Sacrificial Lamb

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchak Fried Could Do Hard Time for Medical Marijuana

"I was looking back at the article that ran in the Jewish Week when he was arrested," Kresky goes on. "And it's interesting. They lump together that six young men have died from overdoses, that people are upset, and that the rabbi was busted for selling pot. So if there is a problem in the Orthodox community with kids overdosing on heroin, it's not fair to bust the rabbi for selling pot and throw the book at him. He was not selling heroin and he's not accused of that. Whoever's selling heroin is still selling it. The rabbi is a decent person and he's not responsible for what they're upset about."

"They had to blame somebody and they targeted me," says Fried, who had actually stepped back from selling medical marijuana before his arrest, mostly referring callers to the New York Medical Marijuana Patients Cooperative in the East Village.

"The district attorney's office responded to community complaints," says Mehlman, who insists the informant appeared much younger than 30. "The information we had regarded the defendant selling marijuana to young members of the Orthodox community.

photo: Marc Asnin

"The district attorney's narcotics bureau responds to each and every narcotics complaint made," he adds, "based on specific information and specific individuals."

Rabbi Yitzchak Fried lives in a two-family house in Flatbush with his wife, a special education teacher, and their seven children. They have a garden and an apple tree growing in the yard. He spent the early '90s on the Lower East Side, where his grandfather had been a rabbi, helping AIDS patients in harm-reduction programs along Avenue C. "I saw people who were dying of multiple sclerosis, AIDS, cancer," he says. "Being a rabbi I had to deal with it, not put my head under a rug and ignore it."

In 1994, Fried moved into the empty Eighth Street Shul, a century-old building that quickly became a crucial part of the local landscape. He ran drug and alcohol counseling programs there, held services, made $250,000 in repairs, served pay-as-you-can seders at Passover, and opened the doors as an emergency shelter. People stopped by for advice; the independent movie ?, in which Rabbi Fried played a role, was filmed there; and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber's grandson held musical gatherings.

For a time, Fried also delivered medical marijuana to sick people, although never from the synagogue itself. "I started to deal directly with medical marijuana because it involved a cross-section of issues that were confronting me," he says. "I feel that society has a very wrong reading of the subject. It should be out of the hands of inexperienced law enforcement who don't know what it is. It should be in the hands of doctors and therapists."

The arrest has turned Rabbi Fried's life upside down. He lost his job teaching an afternoon class at a yeshiva. Prosecutors and reporters questioned whether Fried, who graduated with a master's degree in Hebrew letters from the Ohr Jerusalem Rabbinical Academy in Israel, was even a real rabbi. A numbness in his hands beset him under the stress. Child welfare workers came to his house and interviewed his children.

And the more the year progressed, the worse it got. In 1996, members of the original congregation of the Eighth Street Shul sued in State Supreme Court to take it back, so they could sell the building to a developer who would convert it into housing. In September, a judge ruled for the congregation. Two months before Fried went to trial, a city sheriff evicted his congregation from the shul and padlocked the gates.

Tension rattled the courtroom as Fried and Kresky weighed the plea agreement. The district attorney had videotapes of the sales, and audiotapes of Fried's conversations with the informant. Nowhere on the tapes did the man mention having AIDS, Kresky says, but he did mention the name of a friend of the boy who died, which Fried maintains was a strong impetus for him to sell to him. Still, they decided it was too risky to tempt the fates at trial and opted to take the plea.

"Based upon the results of our investigation and a review of every single phone conversation between the confidential agent and the defendant which were taped in the presence of law enforcement officers, the agent never requested at any time medical use at all," Mehlman says.

After the hearing, Fried walked through the gray and rainy afternoon, across the sweeping stone expanse in front of the Brooklyn court to meet his probation officer. He wore a heavy black hat and a black overcoat. The frustration bottled in his submissive answers inside the court bubbled out. "I was a sitting duck for years because I was an advocate," Fried said, speedwalking across the plaza, scanning street names for Joralemon. "Most people hear that Rabbi Fried was arrested and think I'm some kind of demon for giving drugs to people. I am not. I am not interested in giving drugs to people.

"This is an herb that grows in the ground and is a benefit to society," Fried said. "The law is archaic. The masses are ready for it. But it becomes this legal chess game."

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