How a prisoner’s menorah made it to the Western Wall

Nathan Weissler holds a drawing of a menorah by a Jewish prisoner in Maryland. Weissler placed the drawing in the crack of the Kotel in the prisoner’s name. | Photo courtesy of Nathan Weissler

David Balto | Special to WJW

One of the 613 mitzvot, or holy deeds, is being a shaliach, a messenger for someone else. Some give tzedakah for others to carry on a journey and ask them “please be my shaliach” because they believe God gives special protection to those traveling to do a mitzvah. By giving them the task to deliver the tzedakah, we are ensuring that their journey is a safe one.

This is how former Washington resident Nathan Weissler, now an oleh, became a shaliach.
Jessup Correctional Institution is Maryland’s largest prison with almost 3,000 inmates. I know of one inmate there who strives to be Jewish, focusing his life on prayer and study.
The conditions are harsh. He shares a 6-by-9-foot cell 22 hours a day. It takes extreme discipline to find the spiritual. He tries to pray and study every day. There are few Jews for him to connect with, but he continues on his journey as best he can.

Last Chanukah, the prison told its Jewish inmates that there would be no lights for the Festival of Lights. No candles, no tealights. So how to celebrate?

The prisoner had read how when in a Soviet prison, Natan Sharansky would find creative ways to celebrate.

So the Jewish prisoner in Jessup decided to make his own “menorah.” On a small sheet of paper he drew a menorah and each night he drew another candle and said the prayers. In this way, he created the miracle of light, of illuminating the chambers of the soul.

The prisoner had one wish. To have his “menorah” brought to the place of the Temple, where the original menorah stood. He wanted his slip of paper placed in a crack in the Western Wall. But how to do that?

And that’s where our shaliach fits in.

Weissler belongs to Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue, in Washington, which provides services to Maryland inmates, assisting them with prayer and study.

The prisoner wrote to Ohev about his “menorah” which it gave to Weissler, who was visiting Washington. Weissler carried the “menorah” to Israel and placed it in the Wall.

You may notice that the “menorah” has only eight candles. The shamash is missing. That may be because Weissler is the shamash, the helper who assisted in completing the mitzvah.

Why does the shamash candle stand above all the other candles? What is true on Chanukah is true on Yom Ha’atzmaut: We are strongest, we are most fully human, when we help one another.

David Balto is a Washington-area chaplain.

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