An exclusive Interview with Rabbi Pesach Lerner

Jonathan is not free yet. He won't be free until he is home in Israel

Avraham Weissman - Hamodia [NY] - August 6, 2015

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Executive Vice- President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel, has selflessly dedicated himself for almost 25 years to the cause of Jonathan Pollard. Rabbi Lerner sheds light on how he became involved in the case and on Jonathan Pollard himself.

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You have put your heart and soul into this case for so many years. What were your feelings when you learned that they will parole Jonathan Pollard in November?

Eliot Lauer, one of Jonathan's pro bono attorneys, whom I know personally and professionally, called me and said "Hodu LaShem ki tov ki l'olam chasdo, they are releasing Jonathan on parole."

I sat on my chair in silence; it took a second to fathom what he said. Although I knew about the earlier parole hearing and I knew they hoped for such a decision, his words literally took my breath away. He hung up, I raised my eyes up towards the Heavens, and tears streamed down my face. I guess I began to cry out of happiness and gratitude, of course.

I didn't have much time to think. Only 10 to 15 minutes later I received a phone call from Israel, from a reporter, telling me it was just announced in Israel, and they wanted my comments, etc.

As you can imagine, the rest of the day, my phone and emails didn't stop. People calling to confirm it was true, reporters from all over calling, friends and even acquaintances calling to say mazel tov.

By the way, it's important to mention Jonathan's pro bono attorneys, Elliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman. They are two of the best lawyers, best human beings, best friends one could ever ask for. Their dedication to the Pollard cause, their professionalism, their mesirus nefesh for Jonathan, knew no bounds.

Hakodesh Baruch Hu gave them siyatta diShmaya and they succeeded. They deserve all the credit for getting Jonathan paroled. They forced the Justice Department and the Parole Commission to finally admit the truth - Pollard earned his parole, deserved his parole, and no one has a right to deny him that parole. The Pollard team, in the U.S.A. and Israel, a small but dedicated group of volunteers are true tzaddikim; their chessed for Jonathan was unbelievable.

How did you get involved in this case in the first place?

In 1991 I became assistant to the executive vice president at the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), and became executive vice president about a year later. I decided that in order to serve the 150 branches of Young Israel and the over 25,000-30,000 member families it served, I had to go visit each Young Israel branch, meet the Rabbis and officers, and so on.

I systematically visited almost every Young Israel branch in the U.S.A. and Canada, and I started with the metro New York local shuls.

I heard that the Young Israel of Lower Manhattan was having a lecture series and that Jonathan Pollard was the topic of an upcoming lecture.

When Jonathan had been arrested in the mid 1980s, I was executive director of Hillel Academy, a Torah Day School in Denver, Colorado. I was not necessarily tuned into international events. I had heard something of Jonathan Pollard, but did not know much.

So I met the shul rabbi and leadership and membership and I heard the lecture about Jonathan.

I sat and I listened, and I left with more questions than answers.

I started to do my research and I discovered a Jew who had spied for Israel, but was serving a very long sentence, had been abandoned by the greater Jewish community, and seemed to be a scapegoat.

I consulted with my mentors, Torah and communal. They responded, if you feel it's a just cause, pursue it. I researched more, I spoke with NCYI president, Chaim Kaminetsky, z"l, and I guess I got involved. We went to visit Jonathan, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What has motivated you to give so much of yourself for this particular case?

The research and then the interaction; I met personally with Jonathan and he is very impressive; he's a special person. I also received much chizuk from Gedolei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael and America.

And the more I got involved, the more injustice I saw. Then, we started getting support from former U.S. government officials.So we knew were on the right path.

But to be honest, when I started, I didn't believe it would be an almost-25-year project.

Much has been said about the details of the case, and the miscarriage of justice, but most readers know very little about the person. Tell us what Jonathan is like as a person.

He's a person that you would be honored to have as your next-door neighbor, as a friend. Jonathan has a deep emunah in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and is a shomer mitzvos under very difficult circumstances. He is moser nefesh for kashrus, for Shabbos and Yom Tov, and has passed spiritual tests that none of us should ever be challenged with. He lives with emunah, he lives with the realization that Hakadosh Baruch Hu runs the world and that Hashem is everywhere, even in federal prison.

He has a deep connection with the Torah and a great sense of pride in Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. He has a deep understanding of Jewish history, and a very good grasp and understanding of the world, current events, and so on.

It is incredible that after so many years of imprisonment and betrayal, Jonathan is sensitive, bright, and has a sense of humor.

Jonathan has gone through 30 years of indescribable suffering. What do you think has given him the strength to persevere and remain sane?

His belief in Hashem that there is and was a master plan. He knew it was there even if he didn't understand it.

Harav Mordechai Eliyahu, zt"l, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a great man, a big talmid chacham and mekubal, made a yearly trip to the United States just to visit Jonathan. I merited to be present each time he went.

The Rav told Jonathan the words of Dovid Hamelech, "Gam ki eileich b'gai tzalmaves, lo ira ra ki Atah imadi - though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I do not fear evil for YOU are with me."

The Rav said to Jonathan "Hakadosh Baruch Hu is here with you in the prison. He is watching over you. You may not see it, but He is here."

Hakadosh Baruch Hu doesn't give a nisayon to someone who can't handle it. He gave Jonathan the kochos, the ability to persevere.

In order to properly understand what has kept Jonathan going all these years, we must all acknowledge the unbelievable mesirus nefesh, day in and day out, for over 25 years, of his wife, his eishes chayil, Mrs. Esther Pollard.

She has lived for Jonathan, fighting his battle, davening and davening more for him, living his pain, pushing his agenda, and giving him the chizuk he needed, giving him a goal to come home. She is a source of his strength, his perseverance. She deserves more credit than the rest of his activists, supporters, combined multifold. The perek in Mishlei, "Eishes Chayil," epitomizes her.

When was the last time you saw Jonathan?

About six weeks ago.

Any final thoughts?

Jonathan is not free yet. He won't be free until he is standing in Yerushalayim at the Kosel, making his brachah of hodaah, thanksgiving to Hakodesh Baruch Hu with Am Yisrael standing behind him to answer amen. Until then, Yehonoson ben Malka needs our tefillos, our prayers. I also want to once again thank Hamodia for always supporting Jonathan. Hamodia has been at the forefront of publicizing the Pollard cause and involving Klal Yisrael. You have had a great zechus.

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