Sean Penn, the actor acclaimed by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as a hero for providing 60,000 people with housing after the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010, was honored by the rabbi in May for rescuing one Brooklyn Jew from unjust imprisonment in Bolivia.
Boteach honored the two-time Oscar winner at the second annual Champions of Jewish Values gala sponsored by his organization, This World: The Values Network, at Cipriani 42nd St. in Manhattan. The rabbi praised Penn as an actor who “does more humanitarian work than any Hollywood celebrity alive."
Penn noted that innocent people around the globe sit in prisons as political pawns: “They are Israeli, they are Palestinian, they are American, Cuban, Afghani, Pakistani.”
And then there is Jacob “Yanky” Ostreicher, 54, owner of a flooring firm in Brooklyn who invested in a rice farming venture in Bolivia and ended up in an infamous prison.
On a visit to the rice farm in 2011, Ostreicher found that a Colombian woman, managing the enterprise, was skimming cash from the investors. Ostreicher was charged with money laundering. He spent 18 months in a dangerous filthy prison, trying to figure out what happened.
Aleph Institute, a Chabad prison chaplaincy in Surfside, Florida, reached out to Sean Penn to help liberate Ostreicher from captivity.
Penn insisted that his own Jewish connection was not a factor in agreeing to bring hope to Ostreicher, an American Orthodox Jew. (Sean’s father was film director Leo Penn, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. Sean’s mother was Catholic of Irish/Italian heritage.)
He emphasized that he did not act because “my father’s family is Jewish and I’m committed to an insular tribal protection.”
While he feels “a strong embrace of my Irish/Italian roots, and my Lithuanian roots and my patriotism as an American,” he acted because Ostreicher was one of “those political among the human brotherhood trapped where I had some regional access and we are obligated to move hopelessness to hope.”
Penn saw Ostreicher as a man “railroaded by a corrupt Bolivian judiciary."
Due to his ties to the late Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, Penn was able to meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales and arrange for Ostreicher to be transferred to house arrest in Santa Cruz. From there it became a covert operation to spirit the man out of the country.
Ostreicher revealed some details at the New York awards dinner, saying that after he landed on American soil, Penn “put me up in a 5-star hotel and then brought me into his home, gave me a warm bed and a refrigerator stocked with kosher food. He sat with me for hours, sometimes all night. He gave me his white shirt, black suit and black shoes. He even took me to synagogue and sat by my side as I attended Friday night prayer services for the first time in three years.”
Boteach presented the Champion of Jewish Justice Award to Penn, saying that while he disagrees with Penn on other issues, what he did for Ostreicher “blew my mind and in the spirit of gratitude, I must acknowledge it.”
Boteach’s organization also presented Champion of Jewish Values awards to Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the U.S.; Cory A. Booker, U.S. senator from New Jersey; philanthropists Judy and Michael Steinhardt and human rights activist John Prendergast.
Among the guests were New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, women’s activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and law professor Alan Dershowitz.
“Why did I help Jacob Ostreicher? Because it [was] the right thing to do," Penn said.
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. Currently he has been writing a column for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years and is a writer-photographer at 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of “Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame,” interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.