SYDNEY, Australia - Benjamin Rosenfeld is an Israeli man in his mid-fifties living in Australia.
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But instead of enjoying life in the “lucky country,” he’s languishing behind bars. And he’s only five years into a 21-year jail sentence for smuggling almost $50 million of MDMA, the prime ingredient in ecstasy, from Haifa to Australia.
In sentencing the Israeli to a minimum of 13 years without parole in 2008, Judge Anthony Puckeridge said the court had to create deterrence.
But the deterrent may not have worked, according to Timmy Rubin, Australia’s only Jewish female prison chaplain, who has visited too many Israeli inmates over the last two decades.
“Most Israelis who get into trouble, it’s drug-related,” said Rubin, whose sister and her family live in Haifa.
“It’s crazy, nobody is warning them that Australia has one of the strictest drug laws,” the Melbourne-born Rubin told Haaretz this week. “When they come here, often the Israelis think it’s easy − and I think they think we’re stupid.”
“They want to stay here, so they’ll do risky things to stay. I’m trying my darnedest to warn them. It’s not worth it.”
Australia spends an estimated $2 billion a year to enforce its drug laws and had almost 30,000 people in jail in 2012, according to the Bureau of Statistics. While there is no exact data on Israelis, Rubin believes that over the last 20 years, up to 50 Israelis have been imprisoned in Australia, perhaps more, and some 500 Jews.
To get bail and pay for a top lawyer can cost up to $200,000, warned Rubin, a hippie-turned-Lubavitcher who also runs the community’s ritual bathhouse. “And if you can’t get bail, you can be in prison for one or two years before your case comes up.”
While today she dresses modestly and sports a wig, Rubin used to flirt with danger as a “wild child.”
The daughter of a Kindertransport survivor from Germany, she was “a typical Jewish baby boomer” in Melbourne who lived on Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra with a Habonim group for a year in the mid-1970s.
Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll?
“100 percent,” she said. “100 percent. It wasn’t just me who was a wild child. We all were.”
About a decade later, she was at a full moon party on the beach at Goa in India when she had a realization. Her spiritual quest took her to New York, where she got mugged on the day she landed. She “kicked him you know where” and made her way to a Chabad seminary in Brooklyn, stayed for a year, became suffused with religion and married an American psychologist from Ohio.
It was the Rebbe who inspired her to help prisoners.
“He gave me incredibly special attention,” she said. “I guess I was green and I talked back.
“He said every Jewish soul, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, they need to be visited by somebody from the Jewish community.”
And so each week for the last 19 years she’s visited Jews in Australian prisons, including many Israelis, often bringing them healthy doses of festive foods.
“I’ve had some very interesting experiences,” she said. “One Israeli ended up becoming very religious and now lives in Mea She’arim and his wife has no idea he was in prison. I organized bail for one Israeli who became like my kids. I have the most incredibly close connection with people in Israel who I’ve helped.”
Just recently, an Israeli man avoided a jail term after he was accused of importing kilograms of cocaine, she recalled. “He had the best representation, he had a business here, he could afford top lawyers. But the jury was really on the edge. It was nothing short of a miracle.”
An Israeli couple from Rehovot was busted and jailed in 2011 on charges of importing eight kilos of a substance they claim was an aromatic product. But Australian authorities claimed the substance was an analog for a narcotic, a chemical compound similar to a banned substance.
They are now out on bail, thanks to Rubin, but their case has been adjourned until next year, and if they are found guilty they face 10 years behind bars. Meantime, their lives are in limbo.
“We don’t have any family or friends, Timmy saved us,” said the Israeli woman, who declined to be named.
“She is an angel, a god for us, she’s amazing,” her husband added, noting that they go to Rubin’s house for Shabbat and festivals. “I don’t know how we’d get through it without her. They are like a family for us, our only family.”
The husband warned Israelis not to mess with the Australian authorities. “I’m saying to Israelis who are trying to establish any business in Australia: Be careful, don’t try to be clever. Australia is not the right place to mess around.”
When Rubin isn’t helping prisoners, she can be found running the Chaya Mushka Schneerson Mikveh in Melbourne, better known to insiders as “Timmy’s Mikvah.”
But she still keeps one foot in the secular world.
“The secular world wasn’t enough, the spiritual world is amazing,” she said. “But I need both.”
Perhaps her role as a prison chaplain allows her to walk on the wild side, but her motivation is to warn Israelis.
“They don’t realize how strict we are here,” she said. “They [the Australian authorities] are looking out for Israelis. Just because we’re laid back, they’re very strict. Israelis shouldn’t take us for idiots.”