Tragedy Then Triumph
By: Zev Eleff
Posted: 4/7/08A month ago, Tzvi Gluck got word of a troubled Jewish teen being treated in Jamaica Estates, New York. A busy investment banker from Brooklyn who doubles as a professional askan, Gluck gave the matter very little thought, if any. After all, Gluck said to himself, there are many frum Jews in Jamaica Estates.
After hearing about 16 year-old Isaac Hersh a few more times in the ensuing weeks, Gluck received confirmation that the boy was being held against his will at Tranquility Bay, a behavior modification center located in Jamaica - the country.
There are very few frum Jews in Jamaica.
What has happened since is both supernatural and highly political.
Despite its name, Tranquility Bay has been likened to a concentration camp. Touted by some as a facility proven to straighten out severely disturbed youngsters, Tranquility Bay's staff practices severe disciplinary measures to accomplish its goals. Just for glancing the wrong way, detainees of the boot camp are forced to lie down on mats for 30-hour periods.
And that is the most lenient punishment doled out by the disciplinary academy's correctional officers.
What's more, aside from housing about 300 American teens, reports indicate that local authorities use the tightly guarded compound as a jail. At least one of Isaac's roommates was convicted of murder.
Never short of contacts and resources, Gluck researched the camp for weeks.
Gluck's informants also uncovered critical details about exactly who was this young teen so many people were now planning to save. Isaac Hersh is the son of Michael Hersh, the now former CEO of Hatzolah. Reports printed previously in newspapers and on blogs indicate that Hersh had trouble handling his two twin sons and used prescription medication to "control" them when the family lived in Israel for a time. Now back in America, Michael Hersh - who was making somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter-million dollars a year without any major medical or business experience - could afford to send his "Yitzy" to board out-of-town and attend school away from his parents.
Never given much of a chance before, Isaac finally found something like a home in Houston. There, Isaac lived with Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, director of the Torah Outreach Center of Houston, and his family. Isaac attended Robert M. Beren Academy, an Orthodox day school affiliated with Yeshiva University. Although nobody contended that Isaac did not struggle academically in Houston, contrary to his father's allegations, all agreed that his behavior was stellar at Beren Academy.
"Isaac was a fine and upstanding citizen of the school community," wrote Head of School Rabbi Ari Sigel in a letter. "He was warm and friendly to everyone he encountered and we did not, at any time, have discipline issues with him."
Rabbi Segal added that "for anyone to suggest that he was a behavioral problem during his time in Houston, would constitute an outright lie."
The only one who saw a flaw in Isaac's behavior was his father.
At the end of the school last year, the Wolbes thought Isaac could use a break. In addition, the Wolbes were expecting a child that summer and suggested to Isaac that he look for a summer job in Toronto, where he had spent some time during his travels and still maintained a very good reputation.
To do this, however, Isaac would need to have his estranged father, still the boy's legal guardian, sign various government forms to obtain a worker's visa. After some discussion, both sides agreed that Isaac would briefly return to New York where his father would sign the documents.
Nothing was ever signed. Instead, Michael Hersh, with a flight ticket in hand, forced his son to LaGuardia Airport. Evidently, Hersh was told that one or two Jewish families with troubled boys had sent their sons to Tranquility Bay for successful "correctional therapy."
While being pushed in the direction of the terminal, Isaac screamed, "Help! I'm being kidnapped." Nobody helped and Isaac was on his way to Tranquility Bay where he would stay for the next ten months.
At last, a camp detainee who had befriended Isaac somehow reached a computer and, as instructed by Isaac, emailed Rabbi Wolbe. In the email, the already distressed Rabbi Wolbe was told that Isaac was being tortured and forced to lie down on mats for months. Something had to be done quickly.
On March 19, the eve of Purim, a group that included Gluck and with the financial support of Gluck's employer, Joseph Sharashefsky, readied themselves for a private flight to Jamaica. Once there, a small delegation would plead with the American Embassy to release Isaac.
The question was then raised: who would be boarding the plane for the Jamaica rescue mission?
After dozens of consultations, it was decided that Gluck would be joined by Rabbi Wolbe and his father, Rabbi Avorhom Wolbe of Monsey, and Yeshiva University's Straus Professor of Psychology and Education Dr. David Pelcovitz.
The jet touched down on Jamaican soil at 6:30 a.m., on Thursday, March 27. Although the group was received by the American Embassy, there was little any official could do.
Dr. Pelcovitz explained to the Embassy's officials that as an expert on trauma, and based on the email Rabbi Wolbe received, it was imperative that the psychologist see Isaac immediately.
But their hands were tied. The Embassy would bring Isaac to their headquarters, but the only two conditions whereby Dr. Pelcovitz could be permitted to assess the psychological fitness of the teen were either by obtaining consent of the boy's father - not happening - or from Isaac, himself.
"When are you bringing him to the Embassy," the rescuers asked.
"We're not allowed to say," the US officials answered.
"Where are you bringing him from?"
"Not going to tell you."
Luckily, the group's Jamaican driver, Garfield, not only knew where the unmarked facility was located, but was familiar with the building's entrances and exits, as well. Leaving the younger Rabbi Wolbe at the main entrance, the others stationed themselves at a back entrance. Not too long after, Isaac, escorted by a team of Tranquility Bay guards, exited the building's back entrance, recognized the elder Rabbi Wolbe and made a break for it.
After a few moments of tearful hugs, Isaac readily agreed to discuss all details of his dreadful experience at the camp. According to one account, members of the New York team and the Embassy cried uncontrollably as Isaac recounted the events of his stay at Tranquility Bay. In one of the easier diagnoses of his career, Dr. Pelcovitz confirmed that Isaac had been physically and mentally abused at the camp.
In the meantime, Tzvi Gluck became acutely aware of two obstacles preventing the final pieces of Isaac's rescue mission. First, the passports of all four members of the rescue team were suspended. Both Michael Hersh and his lawyer, Shlomo Mostofsky have since claimed that they knew nothing of the suspended passports.
When contacted for this story, Mostavsky, who also serves as President for the National Council of Young Israel, declined comment.
Aside from being temporarily stuck in Central America, the second problem incurred by the team was that Isaac, according to US regulations, could not be released from Tranquility Bay unless authorized by his father.
The first issue proved not to be a much of a problem. After a few phone calls to higher-ups that included the likes of Sen. Hillary Clinton, holds on all passports were quickly removed.
The second hurdle was trickier. Members of the Embassy urged the group to continue their fight in the courtroom. After all, now that Dr. Pelcovitz had thoroughly analyzed the teen, relieving Isaac from his parents' custody seemed merely a formality. Yet, with the boy's testimony reverberating in his mind, Dr. Pelcovitz believed he could not remain in Jamaica one minute longer.
With considerable help, Dr. Pelcovitz made contact with Mr. Hersh, his lawyer, and local renowned rabbinic authority, to plead on the boy's behalf. Finally, after deliberation with his gedolim and lawyers, Michael Hersh relented. All parties agreed that there would be ample time to fight a custody battle after Isaac returned to American soil at an undisclosed location.
The rescue team prepared to depart Jamaica with one extra passenger the same day they had arrived, at 11:30 p.m.
As they fastened their seatbelts, the Rabbis Wolbe gazed at the child whom they were starting to believe they would never see again. Seated nearby, knowing that his line of work provides few opportunities for joyful tears, the trauma expert tried his best to take in the moment while the investment banker who doubles as a professional askan planned his next adventure.
And with a cell phone attached to his ear, sixteen year-old Isaac Hersh spoke to his grandparents, themselves survivors of a Holocaust over 60 years ago, for the first time in almost a year.
"Zayde, now we're all survivors." Isaac cried.
And some of us are superheroes.