About a week before Rosh Hashana, I received communication inquiring as to whether I’d be available to spend Yom Kippur in the second largest jail in the country. I said yes and was immediately thrown into the shock of what that would mean. I spent the next two weeks attempting to catch my breath when I wish I had been preparing and doing all the thinking that will be evident in this post. I can’t help but notice the irony of my choked ability to be reflective both during the Days of Awe when Jewish people around the world are taking stock of their lives and what it felt like for me knowing I would spend arguably one of the most holiest days of the year inside a place “meant to offer a” space for reflection and “correction”. I write this to share my history of how my spirit got me to this moment in life, what I was meant to be doing there, what my fears were, and how my politics subsided any concerns while confronting the unjust system of city jails.
I am a self-identified activist. I have organized and been an activist on social justice issues related to mass incarceration for over 10 years. I have sat with and learned from some of the most powerful elders in this movement, members of the Weather Underground, formerly incarcerated people, folks who have started campaigns and movements that have outlasted their own lives. The work I do is in honor of their legacy and teachings. Attempting to chip away at the walls of prisons and jails for over 10 years in a variety of ways has led me to a moment in my work where I was almost unsure of what the future of this part of my life looked like for me. I began to ask myself, how can I best offer my skillset to the movement in ways that feel both like a powerful contribution and in alignment with my life path.
As a recent ordinee and graduate of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, I have felt the shift in my life to offering the infusion of spirit into social justice movement work. Unsure of what this meant specifically to the community of prison activists, the opportunity to help lead services during Yom Kippur felt like a move closer. But wait, how can I go there and offer them services without being overtly political? Would I get in trouble for saying something negative about mass incarceration? Are there Jews on the inside that went into jail as Jewish or are most folks exploring Judaism? Are they just there because if they say they are Jewish they get better food and grape juice on Fridays? If so, is there really a point for me to be there? Who will be there? Is this a Judaism 101 or do I need to lead services in a more orthodox fashion? What will resonate with folks incarcerated right now about a holiday where they are asking for forgiveness and atonement and how can that be done in a way that is supportive? How can we talk about atonement without putting their cases in jeopardy? These and more scrolled through my mind during times when I wanted to be reflecting on my own year and what the future was bringing for me personally. During times when I wanted to plan and generate creative activities to do with them, I just came back to these questions which for me had no answers from myself nor from the folks that were organizing the clergy volunteers.
This left me frustrated, nervous, and scared. This was holy work I was up to. Bigger than what I could have imagined when I first applied to be a Kohenet. More wild than my imagination could have dreamed even a year ago. So, I decided to stand inside of the possibility of Love, Justice, and Generosity and move from there.
The planning and support felt inadequate though I wonder if there really is anything that would have prepared me. The system is such that one would never really know in total what they would be walking into at any given time. 30 men gathered, trickling in bus by bus from the various houses and 1 woman. There were people of color (Black, Latinx, Carribean, American) and white people, young folks and elderly folks. Folks who grew up learning to read hebrew and pray in Hebrew and folks for whom this was their first time seeing a torah scroll.
They came from different houses. Most significantly beyond the spiritual work done that day was that we provided them an opportunity to gather and speak to each other from different houses. Some of them had lived in the same house before and were moved and this space provided a sort of reunion of sorts, a supportive environment where they dreamed collectively of the resources needed and gathered a sense of the climate in the jail overall sharing complaints of not receiving their grape juice on Friday or not having access to the chaplain and even not being called for services on other holidays. They generated ideas of requests from me and others outside of the jail that seemed in the moment beyond my capacity and also beautiful ideas for what solidarity actually looks like beyond coming to pray. Sharing amongst each other generated camaraderie and offered support.
The answer to all my questions was yes it can be done. I, unknowingly, was part of taking down one small brick of the walls that isolate people in my community. I helped to offer space for them to share and speak and reflect and dream inside of an institution that demands isolation, silence and hopelessness.
To those who dream of doing work in prisons or jails oriented to religious work, remember this work is sacred and how we hold space for folks on the inside is more important than how we hold space anywhere else, as Dostoyevsky says "A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals." I beg you to consider the importance of generating space for folks on the inside to speak, dream, and generate ideas creatively. To confront the system by not just believing all you are doing is going to pray but to understand that everything done inside those walls is political so will you be helping to plug the holes in the system or tear down the walls?