’re violent, non-violent, doesn’t matter — they’re shackled. Their legs are shackled, and there’s a chain between the legs and the hands that’s connected at the waist so it’s very difficult to walk. And sometimes transports last for nine, ten hours.
After a couple of weeks at Rikers, I went to Downstate. That was August, I guess, and I was in Downstate for two Shabbosos. I was also there for Tishah B’Av.
And from there?
To Hudson. In each of the places, Rikers, Downstate and Hudson, it was just a few weeks. And then I was sent to Woodbourne.
Woodbourne as in Woodbourne in the country?
Yes. There’s a high-security prison called Sullivan, and across the road is one called Woodbourne. Woodbourne’s a medium, and Wallkill’s a medium. Downstate is a max. Anyway, Woodbourne thinks of itself as a max and they treat people as if they’re in a max. There’s a chaplain in Woodbourne, Rabbi Goodman, a wonderful man. He and his colleague, Rabbi Grossman, made life bearable there.
I remember a guard stopping me from going to daven on Rosh Hashanah. He simply said, “Wait there.” After about a half-hour, I went to him and said, “Listen, I need to speak to the sergeant. Someone.” He said, “What, are you trying to go over my head?” I said, “It’s a Jewish holiday. They’re expecting me in the chapel.” He waited another half-hour, then said, “Oh, you can go.”
There was one nice guard in Woodbourne. He told me that he used to play basketball in a shul in Liberty. He said, “I don’t understand. If you take off that yarmulke, you’ll blend in. Nobody will know you’re Jewish.”
And you said it’s your badge of honor.
That’s right. I said, “I wore it before. I’m not taking it off.”
They have a lot of issues [with Jews]. A different guard said to me, “I live up here. You guys come in and take over in the summer … We’re fed up.” Now, they don’t understand that their economy is so dependent — they have nothing otherwise.
I said [to the nice guard], “Tell all your friends, they want to go shopping? Go on Friday night, go on Saturday. They’ll have the stores all to themselves. They won’t have to wait on line.” He laughed and said, “It’s a good idea.”
How long were you in Woodbourne?
September through December. Four months. From there, I went to Wallkill from January to November, when I was transferred to work release. Wallkill was one of the better places. It was considered a place people went home from. I’m grateful to Rabbi Avraham Horowitz, the chaplain there.
Did you feel like you were seeing a light at the end of the tunnel?
Well, I started to. I was eligible for work release six months before I got it. I was doing what they call transitional services work, which is helping the head of the Transitional Services Department. Inmates who had six months or less left to their sentence would come to this office and I would help them find programs — housing programs, substance abuse programs … I would help them prepare a resumé and find job training or placement programs.
Once or twice a week the superintendent would come to visit the Transitional Services office and speak to my boss and come in and talk to me for a few minutes. When I was eligible, I got interviewed by a panel of three people from the prison, and they recommended that I get work release in April. That got signed by the superintendent and sent to Albany.
Albany said no and that I couldn’t reapply for over two years and that they deemed me to be a danger to society. So I prepared my appeal and showed it to my boss, the Transitional Services supervisor, and she said, “I want to show it to the superintendent.”
The superintendent saw the paperwork and was outraged that they turned me down. She was tough but fair, and she helped me get the work release.
When I was informed that I was turned down for work release the first time, that was devastating because my youngest son was starting to meet a girl seriously and I felt that I would be there [for the wedding], and when I got turned down, I felt that being taken away.
Do you think that was deliberate? Did they know about it?
I heard that the prosecutor bragged that he stopped me from getting work release.
Well, b’ezras Hashem, “yesh din v’yesh Dayan.”
Absolutely. Would I prefer not to have gone through this stuff? Absolutely. But having said that, you know what? Thank G-d, this is the worst that they could throw at me, and there’s life afterward. At the end of the day, when I think about where I am now, and my family and the friends who have remained my friends, all I can feel is grateful.
While I was on work release, two very dear friends who had stood with me every step of the way were niftar. Reb Heshy Jacob, one of the leaders of Hatzolah, and Mr. Sandy Eistenstat, a former AIPAC president. Friends like them you don’t find every day.
Your friends remained friends, for the most part?
Baruch Hashem, friends who remained showed me they were my true friends. My wife and I were in a unique position of power at a certain point. We helped people who were poor, but we also helped people who were not needy. We helped introduce people to others who may have had opportunities for them.
When this all happened, some of those people lost our phone numbers, didn’t respond. Now, I have to say that over time, starting from when I got into work release and I began to be back, in a sense, in the world, there have been people who have come out of the woodwork and said, “I didn’t know how to handle it.” And I get it. There was a tsunami around me and they didn’t know how to deal with it.
Who were your sources of chizuk?
Clearly my wife, my children, my sister … they were just incredible. Rav Dovid Feinstein was amazing. Leading up to the sentencing, I would daven Shabbos Minchah in his house, and he was really special. He was mesader kiddushin at the weddings of two of my sons, including the one that I was able to attend, which was incredible.
Then there was a Satmar Chassid who walks over the Williamsburg Bridge every day to learn with Rav Dovid, Baruch Stein, who is just incredible … Both Rabbi Horowitz and his wife — of the Lutowisker shul, not Wallkill — were also wonderful. They would send me Rabbi Meilech Biderman’s weekly divrei Torah. Now I read them all the time.
There are so many people … The person I daven next to in shul, Baruch Singer, whose father was the Rav of the Bialystoker shul. And the current Rav there, Rabbi Romm, was wonderful. Very supportive of the family.
There are incredible tzaddikim … One guy, Reb Dovid Singer from Monroe, would come once or twice a week, and he would do this in five prisons. He would come and visit and learn with us. He was just phenomenal.
Reb Moshe Rubashkin, Reb Sholom Mordechai’s brother, would visit me while I was waiting for sentencing; he brought light and chizuk that I appreciated.
There was Joel Schnur, whose sister is the daughter-in-law of Rav Pam, zt”l, was a source of tremendous support and got me through a lot.
There was Reb Mendel Rabkin, who visited me every other week upstate. He also gave me my work release job. His wife Renee was my Human Resources director for 12 years at Met Council and knew who I really was.
The Aleph Institute stood with me through every one of the most difficult moments. And some of those who visited me regularly were Moshe Weider, Malcolm Hoenlein, Rabbi Steven Weil and Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU. There was Nachum Segal, whose morning radio show was a source of strength. There was Rabbi Eytan Feiner, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, Rabbi Joseph Potashnik, and Rabbi Paysach Krohn.
What about the media?
Well, it’s interesting. The media was getting things fed to them by the attorney general’s office, and they just ate it up. And as much as I wanted to comment, my lawyer would say, “No, you can’t comment, because it’s only going to come back to bite you. You don’t want to make them angrier at you.” In retrospect, I’m not sure that that was a good answer … Anyway, it was all bashert.
How did your family cope with this?
Incredible resilience. I should mention that my daughters-in-law are wonderful. They weren’t born into my family …
They must have a lot of emunah — this is where Hashem placed me at this given time, in this makom … You must have a beautiful family.
Who was constantly in touch with them, the same people who were mechazek you?
I think, yes. Rav Dovid Feinstein was one of them; Rav Reuven was another. A mutual friend would have us come for lunch at her house, and Rav Reuven and, tbcl”c, Rebbetzin Shelia, a”h, would be there.
How do you keep yourself occupied today?
I got a job after parole working for IDT in Newark for Howard Jonas. He subsequently promoted me to be his chief of staff, and there’s plenty of work to keep me busy. I work closely with Aleph, with Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, who’s the head of advocacy there. I spend time whenever I can, meeting with people who are either going in or coming out of prison, trying to prepare them. I get calls at all hours of the night from people who have questions.
And then, baruch Hashem, my family is incredible, kein yirbu, and have really been remarkable. I can’t thank them enough.
Any interesting anecdotes to share?
I was in Far Rockaway, I think it was Sukkos, and a man comes up to me and said, “Are you Willie Rapfogel?” I have to say that I get a little nervous sometimes when that happens, because I’ve had some experiences that weren’t so pleasant, but I said yes.
He said, “I have to tell you a story. My mother died a year ago and she owned some real estate in Buffalo. I decided I’d go manage the business up there.
“So I started to talk to the people and they all basically say there’s this one guy who’s the ‘boss’ of the building. If he’s cool with you, we’re cool with you — everything’s good. So I summoned up the courage and knocked on his door.
“After a few minutes, a big African-American guy comes to the door. I started to say that I’m the new manager of the building and I took off my baseball cap and my yarmulke was underneath it.
“The man said, ‘Do you know Willie Rapfogel?’
“I said, ‘I don’t really know him. I live near his son in Far Rockaway. I know who he is …’
“The man said, ‘I was in prison with him, and we would talk every now and then. He used to give me some good advice. But the thing I really admired was when the guards would harass him, he was so cool. He handled them so smart. I tried to learn from that … If you’re cool with Willie Rapfogel, you’re cool with me.’”
So he’s telling me this story in the back of the White Shul and I just lost it. And then I found my son and told him this story.
When you hear something like this, you recognize that every grain of sand is there for a reason and Hashem knows what every blade of grass needs … so everything happens for a reason. It doesn’t happen by accident.
Another story that was also very incredible happened when I was in Downstate, in 2014. I can’t say that I was perfect in saying Kiddush Levanah every month before I went to prison. But I knew that the deadline for Kiddush Levanah was coming for that month and I couldn’t see the moon from where I was being held.
The guards in Downstate were very sadistic, so everybody was dying to get out of there. If your name was called and they told you to pack up, it was a good sign that you were getting out of there. The next day, my name was called and I was told to pack up. I waited and waited and, a few hours later, the guard said, “Okay, go to Room 16.”
They didn’t want to move me out; they were just switching my room. Anyway, that night was the last night for Kiddush Levanah and there was a window in the new room, and I was able to see the moon and say Kiddush Levanah. I told my wife and son the next day, “I’m never missing it again.” Bli ayin hara, I didn’t. I also later taught the baal teshuvah at Wallkill to say Kiddush Levanah; he had never even heard of it.
But here was a move that they thought they were torturing me with, and they were really helping me …
What message would you have for others who are currently incarcerated or facing prison time? What words of advice do you have for their family members?
Be strong. Really have emunah that Hashem is going to fix this. It’s definitely not easy. It’s very difficult. You have to just get through it, be careful not to do things that are foolish.
For example, I’m grateful that that guy told me not to file grievances, because a person normally would think you’re entitled to file a grievance. But the consequences in the system are such that the deck is stacked and it’s only going to hurt you.
If you have a problem with a particular place, your family should go to Aleph, go to Dror, to try to get you transferred. There’s definitely no point in trying to fight within the place where you are because the system is so badly broken. There is nothing to do.
For the family, you know, the nightmare will be over. I’m not saying it’s going to be a piece of cake afterward; it’s not. You’re going to struggle, and there are disappointments, and there are people who you think are going to be your friends and they’re not … but then there will be people who will be there for you.
What message do you have for the community, based on your experience?
First of all, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, talked about how there is no such thing as prison in the Torah. There are cities, arei miklat, where criminals go, but they’re not a prison where their lives are basically taken away, where they’re disgraced. There needs to be punishment for crime, that’s no question. But the idea of taking away a person’s ability to do anything and be with his family is just unheard of.
The Jewish community should be much more devoted and committed to alternative sentencing. People who are not literally killers should not be in prison. They should be doing community service. They should be doing things that are constructive and helpful. People should also not avert their eyes when they see things in the criminal justice system that are horrific…
There’s a feeling of repugnance on the part of the community towards people who go to jail. Whatever people do, they should first learn not to believe everything they read. And even if you believe everything you read, people in the Jewish community are supposed to help others do teshuvah. I’ve reached out to people about helping people [who were in jail] with jobs, and I can tell you most people don’t respond. There’s a real stigma when people come back; we need to fight that.
Right before being sentenced, I ran into Noach Dear, who’s a judge now. He said to me, “Promise me one thing: If someone offers you a million dollars, don’t give him your place in Shamayim, because after what you’ve been through and the embarrassment that you’ve suffered …”
Some people come over to me and say the brachah of Mechayeh Hameisim. When Esav’s son came to kill Yaakov, Yaakov said to take everything and he’d be considered as if he was dead. That’s what they did to me … they basically wiped me out.
So you are saying that a person should do teshuvah, rise above it in the same place among the same people, and rectify that which he did. The Torah doesn’t look to crush a person. It wants to build him.
Yes, and it gives an opportunity to reconstruct. The Torah wants you to have redemption. Unfortunately, there are people in our community who don’t see that.
There are people who come out of jail who don’t have families who are supportive, who don’t have communities that are supportive, and they’re coming out all alone. I see that and it’s heartbreaking,
Do organizations like Dror and Aleph help people transition back into their communities?
I think they try whenever they can but they’re limited; the budgets are limited and, really, it becomes a tug-of-war because there is so much they want to do.
As I said earlier, we are working on trying to come up with some ideas, alternatives in New York State. There’s a criminal justice bill, which is certainly an improvement, but there are things that could be done, both in terms of discovery before trial [and] more transparency for the prosecutors. Things like transporting people … the savings for the state would be enormous.
There are all kinds of reforms in terms of people’s ability to work and study while in prison. There are horrible study programs in prison. There was an article in The New York Times one Sunday and it reported that in other countries they had people in prison doing work for companies and paid them $15–$18 an hour. Here, they pay prisoners 20 cents an hour. That’s it. And the work is meaningless.
But people who are coming out of prison need to be trained. If you have the opportunity to train them as tailors, train them as tailors, so they come out of prison with something — a job.
I think there’s a fundamentally bigger problem in New York State and that’s why there is almost no economic development. The prisons are basically the job providers in the towns they’re in. They provide all industry; this is the town’s business. If the prison shuts down, there will be total depression in that community. So my honest opinion is that government is not against people being sent back to prison because they need economic development upstate, and that’s a real problem. The system is badly broken. We have a lot to do.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu is helping you pick up from where you left off. May you be matzliach and in the zechus of everything you do, may Hashem give you all the chizuk you need to continue repairing and building.