A rabbi once honored as Chaplain of the Year has pleaded innocent to charges of smuggling drugs into the federal prison he served. Rabbi Eli Gottesman, 73, of Ogdensburg, N.Y., was arrested Oct. 7 at the checkpoint of Ray Brook prison when a routine search of his briefcase revealed a shampoo bottle containing several balloons filled with cocaine and marijuana.
I told them that there was shampoo in the briefcase. I was not hiding anything,” the rabbi told The Jewish Week. But he quickly added, “I had no idea there were drugs inside. … I got tricked.“Was I set up? One hundred percent.”Rabbi Gottesman, who was cited in 1987 as top chaplain by the New York Board of Rabbis, explained that he was delivering the shampoo as a favor for an Israeli-born prisoner who “cried and cried” about needing a special lotion to prevent hair loss. The rabbi said the prisoner’s wife gave him the shampoo.
The Orthodox rabbi, who has served several upstate penitentiaries for some 15 years, and at Ray Brook since 1991, is facing up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Michael Lamitie, executive assistant to the warden at Ray Brook, said the rabbi has been under “a broadening investigation” for the past several months by prison officials, the U.S. Justice Department, the FBI and state police. He wouldn’t disclose what triggered the suspicion.
Asked to comment on Lamitie’s remarks, Rabbi Gottesman was incredulous, exclaiming “Several months? He said that?
But Rabbi Gottesman told of the time he was an intermediary between another Israeli prisoner and that prisoner’s cousin, who sent the inmate over-the-counter drugs from outside the prison. Rabbi Gottesman said the prisoner needed “pills for energy … pills for stress.
The rabbi, who was released on his own recognizance, said in a phone interview from his home that he often helped the five or six Jews held at the medium-security facility. “From my own pocket, I bought them bagels and cream cheese to make a bracha with them.”Prison authorities “told me to stop bringing in even the bagels and cream cheese. All the other [prisoners] are complaining, ‘How come [they get and we] don’t get? If you do it for one, you have to do it for all.’ So I stopped.”Rabbi Gottesman said his arrest was possibly a gift from God, because the night of his bail hearing in Albany, robbers broke into his home.“If I was home, they would take a knife or a hammer and give it [to me] on the head,” he said. “So maybe God took me away from here,” to a courthouse where at least he was alive.“It was an Israeli who did it,” mused the rabbi about the balding prisoner he tried to help.In any case, he added, it was still “a great mitzvah” to be a chaplain.“What can I do?” he asked. “You can’t judge a prison.”