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Jewish communities engage mass incarceration

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
3 – 5 years
Target audience
Community Building

T'ruah is engaging rabbis and Jewish communities in re-imagining a criminal justice system built on teshuva, not on punishment. We are studying texts together, having deep conversations about teshuvah, and engaging in advocacy and service aimed at ending mass incarceration, long-term solitary confinement, and police violence, all of which particularly affect communities of color.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Jewish law offers a robust vision of a criminal justice system built on teshuva, rather than on punishment. One midrash points out that a biblical text refers to a person as a "wicked one" before punishment, and as "your brother" afterwards. According to the midrash, as soon as this person's punishment finishes, he (or she) returns to the status of being "your brother" (or sister).

Through the study of these texts, we open up space for a new vision of what our broken criminal justice system could look like. Rather than focus on how to punish a person, we might instead begin with the concept of teshuva, which requires not only that a person repent about his/her actions, but also that s/he appease the person who was hurt. This approach leads us toward restorative justice, with its emphasis on learning what the victim needs, and guiding the perpetrator toward responding to this need. The focus on teshuva, and on the perpetrator as "your brother" also demands that we help this person to re-enter society in such a way that s/he can be successful.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

We have created a number of resources for rabbis and educators to teach about mass incarceration to their communities. This year, we produced a handbook for Jewish communities working on mass incarceration--170 pages of material that includes background to the issues, Jewish text sheets, ritual and poetry, and reflections from Jews and non-Jews who have experienced incarceration or worked in the field. As with all of our materials, we weave together Jewish reflections and teachings with real life experiences. We work with rabbis and educators to teach these texts and to use these rituals within the context of their own local work on incarceration.

T'ruah has been extremely involved in efforts to end police brutality and killings. This work has included organizing rabbis to bring their communities to demonstrations, teaching about what Jewish law says about policing, and creating resources including Jewish posters and chants for rallies.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Rabbis around the country have begun to get their communities involved in mass incarceration. In New Jersey, T'ruah has organized a group of rabbis to support a bill that would end long-term solitary confinement. Rabbis have testified in Trenton, spoken at interfaith gatherings, and organized their congregants (see attached article). In Riverside, CA, Rabbi Suzanne Singer's congregation wrote letters to 100 men in solitary confinement. She writes, "“Prolonged solitary confinement is a violation both of the Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, and a violation of religious ethics, which maintain that every human being is made in the image of God and thus entitled to be treated with dignity. My outrage has led to my involvement in a campaign to end prolonged solitary confinement through T’ruah.”

Around the country, dozens of rabbis have used T'ruah materials to speak with their communities about incarceration, and to get involved in local issues.

From a sermon by Rabbi Michael Lezak, San Rafael CA:

I flew to New York to join a small group of academics and activists to think about what a proper Jewish response to mass incarceration could be on local, regional and national levels. The meeting was convened by T’ruah—The Rabbinic
Call for Human Rights. It was there at this meeting that we began to talk about the issue of Solitary Confinement. I learned that the U.S. currently has more than 50,000 people in solitary confinement, often for many years at a time. And that last year alone, some 10,000 of them were released directly from isolation back into the world without any necessary
transition services.

A few weeks later, I was introduced to Dolores Canales, a fiery and focused activist from Los Angeles. Her son Johnny has been in prison since he was 17 years old, much of that time in solitary confinement
Up until then, I’d always paid close attention to the impact crime has on its victims. My connection with Dolores opened my eyes to the collateral damage that incarceration wrecks on the families of those imprisoned. When I learned that Dolores was hiring a bus to drive a group of families all the way from Orange County 750 miles north to the Pelican Bay State Prison, I knew we had to get involved.

On Friday June 26th , 20 people from our New Jim Crow working group gathered on the front steps of Rodef Sholom. They were there to greet Dolores and a busload of families who were en route to visit their fathers, their sons and and/or their husbands.

From all I could gather from afar, it was a mighty morning for everyone who was there. I heard from the visiting families how deeply moved they were by our audacious Rodef Sholom hospitality: Chef Jeff and the Mitzvah Kitchen team prepared a five-star breakfast. For many of them, this was their first contact ever with the Jewish community. And I heard
from our congregants how moved they were to hear, panim-el- panim, face to face real stories from these families whose lives have been shattered by the crimes perpetrated by their loved ones and by the deep injustices in our criminal justice system.

Over the past year and a half, Rabbi Lezak and his congregants have hosted Dolores's group six times on their way to and from visiting their family members.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

We have learned that people are hungry for Jewish text and ritual that bring meaning to current issues, that shed new light on the concerns of the moment, and that offer complex perspectives rather than easy answers. We don't shy away from presenting challenging texts, but rather encourage grappling with these texts and learning new wisdom from them. We have also learned that there is a real need to bring to life Jewish texts of civil law--that most people still think about Jewish text as relating only to ritual, or think about social justice text as pithy quotes. In delving into complex texts, as well as rituals and prayers, we can come to new understandings about our justice work, while also drawing closer to our traditions.