Judaism's Modern Day Lost Tribe

    October-November 2009            
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Opinion & Society


Jews in Prision

By D. with help from M.

Written while at Yard 3 at Avenal State Prison in Avenal, CA.

Channa is pre-med. Petite in stature with a brilliant mind, long brown curls which frizz out on humid days. Piercing eyes and a passionate mouth which can just as easily recite complex chemical formulas or talk to a friend about "that guy." This Sunday morning she's in her Mazda Miata, British racing green, top down, hair in a babushka on her way to visit her friend and mentor Max.

Max is beginning his morning prayers. Facing east, wrapped in tefillin, wearing the tallis his father gave him at his Bar Mitzvah 60 years ago, the same year as Israel's independence. Max, a physician, is a highly respected member of his community or should I say prison yard. Max was convicted of murder 20 years ago and will spend the rest of his natural life in prison.

We don't talk much about Jewish men and women in prison. The thought we are few is wrong, very wrong. Since the first diaspora Jews have traveled to all parts of the world and to all parts of society. Jews in prison and jails are no different than anywhere else. Most are non-observant. A minority have Jewish mothers. But with names that sound like Rappaport, Bookman and Goldstein (actual names not used) Sephardic and Ashkenasi Jews from Europe , Central and South America , Africa , Asia and Israel . The entire spectrum of Jewish Ethnography is well represented. We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, grandparents. Yes, even Bubbies (grandmothers) are in prison!

Most are afraid because gangs like the Skinheads and Nazi Low Riders prey on Jewish inmates. It can be dangerous to be openly Jewish. Michael suffered eight broken ribs and a concussion caused by multiple blows to the face from groups of attackers on two successive yards. Official response was denial. Denial of medical services and denial of the truth.

We live in overcrowded conditions with men who shoot heroin through homemade needles, carry shanks, intimidate and steal anything if the opportunity arises. Not to mention the proselytizers and self righteous convicts hiding their criminality behind religious garb, selling their festival food for pills and teaching hate in the Chapel.

Even in protective custody, coined "Sensitive needs yards" Jews live at risk. You can see why the blessing of kosher food programs is a mixed one with many taking a pass while non-Jews scheme and scam their way into receiving more nutritious, cleaner food.. It's called "coming up."

The Jews on this yard hail from England , Uruguay , El Salvador , Zimbabwe , Chicago , New York , Los Angeles and San Francisco . Prior to being convicted they were Doctor, Restaurateur, Consultant, and Drug counselor, Store Manager, Businessman and Contractor.

Most were silent about being Jewish until a few men stood up and began holding Jewish prayer meetings. One by one we found other Jews and invited them to join us. Now there are 15 openly Jewish men and more still in hiding. We respect their anonymity. And if there are 20 on this yard then statistically there may be 20 on every yard even though official records show few if any on most yards and at most prisons.

So, who is a Jew? We look to the Book of Ruth. If Ruth was good enough to be the direct ancestor of King David then that's good enough for us. Here, a man, Bar Mitzvah at 13 while living in a Jewish foster home, who knows the Shema and some blessings is a Jew. And the man whose grandfather was a Rabbi and brought him to Dachau as a child. His parents are non-observant. His first Chanukah was in prison. He's also a Jew. No matter what, we are family.

We Jews have traveled many places looking for a closer relationship with G-d. Maybe that's part of being priests to the nations and lights to the world. That's why the overachieving Christian, the mystical Buddhist and the flamboyant Pagan all come to services when Rabbi Abrevaya is here. Their Jewish heritage calls to them. Their Jewish souls rejoice when the woman rabbi, a cantor and chaplain chants the torah portion.

The majority of men here are not career criminals. For many this is the first time we've ever been arrested. Crimes that used to receive probation now come with hefty prison terms. For others it has been a life of fighting addition or coping with a childhood few survive intact. We are being held accountable for our wrong acts. But, are people only as good as the worst thing they've ever done? I'm reminded of the song, "there but for Fortune." I never thought it would be me.

In Judaism there is the concept of Teshuvah, (repentance) coming back to oneness with "G-d and with ourselves.

We are the Modern day lost tribe of Israel . We are the Teshuvites. We are living Teshuvah every day, still in the wilderness subsisting on Manna. G-d is very real here. We are not under the illusion that we control most aspects of our lives.

This is a time when we can learn Hebrew. A fellow inmate on this year taught more than a dozen men to read prayers in Hebrew over the past year and four are working towards their Bar Mitzvah. There is so much to learn. We have the time but not the resources or the human commitment of mentors and volunteers.

We have one Siddur (prayer book) for every two men. One Machzor, (special holiday prayer book) two chumashim (five books of Moses) and one Tanach (Old Testament). We share books as we receive them. This is much more than we had last year before there was a part-time rabbi at this prison. It seems like most prisons have a part time rabbi or none at all. Unless someone outside speaks up things will get worse, not better.

Sadly, silence also gives consent to a few sadistic officers who take pleasure in making our lives more difficult. Like when copying of the Kol Nidre (prayer that begins the Yom Kippur service) prayer service was denied because the total of 100 two sided pieces of paper was too much. We even supplied the paper. It was an arbitrary decision with no accountability. This would never happen if they knew Jewish people were watching and would call the warden or better the local paper. But we have no Jewish volunteers at this prison.

So, instead of asking to see our Kosher Card one officer asked to see a man's "bar code" (referring to WW 2 and the tattoos on Jewish prisoners' arms). That Jewish man never asked for kosher food again. We all have a limit. Indecency like this can only exist when the world is kept ignorant. How many ties have we seen it, and worse.

Unlike most other religious groups there is a relatively little active support from Jewish people and organizations. Thank G-d for the Aleph Institute in Surfside, Florida which works to bring Torah commentary and other services to Jewish inmates. Yet we look to an unsure release date and have normal questions. How are we going to survive in the free world and not come back to prison? How are our families going to survive with us in prison? Many men are divorced with no family and no connection to the outside world. It's hard to have hope when you have nothing and your daily agenda is staying safe from both inmates and guards.

Judaism and charity are synonymous. Yet, why aren't there Jewish half way houses in every city? Why aren't there Jewish job training programs and mentoring programs? Drug, alcohol and sex addiction programs for Jewish men and women? A few Jewish men on this yard have received vital services from Beit Teshuvah in West Los Angeles. They are a model to be emulated. But the need is beyond their capacity to help.

Where are the Shepherds among us? Where are the teachers and the kind ones? We are here, praying some, studying Torah some, being kind and supportive when we can. Living near men with swastikas tattooed on all parts of their bodies as well as tattoos of Hitler's face. One man coined a phrase we use which speaks of our lives and our history and the reason for our festivals and celebrations: "They tried to destroy us. They failed. Let's eat!"

You may be surprised, but what we need most is hope, hope for the future. Prison is a place of destruction. It takes great effort to choose life when surrounded by depravity, ignorance and violence. When I'm confronted by a really rotten man in prison, I'm happy he's here with me, in prison.

Oh, for a normal life, to go to the synagogue on Shabbat, to work and earn a living, to support my family, to contribute to society as a whole. Instead of our hands out we extend our arms and our hearts hoping for your embrace.

10 things you can do to support Jewish prisoners (Check for each prisons rules on donations):

1. Donate old prayer books, religious books and Judaica to a prison.

2. Begin a prison outreach program at your Temple or organization

3. Support a local Jewish family with a family member in prison

4. Volunteer to lead Shabbat or Daily services at a prison

5. Mentor a Jewish Parolee

6. Visit a Jewish Prisoner

7. Become a Pen pal

8. Donate money through a Jewish Chaplain

9. Send religious packages to specific Jewish inmates

10. Say a prayer everyday for Jewish men and women in prison, our families and our victims.


from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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