New poem, On Joseph and solitary confinement, at T'ruah

Logo_webOnce again, T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights is encouraging the observance of Human Rights Shabbat in early December -- a Shabbat dedicated to learning about, and rededicating ourselves to, the work of human rights in our world.

They've just put a set of Human Rights Shabbat resources online. Those resources include kavanot (mindful intentions) to hold in mind and heart, such as this kavanah for Mi Chamocha by Rabbi Jill Hammer [pdf]; a Prayer for human rights by Rabbi David Friedenberg [pdf]; and also a new poem of mine, On Joseph and solitary confinement [pdf]. My poem draws on the set of weekly parshiyot into which we are entering this week -- the Joseph novella -- and then moves from the Torah story to injustice in the prison system today.

Here's how my poem begins:

When Joseph was jailed, wrongly accused
of seducing his master’s wife, what did he feel?

Did he remember his first stint in solitary,
the pit where his brothers threw him --

empty of water but crawling with scorpions,
empty of Torah but reeking with resentment?

Each time he prepared to start over
life cast him down someplace worse.

But he knew all along that God was with him
and that God meant everything for good...

You can download my poem, as well as many other terrific resources for Human Rights Shabbat, on the T'ruah Human Rights Shabbat resources page.

Second step

When we first greet one another, it's clear that we're both trying a little bit too hard. We trade one too many "how are you"s. Conversation stutters and starts.

But soon we settle into a rhythm. He received the bedtime shema prayer I sent, and the small pamphlets about Jewish prayer and about forgiveness in Jewish tradition. I show him the JPS Tanakh I brought for him (though I won't be able to give it directly to him; I have to leave it with the corrections officer for inspection, and it will be forwarded to him with the evening mail) and the copy of Anita Diamant's book Choosing a Jewish Life. He seems surprised and grateful.

We talk a little bit about what the journey to choosing Judaism usually looks like. I describe the general course of study, the usual timeframe, the mikveh immersion. Ordinarily, I tell him, I would ask a potential Jew-by-choice to start coming to services and experiencing Jewish life in community, but that's obviously not an option for him until he's out of jail. He tells me he might be out some months sooner than originally anticipated, and that he can't wait to try services.

We chat about how the Christian sabbath day became Sunday, about what "kosher food" means (and doesn't mean), about a friend of his in the jail who is Catholic and enjoys friendly argument about scripture and prayer. I tell him that friendly argument is a very Jewish mode of Torah study, in certain ways. I tell him about the Jewish weekly lectionary, and show him the dog-eared page in the book which marks this week's Torah portion. He asks me what Jews think about Jesus, and we talk about some different ways of understanding Jesus: as a Jew, as a teacher of Torah, as a rabble-rouser, but not as divine.

I ask him about what holidays are like, in this local house of corrections. He tells me a little bit about Thanksgiving, about a fellow inmate who gathered a group of them to eat together and who said they were like his family. He tells me he's never connected with Christmas and doesn't anticipate that he'll miss it. I tell him about Passover -- he's never been to a seder -- and I wonder aloud whether I might be able to orchestrate a seder here.

Over the course of our hour, I learn a little bit more about what his life is like here. He tells me that more than anything else, it's like a retirement community in there. Little foam couches, tables where guys play cards, two televisions (with headphones for the sound.) It's really quiet, he tells me. Most of the guys are taking classes through the local community college. The place is empty enough that they closed down one of the pods and had to let several COs go.

There are only fourteen women in the local jail right now, he tells me, and I think: wow, what would it be like to be one of those fourteen? What an insular little community that must be. The communal dynamics must be fascinating, and probably not easy to navigate. While we're chatting, a man in orange walks through the visiting room and he and my inmate (who is wearing navy blue) smile and exchange greetings. The orange jumpsuit means he's still awaiting sentencing. The two of them knew each other, before.

I depart with a promise to provide a Jewish calendar, and to return in a few weeks with thoughts on what we might study together. I still don't know where this relationship will lead, but I feel blessed to have the opportunity to find out.

A little bit of prison ministry

Sky and wire. Outside the local jail.

I've driven by the Berkshire County Jail and House of Corrections for years, but until this fall, had never set foot inside. I had thought that it only housed people who were awaiting trial, for a matter of months at most. (Among other things, it's called a "jail," not a "prison," and in my understanding the distinction has a lot to do with duration of stay.) But it turns out that many of the 400+ men incarcerated there are there for two to five years. This facility was build in the late '90s, and dedicated in 2001; it replaced the old jail on Second Street which had been built by Civil War veterans in the late 1800s. By the time they moved out of the old jail, it was housing twice as many men as it was built to hold.

I was called in some weeks ago by the minister who manages pastoral care at this county jail. Two of the inmates had expressed the desire to see a rabbi and had articulated an affiliation with Judaism, so the pastor called me. Shortly before the Days of Awe, I met with him and we chatted about my experience working with inmates. (Short answer: very little, though when I was a chaplain in Albany, I did occasionally enter the locked hospital ward to minister to prisoners who had been hospitalized.) After my application was approved by whatever agency makes decisions about who's permitted to tend to ibmates, I made an appointment to see each of the men.

I'd never actually been inside a house of corrections before, so the logistics of the process were interesting to me. I put my things in a locker, gave my ID to the officer in charge, stood still for an ID photo, waited for the big metal doors to clang open so I could enter the locked corridor, waited for them to clang shut behind me and for the next set of doors to open, entered the visiting room which was faced with a set of mirrors which I'm guessing were one-way glass. I couldn't help filtering the experience through the lens of books I've read, from asha bandele's The Prisoner's Wife to Ted Conover's Newjack.

After a short wait, the first man entered the visiting room. While we met, another inmate received a visit from a woman and a toddler; they took seats at the far end of the room, and we tried to ignore each other, to give each other as much privacy as possible. I met with each of the inmates who had requested a rabbi, one at a time. Neither of them was born Jewish, but both have felt an interest in Judaism and a pull toward Judaism since their incarceration. As far as I know, they are the only Jews, or would-be Jews, at this house of corrections.

With each of these men I talked about Judaism, about their lives, about what makes them interested in this tradition. We talked a bit about Torah and a bit about prayer. Both of them have active personal prayer lives, and talk with God daily. I promised to send them Reb Zalman's translation of the prayer for forgiveness recited as part of the bedtime Shema. They asked about what's involved with conversion, and about Jewish congregations in Pittsfield which they might visit upon their release.

Both of the men are local, so they're able to receive regular visits from family. I get the sense that this is a tremendous blessing -- though also sometimes difficult. One inmate spoke with me about the challenges of maintaining his relationship with his girlfriend. They run up enormous phone bills each week (the prison charges a few dollars for each call, even if it only lasts for seconds) and they argue, sometimes. It's hard for her to understand what his life inside is like. It's hard for him to imagine all of the choices and changes which face her while he's in.

I don't know whether either of these men will pursue affiliation with Judaism in the long term. Perhaps this will be a comfort to them while they're inside, and once they return to the ordinary world they'll discover that the pull was temporary. Or perhaps their yearning to connect with Torah and to be part of the chain of Jewish generations will sustain them through their time in jail and into their lives afterwards. That's not for me to know. I'll do what I can to minister to them, regardless. It's a humbling opportunity.

I'm looking forward to further conversations, and to this new way of being of service to people in my community who are in need.