By Larry Gordon
It was my first time in jail—any jail, anywhere. It was last Sunday in the Catskills after an idyllic Shabbos spent with good friends. I had heard in the past, perhaps over the last few years, that there was a wonderfully personable young man serving a sentence for an offense that he says did not go down quite the way it has been described. Of course, I’ve heard time and again that there are very few guilty people in prison, and this was perhaps just a replay of that refrain.
That is until you are sitting and talking with Dovi (Bernard) Mutterperl at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York. In this situation I cannot have my cell phone with me, not even a pen or paper to write on. This is a maximum-security prison, and we are told that while we can sit and talk for an hour or more, we need to have our hands on the table at all times. So the task today, amongst other things, is to breathe all this in and somehow manage to etch it into memory so that the story can be told.
At the behest of popular singer and performer Shloime Dachs, our office has been sending Mr. Mutterperl the weekly Five Towns Jewish Times for about two years now. I asked if he wanted me to write about our meeting, and he said not just that was it OK, but rather he very much welcomed the opportunity to get his story out there.
If you Google Dovi Mutterperl’s name, it is not a pretty situation. Instead of me recounting what happened, you can look it up. It was a tough, unthinking time for a 17-year-old teen who simply could not sit still in the yeshivas he attended. That, in addition to friction at home, added to Dovi’s getting involved in a matter that he regrets and will always regret. Rest assured that no one was physically hurt and there was really no violence involved, despite reports to the contrary. In the end, he went to trial (probably a mistake) and was convicted of the attempted kidnapping of a girl of about 12 years old and sentenced to nine years in prison.
He is serving his sentence in a maximum-security prison in the Catskills because he wants to. He has been offered to transfer to a medium-security facility but says that there would be a much smaller nearby Jewish community and the number of visitors he would be allowed to receive would be considerably less than he receives here in Fallsburg.
Here, he says, he has his own 9-by-13-foot cell, is studying for his BA, and learns Torah three times a week with a study partner from the nearby Yeshiva of South Fallsburg. He is currently learning Mesechta Sukkah and points to a bookcase in the meeting area we are sitting in, showing me that he is allowed two shelves in the bookcase for his sefarim.
As a kid raised in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, he attended the Yeshiva Chaim Berlin elementary school. He is very fond of Rabbi Mordechai Jungreis, who was his first-grade rebbe and is now rav of the reconstituted and reinvigorated Woodbourne shul that is a hub of activity in the Catskills throughout the summer.
Mutterperl is a strapping 6-foot-3 and weighs 235 pounds. He says he wakes up each morning at about 6:30 a.m. to daven, and then has breakfast before going about his daily in-prison tasks, which include food distribution to inmates. This facility is on a sprawling piece of land that houses hundreds of prisoners, including a number of murderers serving time separated from the rest of the population.
At the other end of the room, I can see a visitor speaking to a prisoner through metal bars, the kind of scene you might see on TV. Those are the people deemed too dangerous to have direct human contact, it seems. At another table I see an inmate sporting a yarmulke and I ask Mutterperl who that is. He tells me the last name, which for our purposes here is not important, but then tells me that the man has been in and out of jail for most of the last 50 years. He didn’t specify, but most in this facility are here because of violent crimes such as murder or attempted murder. Shaul Spitzer is in here serving seven years for arson in the New Square case. And Levi Aron is here, too, for life.
Two tables away from us was another man chatting amicably with his wife. Dovi pointed out that the man was Joe “Mad Dog” Sullivan, a notorious Mafia hit man who is serving three life terms for eliminating various Mafia-involved personalities. His wife lives in Monroe, a relatively short distance from Fallsburg, and I’m told that she is there every week to see Joe. Dovi says that Sullivan has been implicated in as many as one hundred murders, although he was not charged with all of them. Sullivan looks calm and reserved—really no different from any other man.
While Mutterperl feels that he exercised poor judgment in the decisions, or rather teenage impulses, that landed him here, he feels that more than anything else he was a sacrificial lamb on the altar of former Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes. At the time, Hynes, who has his own legal problems today, was standing accused of favoritism toward Orthodox Jews. According to Dovi Mutterperl, that is basically when his case showed up on the DA’s desk. Hynes, he says, was determined to throw the book at someone, and that book landed squarely on Mutterperl’s head.
Dovi says he was not even offered a plea deal, and prior to that was told by detectives that if he signed a confession, which they dictated to him, it wouldn’t be used against him. That, of course, was not true. He confessed, had no choice but to go to trial, was found guilty, and was sentenced to nine years in prison. He is currently appealing the conviction based on those events, but that is a long, drawn-out process, as you might imagine.
Dovi Mutterperl enjoys receiving guests. In the few years that he has been at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, he has received, he says, over 4,000 visitors. Those numbers get bumped up in the summer; he can go in the winter for long stretches without too many people outside his family coming to visit.
For most of us, prisons and prison visits are the furthest things from our to-do lists. Prison features a surreal environment and elements of incredulity. Most of us have read enough to know that while those incarcerated probably ran afoul of the law, it is also possible to be innocent and be jailed because the system got the best of you. I’m not saying that is the case here, and neither is Dovi. He is an engaging and articulate young man of 26 years who cannot wait to finish serving his time so that he can get out there and talk to young people about staying inside the parameters of the law.
In this case, based on what I have read and heard from others, and considering the circumstances of the incident he was found guilty of, I think that a nine-year sentence is excessive. I’m not well-versed in the nature of prison sentences, but it seems that a man like this gets the message and can get on with his life in far less than nine years of incarceration.
As far as minyanim, Shabbos, and yom tov in prison are concerned, Dovi says that there are not enough Orthodox Jewish inmates to have a regular minyan, but that it is more common than it was in the past since Shaul Spitzer from New Square arrived. He says that now on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchas Torah, and Pesach, eight men from New Square take up residence at a nearby summer camp and walk to make the minyan for Dovi, Shaul, and the few others who are interested. In a way, Dovi is glad that Shaul is there, because, as he says with a small grin, when Spitzer was not there no one came for yom tov to make sure he had a minyan.
As we are chatting—Dovi, Mendy Elefant, Yosef Elefant, and I—a man with a yarmulke walks in and Dovi points out that this is the rabbi, Menachem Fruchter. Rabbi Fruchter, who lives in South Fallsburg and teaches at the Hebrew Academy of Sullivan County, is a part-time chaplain at the prison and looks after the religious needs of these few Jewish and other inmates. Dovi is enthused by the rabbi’s presence, and the rabbi comes over to our table to answer a few questions as well.
I was raised with the Catskills as a summer residence, so I have always been enamored by people who turned what I viewed as a part-time environment into their full-time everyday life. That is really seizing an opportunity and turning things around, I always thought. I also wondered, however, where the people who live up there go to get away.
As it turns out, Mutterperl tells me that he has a bone to pick with me. He said he was reading the paper over Shabbos and did not like some of the comments in our weekly shidduch column. Perhaps it was just fortuitous, but the question that week was regarding a young woman who was dating a man with a criminal past. Apparently our columnist’s advice was for the young lady to terminate the relationship, and Dovi thought that was not the right advice. I suggested that he write a letter to the editor (that would be me) and explain his position. He said he would do that.
We are always told that we have to pay for our mistakes. In one way or another, at one time or another, we have all had to do that, but this is perhaps the most pronounced demonstration of that reality. Dovi (Bernard) Mutterperl is paying for his mistake by doing time in a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. He is paying very dearly for his misdeeds and errors.
Later, waiting downstairs while the second part of our group was visiting with Dovi, I saw a frum couple pull up to the front door of the building. The woman stepped out of the passenger side of the car and the man drove off to look for a parking space. She walked in holding a plastic shopping bag with some chocolate bars and other confections in it. I was curious whom she was going to visit, so I introduced myself. She said her name was Miriam, but little more. I stood there not really knowing what to say, and she stood about two feet away from me as the guard emptied the contents of her bag that he would send upstairs to the prisoner. Then I asked whether she too was going to visit Mr. Mutterperl, to which she responded no, she was not. She hesitated and there was silence again. I asked her if she visits regularly, and she said she is there on alternating weeks. Then she offered just one more word indicating, with what sounded like apprehension, whom she was visiting. “Aron,” she said. ϖ
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