Ever since a young Sean Penn starred in Taps and Fast Times at Ridgemont High he has evolved into a world class actor and director. I would consider myself a fan of his work.
His politics, however, not so much; I vehemently disagreed with his wartime attacks on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, his coziness with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Iraqi Minister Tariq Aziz (at the height of the Iraq War), his attacks on Britain’s involvement in the Falklands, his pro-Palestinian sentiments, and of course, the dust-up with his ex, Madonna… well okay, that I might understand.
There is also his recent naive sympathies and dangerous adventures into the world of “El Chapo,” the notorious Mexican cartel fugitive, which if you haven’t heard or read about, is altogether unbelievable.
The list of disagreements I have with Penn’s politics could be the subject of its own article. However, this is not that article.
There is another Sean Penn story. This is a story about Sean Penn, the hero.
I recalled the story from a couple of years ago, however. A friend from Toronto with direct knowledge of the situation shared with me the extreme lengths Sean Penn went to save another human’s life; the life of an American Orthodox Jew.
In December 2010, a 54-year-old entrepreneurial New Yorker, Jacob Ostreicher, watched his business fail. He was then given an opportunity to invest in an endeavor in Bolivia where he would oversee a rice production plant. He wouldn’t become rich from this deal, but he needed income, any income.
Six months later, in June 2011, he was arrested under “suspicion” of money laundering and supposedly being involved in a criminal organization. Even though the Bolivian authorities had no proof and filed no formal charges against Ostreicher, he served 18 months in the squalid and violent Palmasola Prison where he was beaten, bribed and became deathly ill.
The Aleph Institute is a foundation that helps incarcerated Jews worldwide and they soon learned of Ostreicher. Through their connections, they were introduced to Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg who they asked to reach out to Sean Penn due to him being famously close to leftist Latin American leaders. They hoped that at Penn’s request, Bolivian President Evo Morales would release Ostreicher. For whatever reason, Penn decided to help.
However, Morales didn’t act on Penn’s request. Ostreicher remained imprisoned.
Penn decided to invest his time and resources in helping Ostreicher any way he could. Frustrated with no results, he testified at a US Congressional hearing, repeatedly traveled to Bolivia to lobby the government, and made many visits to the infamous prison.
“I saw this man, not dressed in a suit and tie – Hollywood style, but rather like somebody ready for battle. He walked forward and gave me this firm handshake and said ‘Hi Jacob, my name is Sean Penn.’ I was less than 110 lbs. at the point, barely strong enough to hold my own body, and Sean’s first question was ‘when was the last time you saw a doctor?’ As the police watched on every move, Sean leaned in and whispered: ‘Jacob, don’t worry. Stay strong. Not only do I know that you’re innocent, but I’ve spoken and met with the president and they all know you’re innocent too.’ “
“That very same night, at 1:00 in the morning, Sean came back, this time with a doctor by his side and within 48 hours he had me transferred to the hospital. Over the next six months, Sean managed to [make] miracles happen. As my health started to recover, he traveled back and forth to Bolivia setting into motion a series of hearings that eventually exposed a national ring of corruption that resulted in the indictment and arrest of more than 28 high government officials. And eventually Sean managed to get me transferred from prison into house arrest.”
On his own dime, Penn personally fought the Bolivian laws and corruption. Since Ostreicher was held for 18 months without being charged, he was required to be released. He was freed from Palmasola in December 2012 at a hearing that was attended by Penn. However, by the time he was released, Ostreicher was very ill. A formerly heavyset man, he had become an emaciated 107 pounds. Adding to his troubles were the growing tremors he was dealing with as his Parkinson’s disease worsened with the poor treatment from his time imprisoned.
Although he was released from prison, he would be required to be under house arrest without the ability to leave Bolivia. Penn was frustrated, but vowed he wouldn’t abandon him.
What happened next has, for all accounts, remained mostly a secret.
Murky details from family and friends point to Penn and Ostreicher’s brother personally organizing his rescue from captivity. He was literally snatched from the prison-house in the middle of the night by “professionals,” placed in a van, transported to a chartered airplane, flown out of Santa Cruz, through La Paz and into the United States.
Sean Penn then secretly took him into his Los Angeles home to provide ongoing medical treatment, a fully stocked kosher kitchen and nutrition for weeks, while an embarrassed Bolivian government stated that the CIA took Ostreicher.
“I spent two weeks rolled up in a fetal position in Sean’s house … and through it all, Sean sat with me for hours, sometimes sitting with me all night, rubbing my back, saying quietly, ‘Stay strong Jacob, give yourself some time.’”
Penn sat and prayed with Ostreicher in synagogue and secretly brought friends into his home to assist him back to physical and mental health.
“I told Sean I’d like to find a person who had it all and lost it all to give me a reason that I should wake up every morning,” said Ostreicher.
Penn introduced him to Robert Downey Jr.
Downey, who hit bottom in the 1990s when drug addiction troubles landed him in jail for a year, counseled Ostreicher, then sent him clothing “literally in the tens of thousands of dollars” — Gucci suits, sweaters, sneakers, underwear, a Harry Winston watch.
The time served in the squalor of Palmasola affected him profoundly. In the two years since his escape, Ostreicher has not regained his former life. Unfortunately, he is now separated from his wife, and somewhat estranged from his New York-based family. He still lives in Los Angeles, penniless and supported by philanthropic causes and the Jewish community. It remains unspoken as to what happened to his once-close family dynamic.
While it is evident that he is a shell of the man he once was, Ostreicher is thankful to be alive and thanks Sean Penn for saving his life. One can only hope though therapy and rehabilitation he can one day achieve a sense of normalcy.
Penn had no obligation to Ostreicher or Aleph and it certainly wouldn’t be expected for him to devote so much of his time, energy, and resources to a stranger. There was no previous relationship. While it’s reported that Penn’s father may have distant Jewish family, that certainly doesn’t qualify as lineage.
Why would a person, any person, do what Penn did? It appears that Sean Penn simply saw someone who was suffering unjustly and thought he should help the only way he knew how. That is something we can all learn from.
For that, Sean Penn should be acknowledged and recognized as a hero.