I’ve been thinking about the miracle of Jacob Ostreicher’s return to the United States. I say miracle because it seems to go against the laws of nature. Jacob—Yanky—was imprisoned in a country where justice is a game. He was robbed and mistreated and forced to endure the type of physical and emotional abuse that most people can’t even imagine. Cut off from family and community, trapped in a country where there is not even a U.S. embassy to advocate on his behalf, Yanky’s plight became something that touched the hearts of all who heard about it—not just those in the Jewish community but people from every culture who knew that, there but for the grace of G-d, walks every one of us.
Yanky had gone to Bolivia—left family and friends—for the same reason that many of our parents and grandparents were forced to leave the places of their birth and come to America. He was seeking opportunity. He had not exiled himself to a place without Torah for nothing—he had gone temporarily with a solid business plan and an ethical business model. He was growing rice. He was going to help feed people. How could he anticipate that his success would be used against him? That corrupt government officials would grab him and strip him of his property? Other people had gone to Bolivia from the U.S. and done business and returned safely. What happened to Yanky couldn’t have been anticipated.
From where I sat, Yanky’s ordeal was more frustrating than anything I can recall facing as an elected official. How could we protect a community member who sat behind the iron curtain of a lawless dictatorship? There was no one to talk to. But our community rose as a single voice crying out for justice. And I was proud to be part of a community that cared so much for one individual. A day did not pass—not a single day—where someone didn’t ask about Yanky Ostreicher, inquiring about his health and welfare, and asking how they could help.
Petitions were signed. Rallies at the Bolivian Mission to the U.N. were staged. Congressional hearings were convened. Cover stories and articles and televised news specials began to appear. We did not forget about Jacob Ostreicher. Yes, and as we shared his pain, we also rejoiced in his small victories. Each piece of promising news that seemed to bring our brother that much closer to freedom gave us hope. And then when it seemed to grow dark again for Yanky, we prayed.
Now, as the story of Jacob Ostreicher’s exodus from Bolivia unfolds, the important thing is not the detailed account of how he escaped. We will learn of those details in good time. Or perhaps they will forever be shrouded in mystery. None of that matters. Because regardless of how things seemed to unfold, it was Hashem who was ultimately behind our neighbor’s liberation. It was Hashem who heard Yanky’s cries and saw his tears and those of his family members. It was Hashem who heard the prayers of our nation.
I remain forever grateful to my staff and colleagues who worked so hard to secure Yanky’s freedom. There were many. It seems like only yesterday that I sat with my friend Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, my Director of Communications Yehudah Meth, and Yanky’s wife Miriam in my home, strategizing with regard to anything we could do to publicize Yanky’s plight. It seems like yesterday that we met with Senator Charles Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Congressman Jerrold Nadler, asking them to also adopt Jacob’s cause. And then there was the parade of elected officials who joined in raising our voices for Jacob at the Bolivian Mission to the U.N. The selfless dedication to Jacob Ostreicher that came from former FBI agent Steve Moore and Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey were inspiring and gave us great hope. And of course there were the many rabbis and journalists and community members who refused to let Jacob’s story disappear.
And then there was Sean Penn, without whose dedicated and Herculean efforts this story may have been sadly prolonged. Hashem works in mysterious ways and you never know where Hashem’s salvation will come from. Sean Penn will forever have our gratitude and respect.
Most of all, there was Jacob’s wife Miriam, leading the charge. Miriam was the stalwart advocate that all of would pray for if we found ourselves in dire straits. When one door would close, she saw that another would open. Miriam is the quiet hero of the Jacob Ostreicher story.
There are people I am not mentioning. They know who they are and they do not need my gratitude because that is not what they worked for. Redeeming a captive is a special mitzvah and those who work on behalf of the misfortunate do so for its own sake. May the Al-mighty continue to bless their efforts.
There are more lessons in Jacob Ostreicher’s story than I can enumerate. Among these lessons are the need to maintain faith even in the darkest hour. I repeated that to Yanky every time I had the privilege of speaking with him. “Don’t give up,” I said. “You are coming home!”
And now Yanky is home. It doesn’t matter how because it was all orchestrated by Hashem. And I am so very grateful.