Hashem, in His infinite wisdom sends shelichim, messengers, or angels, to guide us along our path. For Shawn Michael Yosef Balva, a native of Las Vegas sentenced to eight years in prison for armed robbery, a number of shelichim helped him along the arduous path to teshuvah. The first angel Shawn encountered was Adir, a 6’2, 40-year-old African American man named Adir (“mighty” in Hebrew). Adir was covered with tattoos, including “Adir” tattooed under his left eye.
Shawn, then 21, met Adir in the synagogue in the Victorville Federal Correctional Institution in California in 2016. Adir was wrapped in a tallit, and his prayers, which he enunciated quietly and slowly, appeared to spring from some sacred place within. The former gang member was serving a 56-year sentence. He had been in jail for 22 years, since he was 18, and had been a practicing Jew for the last 14 years.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw – a person praying in jail, wearing a tallit,” the now 27-year-old Shawn recalls. He recognized that Adir was not an ordinary criminal but was a man with a unique and transcendent spirit.
“Through the tough guy exterior, I felt an aura of something special. I didn’t see a criminal or an evil spirit within him. He was not scary looking. I saw, instead, a man in great pain but with great humility. I saw a man who lives spiritually above and beyond the physical constraints surrounding him.”
The Beginning of a Journey
Adir, on his part, recognized in Shawn a wavering Jewish spirit seeking redemption. Their relationship slowly developed and blossomed and paved the way for Shawn’s journey from spiritual darkness to his spiritual roots and Gd.
“Adir loved me. He made sure that I had tefillin every day, that I was eating kosher. He taught me the Alef Bet in a loving, brotherly way. We observed Shabbat together and studied together. He was my Eliyahu HaNavi. He inspired me in a way that no rabbi could ever have done because, at the time, only those who could break through to me were the bad people who were into their bad music.”
For Shawn, Adir was a godsend. He would be one of many shelichim who propelled Shawn homeward – including Rabbis Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and Mordechai Yitzchak Samet, whom he later met in the Otisville Federal Correctional Institute in Upstate New York. Each of these guiding spirits, rabbis and formerly violent offenders alike, shared with Shawn their wisdom, unique experiences, and profound belief in Gd and the ultimate rightness of the world, just when he needed to learn those lessons the most.
Shawn has incorporated their lessons well. Today, while serving the remainder of his time in a Nevada halfway house, he lives a religious life. He works in sales, prays at Chabad three times daily, and spends Shabbat with his mother and two brothers.
Shawn also shared his personal story of redemption with thousands of Jews through a Mishpacha Magazine article titled “The Comeback Kid” and has written a book, soon to be published by Menucha Publishers, expanding on these lessons learned.
“While suffering in prison, I wrote down many thoughts on emunah and bitachon. I don’t want those experiences to be lost. When you go through something so profound as I did, you can either sink back into that tumah or use that experience to help others and help shine a light through the darkness,” he says.
A Little History – The Road Down
From age 12, Shawn Balva was on a downward trajectory, from being a much-acclaimed football hero with dreams of playing professionally to an out-of-control gun-carrying drug addict who would do anything to satisfy his quest for instant gratification.
Shawn’s was a twilight existence disconnected from family and self. Neither his Sephardic Israeli father nor his Ashkenazi American mother were practicing Jews, although his father maintained a profound belief in Hashem. His parents divorced when he was five. Five years later, his mother married a man who was psychologically abusive to his mother and the children, and would later serve time for fraud.
But, Shawn refuses to blame his dysfunctional home situation for his own decline or disastrous life choices. He believes that would be the easy way out and is also fundamentally not true. Instead, he feels that taking personal responsibility is what his journey is about. It’s also about learning to redirect inner energies away from the bad and toward the good.
He was only five years old when he began to succumb to what he calls his dark side.
“When my parents divorced, I became attracted to rap and hip hop music. I probably didn’t understand what the words meant, but I was attracted to their beat and dark energy. Even at that young age, I carried a pocketknife and bad pictures. I wasn’t psychologically disturbed and didn’t hit anyone. Still, I didn’t have a normal kid mentality either. I never felt free. I felt like an old soul.”
On the other hand, Shawn was highly protective of his mother and younger siblings, standing up for them against his abusive stepfather, a gambling addict.
The Football Lifeline
Football kept Shawn going. The top players lived in the African-American ghettos, so he arranged to join their team.
“I felt such a connection to them. They lived in a physical ghetto where there was crime, poverty, and not enough to eat. Similarly, I lived within a metaphorical ghetto. My mother had married someone I didn’t want around. I was always anxious, nervous, crying out for help.”
Had it not been for football, the now 6’ 3” Shawn would have gotten into trouble earlier. “I loved the attention. I was a little star. [People told me] you are the man! That blew my mind and gave me a sense of entitlement. My entire life was football.”
His mother loved it. She was so proud. She spent hours watching him play during practice. Her dream was for him to make it professionally. “I remember her eyes resting on me like an angel’s. My biological father never watched me play, even though he lived in Vegas. All I had was my mom, football, and that community of players – mainly African Americans.”
Unfortunately, Shawn’s natural talent worked against him. Because he was so good at the game, his teachers and coaches ignored his bad behavior and his quiet cries for help. His rebellion and negative attitude were irrelevant. So, what if he stole? What mattered was delivering wins for the team.
At 16, during his sophomore year, Shawn’s behavior got worse. Of all his classmates, the rebellious ones attracted him the most – their music and their partying. Once Shawn was invited to a party and he attended, against his mother’s wishes. It was the first time he smoked, drank, or tried drugs. That little push was all it took for him to fly over the edge, for which he still blames himself.
“I have an extreme, addictive personality. I get influenced by my surroundings, the music I listen to, and the friends I associate with. Many kids drink, smoke, and do drugs but eventually let go and return to reality. However, I developed a thirst for instant gratification. At first, football satisfied my inner emptiness. Later, it was drugs and a criminal lifestyle. I kept telling myself, “It feels so good. Why not do this all the time?” I went to the extreme with everything. If I fell in love with something, I went all the way. For this reason, finding Hashem was later a blessing for me.”
Shawn was arrested six months before his 21st birthday.
The Spiritual Quest Begins
Shawn’s spiritual quest had already begun six months earlier. It was then that the good within him started sending out messages. “If you don’t stop what you’re doing, it will only get worse,” the voice inside him said. Still, he couldn’t get himself to stop taking drugs. After his arrest, a veil lifted. He viewed his fellow inmates at the Las Vegas County Jail, his first residence of incarceration, not as heroes but with disgust.
“It’s one thing to see people doing drugs and partying while wearing nice clothes. But here was the real thing. You end up looking like a junky and possibly dying in prison. I had hit rock bottom and couldn’t take it anymore. I had been lying to my mother to buy drugs, which were plentiful and expensive in jail. I wasn’t eating. Surely, life offered me more than this.”
Then the messages became externalized. One tattooed inmate assured him that he mustn’t despair and that his life would improve. Another whispered, “Gd bless you,” as he left the prison on bail. Shawn’s mother, forever encouraging, foresaw him living a beautiful Jewish life. Shawn was born on March 31st. He realized that he began to see the number 31 all over, on his watch, on the radio, and everywhere he looked. He took this as a sign to remind him of who he was and of his higher purpose. Then, the realization hit. “If I’m going to live a positive life, I have to do Judaism all the way.”
His inclination to do bad slowly evolved toward a quest for spiritual redemption.
The day before he entered Victorville Penitentiary, he stopped taking drugs. He then met Adir, who helped to accelerate his transformation significantly. “If not for Adir, I would not have changed all the way.”
The Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, NY, is about as safe as it gets. Located 35 miles south of Kiryat Joel and Monsey, it is the place for Jewish white-collar offenders. Under the chaplaincy of Chabad’s Rabbi Avraham Richter, Jews can daven with a minyan and receive all they need to live a religious life while serving their time.
For Shawn, being transferred there was like being transported into an alternative universe. “I could finally breathe freely. I was no longer terrified of Victorville’s Whites, Blacks, Mexican, and Native American gangs asserting their power and influence in the most violent ways, and where I constantly feared for my life.”
There in Otisville, about twenty religious Jews welcomed him warmly into their family. The first weeks were exhausting. He constantly studied Hebrew and Torah, making up for lost time. He also closely watched the behavior of those individuals whose actions would impact him most significantly.
Two of those people were Rabbis Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and Mordechai Yitzchak Samet, each of whom encompassed qualities he had never seen before – absolute faith in Gd and His ways. “They truly believed that Hashem wanted them there in prison to teach others Torah, and that He would open those prison doors for them when the time was right,” Shawn says.
How could he gauge their sincerity? “I learned a lot from playing football. You could tell from players’ eyes if they wanted to be on the field. Some guys are halfway there. Rabbi Rubashkin was all the way in. There was something so different about him. He wasn’t just telling you to have faith in Hashem or that “we can go home any minute.” He constantly prayed, studied, and did mitzvot. He was busier than the president. I never saw him play basketball or watch TV. For me, he was the answer. I don’t want to do anything halfway. What I recognized in him was a true soldier for Hashem.”
But how do you develop that kind of faith and build that kind of inner strength? These were questions Shawn struggled with.
Rabbi Samet would answer some of these questions for Shawn simply by being who he was.
When Shawn entered Otisville, Rabbi Samet had served 14 years of a 27-year sentence for financial crimes, which was later reduced to nineteen years. The Satmar Chassid left soon after Shawn arrived to fight his case in another prison, returning three years later. So, at age 25, Shawn began studying with the renowned talmid hacham, who mentored him personally, especially about emunah.
When Shawn shared his struggles, questions, and challenges with him, Rabbi Samet gently reminded him that they stemmed from an absence of emunah. Shawn found these answers initially disappointing. But Rabbi Samet, a father of ten and grandfather of many, helped Shawn to see the bigger picture. Shawn realized that his disappointment resulted from a lack of understanding and not from something lacking in the answers he received. Shawn eventually understood that even suffering could catalyze spiritual growth if you do the inner work necessary.
“He [Rabbi Samet] didn’t say to leave it all in Gd’s hands and lie back. The work he was putting in affected me so profoundly. He was accomplishing, writing two books, and studying and praying with tears flowing down his cheeks. I stopped wanting to be other people and started wanting to be the Shawn I could become.”
On the Right Path
How does Shawn know he’s now on the right path?
He doesn’t hesitate to answer. An African American man who spent years in prison once told him that a person’s potential is estimated by how much good he can do for others. That ability is what he saw in abundance in Rabbis Rubashkin and Samet. Shawn modestly asserts that helping others (and one way he has done that is by writing a book about his experiences to inspire others) and living a full Jewish life is what he strives for.
Since Shawn began living a Jewish religious life, many doors filled with positive energy opened for him. He also touched many lives through the April 2020 Mishpacha Magazine article, inspiring others to overcome challenges.
“Before, I was hurting my mother and brothers. Now the responses I get worldwide are so beautiful, appreciative, and encouraging. Family, friends, and even strangers are happy with me. That’s how I know I’m doing the right thing.”