Toward the end of a recent hearing in Brooklyn Supreme Court, Judge Plummer E. Lott asked Rabbi Yitzchak Fried, who like so many other drug defendants in New York was waiving his right to trial and pleading guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence, if he had any questions about the charges against him. The Brooklyn district attorney's office had charged Fried with selling a total of more than seven ounces of marijuana to a police informant on five occasions in Borough Park. Under the plea, Fried would not serve more than three years in prison.
Fried, a 52-year-old man with soft features, a dark beard, meditative eyes, and the thin white strings of a tallis hanging past the edge of his gray pinstripe suit, answered with tension in his voice, "I have many questions."
The judge asked if he had sold the marijuana.
Fried answered stonily, "I sold it. But not for profit."
"Well, you may be a bad businessman. . . . "
"I was not doing business," Fried said. "It was medical marijuana."
Instead of the usual catechism of condescending queries and meek yeses, this questioning faltered along in this halting way for several minutes. Finally, the judge was satisfied. He said he would hear community members speak on the rabbi's behalf on April 12, then consider mitigating the one-to-three years to a split sentence or even probation. Rabbi Fried and his lawyer, Harry Kresky, grabbed their coats and left the courtroom.
In the hall, they explained that Fried's terse answers came not from disrespect for the judge but from his belief that marijuana relieves the symptoms of a number of serious illnesses and can help heroin addicts get off junk. Distributing the herb, they say, should not be a crime. "We never were denying that Rabbi Fried gave this person marijuana and at least recouped something," Kresky says. "The matter here is not whether the rabbi sold marijuana to a police informant. The matter is why it is criminal at all, whether it benefits people in pain."
Fried's case came out of a police sting early last year, during a particularly frantic time in Borough Park. In mid December 1999, Orthodox 19-year-old Moshe Feiner overdosed on a cocktail of heroin and cocaine in an apartment there, and his death deeply shook the Orthodox community. That January a man called Fried, mentioning a friend of Moshe's and asking for marijuana. Fried, a well-known activist who had given marijuana to people with AIDS, MS, and cancer since the early 1990s, says the man described himself as "a sick person," suffering from AIDS, and said he was involved with a community of heroin addicts. For these reasons, Fried says, he began to sell small quantities of pot to the man, who appeared to be in his early thirtiesabout one or two ounces each time they met, along 46th, 47th, and 48th streets, around 14th and 15th avenues in Borough Park.
Working with junkies since the '60s, Fried learned that heroin addicts often use marijuana not as a gateway into heroin, but as a gateway out. He sees this as another medical use. "Some people can get off heroin using Ibogaine and medical marijuana and they won't go for the hard stuff," Fried says. "There are older people, ex-addicts, who succeeded in getting off. Some of these people used medical marijuana to offset their heroin habit and get off and it worked."
Fried says he never called the man or sought him out, but in the coming weeks, the man found him several times, always asking for marijuana, always secretly carrying a tape recorder and a video camera in his knapsack. "He said he was in a desperate situation, and after seeing what happened to Feiner, I made a mistake," Fried says. "I admit I made a mistake. I'm not trying to be a renegade here. I just see this as a problem that's mushroomed."
Finally, on February 15, around 12:30 p.m., police arrested Fried near the corner of 13th Avenue and 47th Street in Borough Park. When he was arrested, he says, he had just been counseling the police informant to go to Narcotics Anonymous. Then a "crew" of officers appearedthe D.A.'s office says it was fourand took him to a detention house in Brooklyn, where he was held for two-and-a-half days, he says, waiting to make a $5000 bail, without kosher meals or access to his tefillin. "There is supposed to be a Jewish liaison from the community, but since they had demonized me, no one even came to my aid," he says.
The D.A. indicted him on 10 counts of selling marijuana. If convicted, says Avery Mehlman, the lanky Orthodox prosecutor, Fried could have faced up to 20 years in an upstate prison.
A few days after Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced Fried's arrest in the community, Mothers Aligned Saving Kids (MASK), a group organized in 1997 to help Orthodox parents cope with issues facing their teenagers, held a symposium called "Parenting versus Panic," where Hynes received a community service award. "Why did they take a rabbi and set him up with a police informant all for one or two ounces of pot each?" Kresky asks. "Something's going on. That's not their m.o., unless someone asked them to do it, or unless they just happened on a sale.
"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.
"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."
He quoted Scripture to describe how his approach to the "drug war" differs from that of the law-and-order set. "For every soul there are two wings on which to soar through its journey in the world: love and awe," he said. "The fear they're using is a one-wing job. They're not supplementing that by redirecting people, giving answers to people who go for drugs as a way to help. People need relief for their suffering.
"They use fear. That doesn't work with kids who are drawn to the other side. They use fear at the expense of the love side."
On April 12, Judge Lott will determine whether Fried goes to jail or receives probation.
"We're taking what the judge said very seriously," Kresky says. "Borough Park is one of the most conservative parts of New York. But to me the rabbi's work is very much in the Jewish tradition of doing good, of helping people less fortunate than you."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter