Rabbi Alvin Berkun, emeritus of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation, was part of a small group of Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders to meet with Jonathan Pollard, a convicted spy for Israel, in a federal prison on July 11.
Formerly a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy, Pollard, 58, is accused of passing classified information to Israel. He has been imprisoned since 1985 when he was in his 20s. The first seven years of his incarceration took place in solitary confinement where he suffered from numerous physical ailments.
Berkun met with Pollard in a medium security federal prison located in North Carolina. It is the same prison where convicted ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff is being held.
Berkun could clearly see the physical toll that the nearly three decades of incarceration had on Pollard’s body, but noted that Pollard’s mind remained sharp.
“He’s totally on top of his situation,” said Berkun. “He’s understanding of his plight.”
In recent years, a movement calling for Pollard’s release has gained momentum. Berkun and the other rabbis used this meeting to bring more light to Pollard’s situation. Berkun, though, is not sure exactly how much good the visit might have done to bring focus back on Pollard.
“I’m not naive; I’m not suggesting that [he will be freed] tomorrow,” the rabbi said.
The government will have to step in if Pollard is to be released, which Berkun isn’t sure would happen.
When President Obama visited Israel this year, some tried to influence the president to give Pollard clemency. Obama, however, did not seem to understand the issues at hand, according to Berkun.
Berkun believes that there is a chance Pollard can be freed, but it will take pressure on the White House, he said.
Pollard gave secrets to Israel, but none of those secrets caused any harm or death to an American. According to Berkun, individuals that gave secrets to other countries that caused harm to Americans have had lesser prison sentences than Pollard.
“I can’t help but think there’s an element of prejudice,” he said, noting that he believes Pollard has been “singled-out.”
Berkun was one of a group of leading American rabbis to meet Pollard. Others at the meeting were Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform’s Religious Action Center; and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
The group had special access to Pollard, and had the ability to sit next to him and even hug him, Berkun said. The meeting lasted about two hours.
“I found the visit to be very moving,” he said.