In Borough Park, Ex-Convict Remakes His Life

Sheia Goldstein (Photos by Jake Becker for  Voices of NY)

Sheia Goldstein (Photos by Jake Becker for Voices of NY)

On July 29, 2014, four days before his 38th birthday, Joseph Goldstein was released from Wallkill Correctional Facility in Upstate New York.

Goldstein had served seven years of an 11-year sentence at several New York State prisons for speeding with a suspended license. And this hadn’t been his first run-in with the law. At age 27, he was released three months shy of completing a five-year sentence for bank fraud at several federal prisons in Pennsylvania. Those years, he later learned, had been his easy years behind bars.

SheiaGoldsteinSequence-2“Joe,” as he was called in prison, or “Sheia,” the nickname he acquired in his youth, was returning home to his native Orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park, Brooklyn. He would have to rebuild his life after spending nearly a third of it in a prison cell.

“I want to prove that I’m not some dummy out of prison,” said Goldstein. In the three years between prison sentences, he managed a kosher restaurant in Brooklyn for several months and spent the rest of the time looking for menial work.

In the New York State prison system, Goldstein held a job as a grievance clerk for two years. Though it was “better than mopping the floor all day,” he struggled to be able to observe his religion.

“I went through hell to get my t’fillin (phylacteries) and kosher food,” Goldstein said. “If you go in with a yarmulke and request kosher food, the odds of you not getting smacked around or ridiculed are slim to none. The guards would say, ‘This is not the Holiday Inn.’”

Goldstein said that in addition to losing 30 to 35 pounds in state prison, he spent 100 days in solitary confinement, all at his request.

SheiaGoldsteinSequence-3“It was for my own protection,” he said. “I questioned my ability to survive until the day I left. If you don’t learn how to say ‘yes sir’ and go with the flow, you’re not going to survive.”

When Goldstein was released from Wallkill, he had no place to go. Even before his first arrest, he had lost communication with his mother and five siblings. Though he still speaks with his father, moving in with him was not an option. His cousin put him up in a motel in Liberty, New York, for six weeks before taking Sheia into his Borough Park home with his wife and six children. That was on Erev Yom Kippur, the night of the Day of Atonement, the holiest night of the Jewish year.

Goldstein worshipped at a synagogue in Brooklyn for the first time in seven years, but the visit soon became unbearable.

“I left synagogue early on Yom Kippur,” he said. “When you’re estranged from something for a long time and experience it again, you’re overwhelmed. When anyone is successful and they have a family and do everything they need to do … I don’t, and I don’t know if I ever will.”


SheiaGoldsteinSequence-4In early October, Goldstein got a job delivering maintenance supplies in Brooklyn and Manhattan after his cousin asked a friend, who asked another friend, who “had to beg” for the position on Sheia’s behalf.

For two months, Sheia awoke at 4:45 a.m. every weekday to catch the 5:30 a.m. bus to the company warehouse in Williamsburg, and until 7 p.m. performed menial work hauling maintenance parts and setting up more deliveries.

But a more attractive employment opportunity has inspired Sheia to quit his delivery job. Since mid-November, he has worked remotely as an indexer of computer data for a nursing home corporation. The work has been a tryout for a potential part-time job that would allow him more flexible hours and the option to work from home.

SheiaGoldsteinSequence-6“They can’t keep me on as a full-time employee, so the second best option is – ‘We want to help you but we don’t want to see you.’

“The pay isn’t better, but I don’t come across hostile people that I’ve had a life enough of already.”

He said he wants to work as a staff or inventory manager, but interviews haven’t yielded anything.

“I’ve been to five interviews for HR jobs, all with people who know me. They don’t want to devalue their company.”

Goldstein wants to wear the clothes he wears to synagogue at work, which is what many of his Brooklyn neighbors do. He cares deeply about how he dresses and how he is perceived.

SheiaGoldsteinSequence-7Yet it wasn’t practical for him to wear a pressed, button-down white shirt with black slacks and a jacket, black leather shoes and a velvet yarmulke at his delivery job, so he had to don what’s comfortable: a T-shirt, hoodie and baseball cap.

“Anything that requires me to wear clothes that I want to wear – a suit, tie or no tie – is not happening,” he said. Still, he vows: “I’m not always going to be in this garb.”

Goldstein’s living situation with his cousin’s family was also only meant to be temporary. As he prepared to move into his own place – a nearby basement apartment – in mid-October, Goldstein bought flowers and chocolates as a token of appreciation for his cousin’s family for hosting him.

“This is my way of saying, ‘I appreciate you. Thank you for doing something no one else in the world would do.'”

SheiaGoldsteinSequence-8The new apartment gives Goldstein more space, and with that, a greater sense of freedom. Though he can now earn a paycheck working at home, he said he needs some more time to make the bare walls appear less like those in a prison cell.

“For a change,” he said, “I can say I’m free. But it’s also a burden – I dropped 400 bucks at ShopRite.”

Though no longer confined to a cell, Goldstein continues to deal with post-traumatic stress that emerged from his sentence.

“Men don’t cry? On the contrary. You need an emotional release somehow – and prison doesn’t allow that,” he said. “Emotionally, I’m still scarred; I’ll never recover – I still have sleepless, excruciating nights. It changed me in a way where I think twice before doing something.”

When he can, Goldstein attends the Stovnitz synagogue on 60th Street and 18th Avenue in Borough Park before his 9:00 p.m. curfew, mandated until the end of his parole in March 2018.

SheiaGoldsteinSequence-5One of the congregation’s leaders is a Holocaust survivor who has encouraged Goldstein to attend synagogue as much as possible.

“The first time I walked into the shul, my first Shabbos,” said Goldstein, referring to the Saturday of Yom Kippur, “he listened to me pray and he said, ‘Seven years in jail didn’t deter you from God. I don’t know what you went through but I understand where you’re coming from.’

“I interpreted that as a welcome,” he said. “I was happy.”

In prison, Goldstein directed much of his time and energy to writing, reading and improving his English-language skills.

He maintained a connection to the outside world by reading The Wall Street Journal, in addition to studying sections of the Talmud and reading swaths of the English dictionary.

With a prison typewriter in 2008, he started writing what became a 385-page novel about an 18-year-old student at a Yeshiva, and a principal who expels him for acting out. The book is loosely autobiographical.

“My experience is that language changes your behavior,” he said. “If I use nasty language, it either makes me feel like a victim of something nasty or that I’m inflicting it on someone. In prison, a gangster of 35 years told me: ‘This [way of speaking] isn’t you – you’re going to go home, and people you know will be scared of you.’”

SheiaGoldsteinSequence-10So far, Goldstein has spoken English and his native Yiddish to reconnect with his Brooklyn neighbors. With a second employment opportunity, he is continuing to rebuild his reputation as a hard worker while keeping things in perspective.

“There’s a saying: If you value yourself less, the world won’t value you higher. I’m not selling myself short. Some days I have to pinch myself – yeah, it’s a cliché – that I’m free.”

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