| Magazine Feature |

The Worst Mistake of My Life

The lure of easy money lands a yeshivah bochur behind bars. A monologue of remorse

Photos: Elchanan Kotler

I had no illusions. The worst scenario had come true. One of the officers handcuffed me and led me, like a common criminal, past thousands of passengers in Brussels airport. They drove me to a holding jail and dumped me in a putrid, freezing cell. There was only a bed there, with a torn, filthy mattress. The cold, the loneliness, the fear, were overwhelming. I burst out crying. I davened to Hashem with all my heart and soul. I promised I would do what I could to become stronger, to serve Him more sincerely, and of course, I pledged not to repeat this terrible mistake. I recited whatever Tehillim I knew by heart, and offered up a tefillah with more intensity than any Ne'ilah on Yom Kippur. As I began to calm down, I started to replay the events that got me into this horrible mess…

His name is Yechiel David Sin-Shalom. He’s a regular 19-year-old yeshivah bochur from Modiin Illit, studying at a yeshivah in Jerusalem. Except that on Rosh Chodesh Adar I, he landed on the tarmac of Ben Gurion airport after spending a month in a Belgian prison. It wasn’t easy to face the cameras with his story instead of hiding behind some anonymous persona, but to him, it’s more important to share what he went through than to protect his dignity, more urgent to spare others the shame and suffering than remain in the shadows. 

“It all began when I noticed how a friend from yeshivah always seemed to have lots of cash on hand,” Yechiel relates. “I asked him where he had the money from. At first, he was evasive, but then he reconsidered and told me that way back, a friend of his had tempted him to fly abroad with a suitcase full of khat. The handlers were paying 3,000 shekels [about $930] per run. He’d already been doing it for three years and was never caught.”

While khat, a green leafy stimulant plant that's a staple of Middle-Eastern recreational culture, is illegal in most European countries, there are no restrictions on its sale or distribution in Israel, creating a lucrative opportunity for traffickers to take advantage of young people willing to smuggle it into Europe for a free ticket and a wad of spending money. While the penalty for smuggling can be as severe as seven years in prison, most of these young smugglers — some as young as 14 — are told by their handlers that in the worst-case scenario, their suitcases will be confiscated. (And because it’s a legal substance in Israel, handlers are legally off the hook.)

“I asked my friend if it was dangerous,” Yechiel says, “and he told me that Daniel, his handler, assured him that the risk was very small, and that anyway, detainees are released right away.

“At first, I tried to convince him not to continue with this little adventure, but the more we spoke, the more he convinced me to join him. He reminded me that I have valid Israeli and French passports, and really, what was so bad about earning 3,000 shekels for one day of work, which didn’t really require any work at all?

“Then one night, when I was sitting in the beis medrash and learning, my friend called and asked me if I wanted to fly that night to Brussels. I hesitated a minute, but then agreed. What could be so bad? My friend told me that Daniel, the one he worked for, would pick me up from the yeshivah at one a.m., together with another bochur, and we’d fly together. With two bochurim flying together, it’s always easier to get through security on the other side, where it counts.”

Still, Yechiel shared his hesitations with Daniel about being caught and jailed. “Don’t worry,” Daniel glibly reassured him. “Even if they catch you, after 24 hours at most, you’ll be back home. I was also caught in Amsterdam, and I was released the same day. Just play it calm, cool, and confident so that they don’t check your suitcase at the airport over there,” Daniel instructed.

Daniel had four suitcases in the car, two filled with clothing, and two with the leafy green khat. At the airport, Daniel sent Yechiel and his friend through the initial security check with the clothing suitcases, and once those suitcases were stickered, they went back outside and Daniel put the stickers on the khat suitcases instead. (The security sticker means the suitcase can go to baggage check, that travelers’ questions were answered satisfactorily and the passports are in order. Most times the suitcases aren’t opened.) This time, the bochurim reentered the terminal and went straight to check-in. (If a suitcase contains metal or wires, it will be alerted by sensors. These suitcases just had plants. Legally, one can check in a suitcase filled with khat, but recently airline security will sometimes confiscate them if caught and avoid the headache of having to deal with Israeli citizens detained and facing jail terms in foreign countries.)

Sin-Shalom and his partner boarded the plane and landed in Brussels. The bochurim walked out of the terminal without a hitch (this is where the Israeli airport security tag again comes in handy). There, he was met by “Sammy,” who gave him an envelope with 10,000 euros, around NIS 36,000, to give Daniel. Each bochur earned NIS 3,000, and Daniel was left with the remaining NIS 30,000.

There’s nothing illegal about khat in Israel, a staple of Middle Eastern culture. So what could be bad about one little suitcase?

 A week later, Daniel invited Yechiel to join another operation. He said that as long as he could fly with another bochur, he was up to it. Again, everything went smoothly.

After the third time, Yechiel Sin-Shalom was totally confident. Within two weeks, he had pocketed NIS 9,000, nestled safely in a drawer in his house. His parents knew nothing. His rosh yeshivah didn’t notice the brief absences. What could be bad about this?

The next time Daniel called him, though, Yechiel sensed that he should refuse.

“Daniel called and asked me to ‘do him a favor’ and fly myself. Honestly, I was afraid to go myself and I really wasn’t in the mood. I told Daniel that I had to be in yeshivah, but suddenly, his tone changed. He began to threaten me, screaming: ‘You can’t do this to me!’ He spoke as if I owed him something, like I was his employee. But I stuck to my refusal.”

A few days passed and Daniel called again. This time his voice was soft as butter. He asked, pleaded, urged, begged, and most importantly, told me he had found a partner for me to go with. He convinced me.

“We got to Ben Gurion, and did our thing with the suitcases. The other bochur went in ahead of me, and meanwhile, I headed for the luggage check-in. I then cleared passport control and headed for the gate, but there was no sign of the other bochur. The flight was about to board, and I was getting nervous. I called Daniel — where was my partner? Daniel admitted that the other boy had been caught with the case, which sometimes happens. Sometimes even if they know it’s a case full of khat they’ll let it go, because nothing illegal has happened yet, but lately they’ve been cracking down even so.

“At this point, I felt like stopping, like maybe I should just not get on the plane, but Daniel wouldn’t let me back out. ‘This is the job!’ he screamed. But I told him that we had no contract. Then he threatened, ‘If you don’t agree to fly now, I’m finished with you!’

‘Fine,’ I said. But when he realized that I was calling his bluff, he apologized profusely, totally changed his tone, and somehow convinced me. It was the mistake of my life.”

Yechiel was handcuffed and paraded through the terminal. “I was sure I was going to die”

ITwas Monday, Rosh Chodesh Shevat. Yechiel arrived in Brussels after a stopover in Italy. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the customs officials, and this time, he had a sense of dread. He walked into a corner and called Daniel, who answered right away. “Don’t be nervous!” Daniel ordered. “Even if they catch you, it will only be for 24 hours. But just go with the flow. They only check suspicious people. Just play it very calm.”

Yechiel collected himself, and after a few minutes, he decided to proceed. He grabbed the suitcase off the carousel and walked in the direction of the exit.

And then, the customs officer instructed him to open his case.

“At this point, I panicked. I began to stammer. I told the officers that I wasn’t really sure it was my suitcase, that I was waiting at the carousel and I think someone else might have taken mine. The official courteously allowed me to go and check. A few minutes later, two policemen called me over to a side room and came in with the suitcase. My heart was pounding wildly, and after a few seconds, there was the khat, in all its miserable color. The police were crowing over their success, and I began to fall apart.

“They took my cell phone away and I was handcuffed. And in this way, surrounded by six officers, I was paraded through the terminal and led to a police car.

“It happened to be a freezing cold day, and I was thrown into a disgusting cell with a bed and a moldy mattress. There was no blanket or any other way to warm up. I looked up at a tiny barred window, dirty walls and a filthy floor. My heart sank, and I felt hopeless.”

Four hours later, the cell door opened and Yechiel was led to another room where two people awaited him: One was a lawyer from the public defender’s office, and the other was a translator from the Jewish community in Antwerp.

“At first I thought the lawyer would give me some guidance and try to help me, but those hopes were dashed very quickly,” Sin-Shalom relates. “He simply informed me that for this crime, I was expected to be sentenced to six to eight months, and I should hope it won’t be more. I was then taken to an interrogation which was conducted in Flemish, and the Jewish translator translated the questions for me. I didn’t know what to say because I’d never prepared for a scenario where I would be caught. I said that I had been pressured and threatened, and without that I would not have taken the flight in the first place.

“I saw that the interrogator didn’t believe me. After a few hours of interrogation, I was fingerprinted and returned to the cell. They also took my glasses and shoelaces away. Looking at the tiny window, I realized that it was nighttime. The cold was unbearable, and I  received no food. Luckily, I had a sandwich from Israel, which they let me keep — although I had no appetite. The dismal thoughts ran on an endless loop in my mind, and I didn’t close my eyes all night.”

Dawn broke on the first morning as a prisoner in a foreign land.

The cell door opened and Yechiel, cuffed on his hands and feet, was moved to a different holding cell. This one had no bed, was filthy, and smelled putrid from bodily waste. He thought that the previous night couldn’t get any worse; now he realized that even the bottom could be lower than he’d dreamed.

“There were other prisoners in this cell, mostly Arabs, and I was terrified,” Yechiel says. “I wanted to daven Shacharis, but they took away my tefillin and siddur when they brought me to prison. Anyway, I don’t think I could have put on tefillin in front of these Arab criminals.  I pleaded to Hashem to save me from this horrific place, and to bring me home to my parents.

“I thought about my father and mother, who in their worst nightmares could not imagine where I was, and I realized that Daniel was actually the only person who knew of my situation. But I didn’t expect him to do anything to help me. When I thought about all this, my heart sank even further. I became truly depressed and despondent, and I was sure I was going to die.”

Five hours later, the door opened again. Yechiel was taken upstairs for a hearing to determine if he would be released or if his remand would be extended until a trial at some point in the future.

“The judge lingered on the reason for why I was smuggling the khat,” Yechiel relates. “He didn’t believe that a mature young man like myself was forced to fly against his will. The judge said he was returning me to prison until the trial because he was afraid that I would flee, and then continue to smuggle.

“The hearing ended, and the policemen led me outside, this time to a real prison. The wardens brought me a shabby prison uniform — blue shirt, grey pants, and way too big. They agreed to let me keep my tzitzis and yarmulke but warned me not to go out with them, apparently worried for my safety among the masses of Arab prisoners in the facility. I got my siddur, but not my tefillin, although they did give me permission to put them on for a few minutes before going into the cell.

 Tuesday. The first day in prison.

“My cellmate was a big fellow with dark skin who spoke only French,” Yechiel says. “My depression reached a peak. I couldn’t speak to anyone, and I could barely eat, because the food was treif. People think that jail is not pleasant, but tolerable. In reality, it’s a different planet of suffering. The beds stank, the mattresses were torn and stained, the walls were filled with swastikas and Arabic scrawl, the bathroom was unspeakably horrible, and I was scared to go to the public shower for fear that the Arabs would kill me.

“In addition to the disgust and despair, I was very afraid of my cellmate. I had no idea why he was imprisoned. Had he murdered someone? Would he try to harm me? I was afraid he was Muslim and would torture me if he found out I was a Jew. At first, I was afraid to daven next to him, but after a while I realized I had no choice. It turns out he was totally indifferent.

“A few hours after I was brought in, they took me for questioning about my state of health, and gave me a calling card charged with just enough for a one-minute call.

“I went back to the cell and tried to activate the card, but the instructions were in Flemish. I asked my cellmate for help, but he didn’t understand what I was talking about. Finally, I was   able to call my father and tell him what was going on, but it turns out he already knew. Apparently, the Jewish translator had reached out to Rabbi Shimon Lasker, the rabbi of the prison who is also the Chabad shaliach in Brussels, and told him about me. Finally, I felt a ray of promise. If they knew about this on the outside, there was still hope.

“Rabbi Lasker advised us to hire a local lawyer, because the judges in Belgium don’t like to work with lawyers that they don’t know,” says Chava Sin-Shalom, Yechiel’s mother.

Meanwhile, Yechiel was placed in an isolation cell because his cellmate tested positive for Covid. It was a relief, but, he says, “After a few hours, the solitude was driving me out of my mind.”

A few days later, he was removed from isolation and put in a different cell. “In the new cell, there was a bunkbed and a torn mattress. I tried to spread the sheet I got on it. Again, I was afraid of my new cellmate — I had no idea if he was French or Belgian and what he had done to land up here. He didn’t try to communicate with me, but at least he wasn’t threatening.

“Friday came, and finally, so did Rabbi Lasker. He brought me challah and cooked food. Then people came from the Israeli consulate to check that I was alive. Beyond that, the consulate staff seemed uninterested in helping me, which just made my dismal mood even worse. (What I didn’t know was that 170 Israeli teenagers had been arrested in Europe in the last two years, and the consulate was getting pretty tired of it.)

“It was the worst Shabbos of my life: No shower, no Shabbos clothes, not a single Jewish spark all around, just criminals, blasting television, and wild shouting in Arabic.

“On Sunday, Rabbi Lasker visited again. He brought me a Gemara Bava Metzia and a few books and seforim to help combat the boredom. My parents also sent money to the prison so that I could have a calling card. I didn’t have much concentration, but I tried to learn at least half an hour at a time. I wanted to show Hashem that I was on the way to improving my ways.”

Meanwhile, back in Israel, the Sin-Shaloms were given the name of a well-known askan in Belgium, a Belzer chassid named Rabbi Shabsi Hoffman, who enlisted the services of a Jewish lawyer to represent Yechiel.

“We sent him 4,000 euros to try and get Yechiel out to house arrest, and another 5,000 euros as bail,” says Chava Sin-Shalom. “In the end, this project cost us NIS 60,000 — over $18,000 — because of the high cost of phone calls, the food we bought him, the tickets for us, and the legal fees and they got off cheap. Parents of young people arrested in France have paid up to $100,000 in legal fees.

“The lawyer told us that they wouldn’t release him until the investigation was complete, and that he should say the whole truth, she explains. “The judge did not believe that he was forced to take the suitcase, and that was what was keeping him stuck in prison.”

The lawyer told the judge that Yechiel wanted another hearing, that he didn’t tell the whole truth the first time around, and the judge agreed.

“This time I told him everything,” says Yechiel. “I told him about Daniel, how he preys on young guys like me, and I saw that he believed me. He asked me if it was the first time I had tried to smuggle khat, and I admitted that it was my fourth time.

“A week later, the judge told me that perhaps I’d be allowed to be released for house arrest in Antwerp until the trial. My parents sent the bail, and the judge instructed me to find a place to stay and then to report to him.

“At the same time, my father flew to Belgium, and that was a huge comfort.

 After nearly a month in prison, Yechiel was told by the lawyer that, as per the judge’s orders, he would be released on Wednesday to house arrest in Antwerp until his trial. But at the same time, the police had issued a deportation order. Still, Wednesday came and went, and so did Thursday, and he was still not released. Then, just two hours before Shabbos, a warden knocked on the cell door and said in English, “You’re being released at four.”

Shabbos started in Brussels at 5:30, which meant he had just over an hour to get organized and find a place to stay. But that did not mar his joy. Yechiel saw it as a clear sign that Hashem had heard his tefillos.

“I had to sign lots of documents, and they gave me back my clothes, my tefillin and even my passport — which wasn’t even stamped. They didn’t give me back my cell phone, but at the time I didn’t have a minute to feel bad about that. I called my mother, who told me to take a taxi and go to a certain address in Antwerp, an hour’s drive away, but I knew that was cutting it close.

“I was free, but there were no cabs around, the cold was unbearable, and I didn’t know what to do. After wandering around for half an hour, I suddenly saw a frum Jew, as if from Shamayim.

“He spoke to me in Hebrew and asked me if I had just been let out of prison. I said that was me, and he said he’d come to take me home for Shabbos. I saw him as a special shaliach from Hashem, sent to save me from freezing through Shabbos. We got to his house fifteen minutes before Shabbos, and I even was able to shower, a pleasure that I had not enjoyed for a long time.

“The Shabbos at the Giss family was incredible. For the first time since leaving Israel, I ate hot, fresh food, I was surrounded by caring people, I davened in shul, and I had people with whom to share my terrible experience, which was so therapeutic. It helped ease the suffering.”

Chava Sin-Shalom explains what happened from her end: “On Wednesday they talked about release, but then it was delayed. Yechiel was really dejected. On Friday morning the lawyer called to say that he thought the release might still happen that day, but we didn’t get our hopes up anymore. We decided not to tell Yechiel anything, so as not to cause him any more pain.

“At three in the afternoon, nothing had progressed, when suddenly Yechiel called to say that he was being released at four. We began to make phone calls. Rabbi Hoffman gave us an address in Antwerp where he could go, but in the end, he contacted someone from Brussels and asked him to go to the entrance of the prison and to wait for a Jewish bochur.

“We didn’t know what happened in the end, because it was already Shabbos here. We were worried all Shabbos but tried to strengthen ourselves with emunah that all was okay. Finally, when Shabbos ended in Belgium, Yechiel called and told us about his release.”

It still wasn’t clear whether Yechiel was under house arrest or was being deported, but his lawyer told him to report to the court on Monday as he’d been instructed, and that’s what he did. The hearing began, and the judge told him he was under house arrest until the trial — estimated to take place in half a year’s time.

“This was pretty disappointing news,” says Yechiel, “but I realized that if Hashem had performed such a great miracle for me and gotten me released from prison, He would perform another miracle, that I’d be able to go home.

“The next day, I went to Antwerp, to the Ray family, and called my parents. They were in touch with both the lawyer and with local askanim, who advised me to leave the country, as the police were stronger than the court, and if I had a deportation order form the police, I could rely on that.”

Rabbi Hoffman suggested that the best option was a flight to Switzerland, an internal European flight with less police oversight. No one had yet issued an order preventing Yechiel from leaving the country, but he was still petrified that the airport computer system would flag him for leaving the country and he’d be arrested again.

“My father told me to trust the askanim, and to daven. Still, I felt my chances for getting home safely were minimal,” he says.

“A very good Jew took me to the airport and stayed with me through the check-in. The clerk looked as his screen for three minutes, which felt to me like three hours. My heart pounded wildly, but it was a miracle, plain and simple that the computer didn’t show that I had a house arrest order, or that my passport had no entry stamp. When the clerk finished his check and stamped my passport, I felt like my life had been given back to me as a gift.”

And so, with his returned passport and deportation order in his pocket, Yechiel boarded a flight to Zurich, and a few hours later was back home.

“Now,” Yechiel says, “part of that hakaras hatov is to tell my story to as many people as possible, to warn young bochurim not to fall into the trap that I did.”

But while Yechiel’s personal saga is over, the story isn’t.

The day before his release, two other chareidi bochurim were incarcerated in the  same place. One of them will only turn 18 in four months, and because he’s a minor, the judge ruled that he would have to be in prison until his trial, which can only happen once he’s of age. Yechiel says another friend was recently arrested and suffered such emotional trauma that he was taken to a psychiatric hospital.

One of the boys arrested, petrified to tell his family what happened, finally had no choice but to call them. He related that he and the friend who travelled with him — sent by Daniel — realized they were going to be arrested, because just about everyone who passed through customs was being stopped. He said he had called Daniel, who instructed them to wait a bit, and then to try and pass again. He also threatened them that if they’d decide to retreat and discard the suitcases, they would lose the sum that they were promised and would also have to pay for the merchandise. The bochurim decided to proceed — and indeed were caught.

Since Yechiel’s arrest and eventual release, the Sin-Shaloms have become the go-to people for guidance in contacting lawyers and askanim — a road they unfortunately just traveled. But Chava Sin-Shalom says it’s not so simple these days. The judges have little patience for these Israeli boys — they’re seeing bochurim smuggling khat every other day and they want to make the punishments harsher to deter the trend.

And while Daniel told his couriers that Chabad would bail them out if anything should happen, it’s not easy for the shluchim today. Although they’ll go above and beyond to help imprisoned Israelis, it tarnishes their image with the local authorities. They aren’t the Foreign Ministry, which also can’t do much for an Israeli charged with violating the laws of a foreign country.

As for Daniel, although the police know everything about him, and some European countries have even called for his extradition, he so far hasn’t broken any laws in Israel.

“We had a very difficult conversation,” says Chava Sin-Shalom. “He claims that his couriers are mature and know the risks, and he shrugs off all responsibility for their arrests. He told us, ‘You can call me a lowlife, you can say I’m morally bankrupt, but I didn’t do anything wrong. I never forced anyone into anything.’”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 900)

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